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LIVE REPORT: Iron Maiden
Jamie Thomson , August 6th, 2013 12:17

For all the might of Iron Maiden live, Jamie Thomson is left frustrated by poor sound at the O2

"Do you know the Iron Maiden drinking game?" I ask my companion. No, she replies, unsurprisingly, as it is something I have just made up. 'Well, you chug a beer every time Bruce Dickinson punches the air, and down a shot every time he says, 'Scream for me, London!'" It is probably just as well we don't proceed with this spur-of-the-moment challenge. The O2 prices would quickly result in penury, but it would have been hard to know where to start, as keeping track of the singer's movements is nigh on impossible. Dickinson and his band come out of the traps at a sprint, leaping the over the monitors and running straight at the front row. The singer, dressed dandily in tails, runs the length of the stage and around the platforms that surround the drum riser (supposed to resemble ice-blocks, I believe) looking all the world like Fagin in a particularly high-octane production of Oliver!

From the start, the evening has an air of end-of-term party about it, as this is the first of two London concerts that round off the European leg of their tour (based on their 1988 Maiden England tour, on the back of that year's Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son album.) Thus there are larks aplenty: Dickinson draping a flag on guitarist Janick Gers' head as he solos his way through 'The Trooper', and generally making a nuisance of himself with his bandmates over the course of a couple of hours. "Hopefully we've got some surprises for you, except you've probably read about them on the internet," says Dickinson during the first break in the set. "Still, we might change things around a bit … no, no, we won't." That said, there is an air of spontaneity about the Mexican wave he leads, and the crude sexual miming by mascot Eddie during his first appearance on stage seems more off-the-cuff than the result of hours of rehearsal.

But this informality seems to have bled through to the mixing desk too, as the sound is appalling for the first three songs. I struggle to recognise opener 'Moonchild' as all that can be heard is drums and vocals, a pretty poor representation given the amount of guitarists they have on stage (four, if you include bass player Steve Harris, whose galloping rhythms should be the foundation of their sound, but can rarely be heard.) 'The Prisoner' is virtually only recognisable from its chorus (and the taped intro), and things only really click into place by the time 'The Trooper', half a dozen songs in and probably the set's highlight, is played. This is a real problem because, despite all the smoke and mirrors and leaping about, it's the songs that are the star here, particularly as this set is almost solely based on their 80s heyday.

It's almost too easy for those not beguiled by the cult of Iron Maiden to dismiss them, as they are pretty much the embodiment of heavy metal's enduring tropes: straggly hair and tight jeans/spandex – check; endless guitar solos – check (and with three guitarists on lead duties, Maiden can offer 33% more solo for your money, something to consider in these straitened times); portentous, fantastical song titles and themes – check ('Phantom of the Opera', for example, gets a run out this evening, or 'the Lucozade advert song' as it's known to a certain generation); stuff with skulls and devils on it – check (Eddie appears in three different guises at this gig, eventually ending up as a huge animatronic cadaver holding his own beating heart. Oh, and a giant Baphomet with glowing red eyes is unveiled for \ 'Number Of The Beast', too, just in case anyone thought the band was straying from their polite-society-baiting roots). But to criticise the band for their dedication to stagecraft betrays a certain joylessness that goes hand in hand with minimising their musical prowess. This is a group that writes giant, catchy songs with a rough-hewn, but undeniable, pop sensibility. There's a reason why 'Two Minutes To Midnight' and 'Run To The Hills (both of which are given an airing) hit the upper echelons of the charts, and this was in the days before concerted campaigns by fans could distort sales figures with ease.

And you can't help but marvel at the sheer physicality of the band's performance – when he is on stage, Dickinson does not stand still for a second; when Gers isn't scissor kicking or flinging his Strat around his neck, he is resting his leg high above his waist on a side-stage speaker like a ballet dancer at the barre. This no doubt prompts another pang of nostalgia among certain sections of the crowd, as I'm certain I'm ot alone in thinking that the last time I could have done something like that was probably around 1988, too. It's hard to believe the average age of this band (57) is only a dozen or so years younger than Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, as you can't imagine for a second that any tabloid journalist would be foolish enough to write off these guys in the same way that the Stones' Hyde Park performance was derided.

But just when you allow yourself to marvel at Maiden's full-spectrum performance, someone accidentally hits the 'sound like crap' button on the mixing console again, bursting the bubble. 'Run To The Hills', responsible for one of the greatest five minutes of rock theatre I've ever seen (Twickenham, 2008: dusk hits just in time for the chorus; stadium lights illuminate a sea of 50,000 fists held aloft – spectacular), sounds muddied and muddled. No amount of demands for us to scream by Dickinson (we would be on to life-threatening levels of alcohol intake now) can fully rouse the crowd, as they try to get to grips with the roiling wash from the speakers. Thankfully, normal service is resumed for the eponymous set-closer 'Iron Maiden', and we all gratefully climb into the bubble once again.

'Aces High', the first of the inevitable encores, complete with Churchill speech and Battle of Britain footage projected onto the massive screens, strikes home perfectly, and inspires the kind of mass adulation that 'Run To The Hills' hinted at. 'The Evil That Men Do' and 'Running Free', both pitch-perfect, round off the gig, and ensure that the night finished on a high.

But it is hard to shake off the twinge of disappointment that this isn't quite as fantastical an evening as it often promised to be. Iron Maiden is a huge, unrelenting machine, one that relies on the superhuman efforts of its musicians, the fist-pumping theatrics of its fans and the soaring hooks of its songs to pull everyone into its world. What a crying shame that something as fundamental as the mix can derail it, taking everyone out of the moment. Because if there's one thing that sets Iron Maiden apart, it's their unerring dedication to creating 'the moment'. And this, through no real fault of those on stage, isn't one of their best.

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