Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Music and storytelling - Iron Maiden's Dance of Death

As I’ve noted several times before in this blog, I love bards. Mainly because they use music and poetry to produce magical effects. Out of all the forms of magic used in fantasy RPGs, this is the most relatable one to me. Music is a very real thing, it causes people to feel a certain way, and in some cases, it also moves people to do things. It tells the tale of things that were, are and will be, and in the right hands, music can both silence millions and make those same millions erupt into a myriad of emotions.
Now, when it comes to storytelling through music, there are few artists as skilled as the respectable gentlemen from the heavy metal group, Iron Maiden. The storytelling they employ in most of their songs (often inspired by actual literary works) is truly inspiring. So, as promised in the title of this piece, here’s what I find so inspiring about Iron Maiden, and their storytelling through music.
*insert musical montage, lots of hair, spandex, spikes, and guitars but also bass… lots of bass and Nico on drums*

Iron Maiden is Heavy Metal. No offense to the many other bands that identify themselves with this type of music, but Iron Maiden pretty much defines the genre. Lots of guitar work, amazing vocal range, powerful rhythm sequences which combined produce songs that feel truly epic in their feel and composition. In the 42 years they have been active, they have produced a grand total of 16 (read: SIXTEEN) albums, and are still touring around the world, giving their fans some of the most exciting live concert experiences ever.

Having recorded sixteen albums means there are over a hundred songs to look at, and doing so would probably take years and make me eligible for a Ph.D. So instead of that, I’ll focus on one song that I think will be easy to use in order to get my point across. So I present to you, a step by step analisys of the title track of Iron Maiden's 2003 album, "Dance of Death. Here's the link to the song, so you can listen to it while you read.

Any good story has five parts: a hook, a buildup to a climax, the climax, the falling action, and conclusion. So, in that order...

"Let me tell you a story to chill the bones, about a thing that I saw...One night wandering in the everglades... I had one drink, but no more..."

The song starts with a slow, clean guitar riff that gives us the idea that what we're about to hear is both intriguing and mysterious, Bruce (the vocalist) matches this mood by almost whispering the first few lines of the song. You can imagine yourself listening to this nameless narrator, sitting around a campfire, having had more than one drink yourself... 50 seconds into the song and you have successfully been hooked into the story.

The buildup to the climax, or "rising action" has the narrator tell us how he was assailed by unknown figures in the forest, then led to a place where he was induced into a form of astral projection. His spirit is then lifted into the air, as he watches his own body dance with these figures, he now recognizes as Undead creatures "ascended from Hell". The music throughout this second part contains a steady drum beat, synthesizer generated string choruses that slowly take us away from that initial introductory guitar riff and build towards a halt in the music that leaves us wondering "wait, is that it? what happened then? did he survive?"

What comes next is an absolute explosion of rhythm and music when the song changes gears and dances (pun intended) wildly off into the climax of the story and song, by employing a melody that evokes images of pagan rituals and bonfires. Our narrator tells us how both he and his spirit were dancing wildly in, around and above a firepit until they were re-joined. He then keeps dancing and is joined by the others until he comes back to his senses, takes advantage of a small skirmish and makes a run for it.

In the falling action, there is very little to no text, however; it is in this part of the song that one hears Iron Maiden's iconic use of simple riffs that, when played live, results in thousands of fans singing along with the melody of the song. Gers, Smith, and Murray take their turns soloing while Harris lays the foundation of the song, taking us into another shift in rhythm, back to the slow paced crawl at the start of the song.

"To this day, I guess I'll never know, just why they let me go. But I'll never go dancing no more... 'till I dance with the dead..."

In the conclusion, our narrator finishes his enthralling story will a foreboding sense of doom for himself. He feels as if they could have kept him there just as easily as they caught him in the first place. And the experience has left him marked for life, so much so, that he knows that on the last day of his life, he will join the dance of death once again.

This song is an absolute thrill to listen to. It tells you a very exciting story and holds your attention with both sound and text, managing to transport your mind to a place where you've (probably... hopefully) never been. So many emotions are passed through the melody of the song. Fear, excitement, exhilaration, all of these in 8 minutes of a song that doesn't feel as long as that thanks to great storytelling.

Iron Maiden inspires me to write stories of my own. I hope you enjoyed reading while I gushed about one of my favorite bands of all time. If you feel like this is something you would enjoy listening to, there are sixteen albums to choose from, but my personal favorites are "Seventh Son of a Seventh Son", "Powerslave", and "Piece of Mind". "Seventh Son" is actually a whole album telling one overarching story. It is quite possibly the best Heavy Metal album ever written.

Thank you for reading, I look forward to telling you a story one of these days.