Twenty years ago, we were living in what can be considered the dark ages of heavy metal. The old guard of classic bands had either fractured, or had changed into unrecognizable groups that had abandoned what made them popular. In their place, we had new bands that were sapping the life from the genre, whether it be the nu-metal that dumbed everything down so far we still haven't regained what was lost, or they were following the mold of Pantera and assuming that being louder and angrier was all that was needed. Metal didn't have fun anymore, it didn't have much of a brain either, and there aren't many records from that time period that have stood the test of time. For good reason.
But there are oases in every desert, and even then records were being released that challenged our conceptions of what metal was, and what it could be. You might think the best of them all would have been from a new voice, a group of hungry young musicians hell-bent on taking over the world. You would be wrong if you did. The defining statement of that time came from one of the old guard, the only one who was trying to move forward; Bruce Dickinson.
The then former Iron Maiden singer had been out on his own for a few years by the time 1998 had come around. His early solo albums were hit-and-miss affairs that made people pine for a reunion. It was with 1997's "Accident Of Birth" that Dickinson returned to full-throated metal, and he did so in such a fashion that suddenly the cries for Iron Maiden to be reborn were quieted. But even as great as that record was, Bruce had something yet more grand up his sleeve.
The year 1998 saw Slayer bottoming out with their trend-hopping "Diabolus In Musica", Metallica playing nothing but cover songs, and Kid Rock ascending to mainstream stardom. It was a dark time for good, serious heavy metal. The answer to fans' prayers would be coming, however.
Bruce Dickinson was always a bit of an odd fit for metal culture. A pilot, fencer, and author, he was not the leather-clad banger that the genre is so disappointingly associated with. Iron Maiden had long incorporated history and literature into their lyrics, but even they had never gone this far. With his magnum opus, Dickinson would shape his music into a conceptual piece diving into the life and work of William Blake, complete with one of his paintings gracing us on the cover.
Teaming up with Roy Z and his fellow Iron Maiden ex-pat Adrian Smith, Dickinson stepped into the studio with inspiration, and walked out with the defining album of the time.
The most striking facet of the album is the overwhelming heaviness the music is able to capture. By stringing the guitars with bass strings, the album takes on a tone unlike any other, giving previously unheard heft to the traditional metal arrangements. It is not far removed, stylistically, from what he had done with Iron Maiden, but “The Chemical Wedding” is the heaviest piece of music Dickinson has ever made. That heaviness is not just sonic, as the songs are written and sung with just as much emotional weight.
Dickinson's vocals are a dramatic performance, his siren of a voice crying out above the fury of the music in a way few singers can match. He roars through songs like “The Tower” and “Jerusalem”, displaying all the skills that make him one of metal's legendary singers. While Roy Z and his Iron Maiden compatriot Adrian Smith pound out some furiously progressive metal arrangements, Dickinson pours melodies into every song, giving the songs all the tools needed to be great. Making music that it at once this heavy and this melodic is nearly impossible, but it is done with such ease on “The Chemical Wedding” that it makes an unfair standard for everyone else to live up to.
While the title track may sound too simple at first blush, the ballad is a showcase for the clarity and beauty Dickinson's voice can achieve, and is merely setting the table for the more epic moments. The unexpected reprise of the chorus at the end of the closing “The Alchemist” ties the project together, and when viewed as part of a larger work, the title track is an integral calm before the storm.
For as great as those tracks are, one song stands above all the others as a definitive masterpiece. That song, “Book Of Thel”, is an eight minute piece of metal perfection. The riffs are the heaviest on the album, the arrangement is expansive and progressive, and Dickinson's vocal is an impassioned cry that boasts one of the best melodies he ever had the fortune to sing. The song is a revelation, the sort of piece that has you worn out by the end for merely listening. It is at once the highlight of a remarkable album, and a singular statement attesting to the validity and vitality of metal as an art form. “The Chemical Wedding” is not just the best album Bruce Dickinson ever sang on, it is one of the greatest metal albums ever made, and a staggering work of genius.
Twenty years later, the album is as vital and potent as ever.