Wednesday 3 April 2024

Bruce Dickinson - The Mandrake Project (2024)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 1 Mar 2024
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This is a strong album from Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson, his first in nineteen years, his previous solo release being Tyranny of Souls in 2005 and his first album since Maiden's Senjutsu in 2021. It's clearly heavy metal but with an emphasis on heavy rather than speed; it flirts with doom and doesn't remotely sound like Maiden except in certain moments when his immediately recognisable voice falls into the sort of patterns that we know from so many Maiden albums. It's patient stuff and while the hooks seem good on the first time through, it requires multiple listens to truly appreciate them.

It's clear that Bruce and his colleagues are on form in the opener, Afterglow of Ragnarok, which is patient heavy metal. Many Doors to Hell follows suit and then Rain on the Graves escalates things as the most immediate song on the album. This becomes an obvious highlight the moment Bruce starts to tell its story and it's very much a storytelling number, the instrumentation falling back to allow him to effectively tell us to pay attention while he recounts what's going on with utter relish. It gets better as it goes too, so I'm not shocked that it was the second single except to note that I don't know why it wasn't the first. That was Afterglow of Ragnarok.

He doesn't stay in storytelling mode throughout, in the sense of inviting us to his campfire so that he can have us hang on every word, but he's back there for Eternity Has Failed later in the album. This one opens up with flutes and ambience, as if we're on a battlefield after all the fighting has been done. Something epic happened here and we're eager to find out what. Story is important to this album though, because this isn't just a record; there are comic books within the package too, but I haven't read them so can't speak to where they take proceedings and how they all tie to the lyrical content of these songs.

Mostly, what I caught from the music is a epic approach, which shouldn't surprise for the singer in Iron Maiden but this is a very different sort of epic. Even Sonata (Immortal Beloved), the nigh on ten minute closer, a Maiden trademark, doesn't feel remotely like Maiden. This is more old school heavy/power metal, built on hooks and themes rather than stories, and it's a haunting example of that style, with Dickinson repeatedly pleading, "Save me now!" with some huge emotional impact.

There are also sounds here that wouldn't normally sit in heavy metal but play into that epic feel. Those plaintive flutes that kick off Eternity Has Failed have a Native American flavour to them as well as a Japanese one. Resurrection Men opens up like a spaghetti western soundtrack. Fingers in the Wounds adds some middle eastern textures that work wonderfully, even though everybody and their dog is throwing those into metal songs nowadays.

There's another touch that I wasn't expecting. Face in the Mirror starts out softer and stays there but Shadow of the Gods, which starts out softer too, doesn't. When it eventually ramps up during its second half, it gets angry in a very modern way, almost channelling some nu metal for a while that I wasn't expecting from the air raid siren, a nickname he lives up to often here, soaring above the music in a way that only he can. He doesn't need to get trendy and he generally doesn't, but a moment in Shadow of the Gods does go there and somehow it works.

In fact, everything works here. This is a deep album and we know that from moment one, because it feels inherently deep and epic and meaningful, but we also have a feeling that it's a lot deeper than we might initially think. I liked it on a first listen, but I liked it more on a second and I have to move on after maybe five or six times through with me liking it progressively more each time but with a strong feeling that it hasn't reached its peak for me yet. I'm going with an 8/10 but it could well warrant a 9/10.

Maybe I'll get a chance to come back in a few months and see. For now, I'm staying at 8/10 because some of these songs still feel like a step above the others. I'm thinking the two bard songs, Rain of the Graves and Eternity Has Failed, then the closer, Sonata (Immortal Beloved), which may well be the best of them all. Nothing else lets the side down, but nothing else touches those three either. Maybe in time they will. Mistress of Mercy is already thinking about it.

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