Hello, Cleveland!

Unlike Spinal Tap, Iron Maiden made it to the stage, as a new boxed set gloriously demonstrates

In casual conversation, it's difficult to nail just what made a concert great, especially if you're trying to trigger pangs of regret in a friend who foolishly passed up an opportunity to attend. To make it even harder, let's say you're a huge fan of the group, but your pal is only vaguely aware of its existence. This makes a set list recitation useless no matter how many rare oldies or obscure B-sides appeared. You can praise the vocalist's operatic highs, you can vouch for the way three guitarists intricately tangled their notes, you can attempt to put into words a bass tone that rattles like a car on the tantalizing edge of combustion. Sooner or later, though, you'll find yourself trying to approximate instrumental sounds with guttural tongue clucks. That is, unless you're able to add, "Plus, the singer had a sword fight with a robot, and later a giant ghoul burst into flames."

Yes, Iron Maiden is the ultimate "you shoulda been there" band, a group that provokes as much envy after it leaves a tour stop as it does wide-eyed amazement during its time onstage. One of the only amphitheater acts for which a $50 ticket seems entirely justified, Maiden employs props that tower several stories above the audience. These behemoths – zombies with coal-black eyes that occasionally burn like embers, man-shaped wicker superstructures that house screaming "virgins" – are intricately detailed, which doesn't save them from a fiery demise. Singer Bruce Dickinson soars above his bandmates, hang-gliding on angel wings that eventually meet their own flaming fate. Dickinson, an Olympic-level fencer, often finds reason to parry with some foe, much as the medal-winning gymnasts who starred in early Tarzan films could always seem to find a pommel horse in the jungle.

However, with Iron Maiden, the spectacle doesn't distract from mediocre music-making (see GWAR, Rammstein). Its three axmen (including early-album mainstays Dave Murray and Adrian Smith) shred with astonishing virtuosity, lending classical guitar complexity to rowdy pub-band rockers. Bassist Steve Harris' intrusive thumps add stealthy menace, like a deadly snake's rattling tail. Original drummer Clive Burr assaulted his kit like a soccer hooligan with a tire iron; the amazingly named current pacekeeper Nicko McBrain prefers a more controlled, deeper toned attack. Dickinson impressively prolongs notes with his titanium lungs, and his shrieks, which can sound shrill on disc, hit the perfect panicked pitch in concert. With all apologies to their countrymen in Queen, Iron Maiden's members were the real Live Killers.

That's not to say that Eddie's Archive, the outstanding new boxed set that contains four discs of documented gigs and two B-sides collections, doesn't provide plenty of inaudible perks. For starters, the CDs come in a skeleton-embossed tin case that resembles Satan's lunchbox. Inside, there's a skull-studded shot glass that, depending on the listener, provides a way to imbibe mead in gothic style or offers a subtle warning about liver disease and its toxic scythe.

There's also a yellowed scroll containing the band's full history, from early go-nowhere school/church hall groups such as Gypsy's Kiss and Evil Ways to amusingly titled side projects such as Fish Vigil, Broadway Brats and Psycho Motel. Although the odds-and-sods discs present no evidence of any of these outfits, they do contain two relics of the "Entire Population of Hackney" project, characterized by chipper keyboards, cheery guitar leads and a drumbeat that's more prancing pony than galloping horse. ("An unlikely Maiden track," band manager Rod Smallwood deadpans in his liner notes about one such song.)

Best of the B-Sides delivers numerous thrills: raucous Golden Earring (?!), Nektar and Led Zeppelin covers; a ripping rendition of Jethro Tull's "Cross-Eyed Mary" that should prompt Ian Anderson to forfeit his heavy-metal Grammy; and cover art from every single on which these cuts appeared (almost all of which depict the band's decrepit corpse mascot, Eddie, under some grotesque form of duress). Presented chronologically, B-Sides shows Maiden's evolution from barroom brawlers to prog-pummeling dwarf tossers. All three vocalists appear. Yet though original singer Paul Di'anno's gritty delivery and Blaze Bailey's technical precision both fit their material, Dickinson's banshee wail stirs the group's soul.

On BBC Archives and Beast Over Hammersmith, Eddie's live double albums, the difference between working-class dog Di'anno and fully action-posable rock star Dickinson becomes clearer. Addressing a British crowd chanting Mie-dun, mie-dun, Di'anno tosses out a few polite "How are ya, then?" greetings; Dickinson brings a similar bunch to a boil, building up every selection with a theatrical introduction. Regardless of the singer, though, Maiden's mind-blower is "Transylvania," an enrapturing instrumental in which the three guitars snarl and bark like Cerberus' heads. This tune appears four times on these discs (only "Iron Maiden," the group's signature bruiser, tops it with five), but each time it finds fresh fuel, becoming resurgent rather than redundant.

Maiden can be an embarrassing band to embrace, and there are some skeletons in this Archive, from the absurd B-Sides album art (Eddie flips the bird and bares his pumpkinesque buttocks, "Maiden Rule" scrawled in blood across the bulbous cheeks) to the horrific "Charlotte the Harlot," guitarist Murray's misogynistic mishap that surfaces on each disc. However, it's also an increasingly easy one to defend. In addition to Archives, 2002 delivered Rock in Rio, yet another concert double disc (this one containing strong material from Maiden's startlingly relevant 2000 comeback album, Brave New World) as well as reissued, remastered, bonus-track-infused versions of 14 of the group's records. Each release glistens with more fine metal craftsmanship than a blacksmiths convention; for every track that falters, three define everything hard rock should be: heavy, skillfully played, larger-than-life, quick-paced, and violent or epic and fantasy-fiction literate.

And if you listen closely during the performances, you'll hear bursts of applause without musical provocation – "insert explosion here" moments that confirm concertgoers' grandiose tales.

 
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