Few bands in history have influenced and defined heavy metal as broadly as Iron Maiden. Forerunners of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, Maiden would quickly transcend the movement to become one of the boldest, most trailblazing and adored metal bands of the 80s, putting out a dizzying run of knock-out albums in that decade that few other artists came close to matching.
Following a difficult time of it in the 90s that produced some solid records but a dwindling pop culture footprint, Maiden bounced back in style as the New Millennium dawned, bringing beloved frontman Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith back to the fold after years away and entering a second golden age.
Their enduring success is one of the reasons why it's difficult to pinpoint exactly which album remains Maiden's very finest. From their fast and furious early 80s output with Paul Di'Anno to the triumphant, gung ho brilliance of what followed with Bruce Dickinson, to their expansive, majestic 21st century output, there are a considerable number of records that could make a solid claim to being the band's best. In that spirit, we got seven of Metal Hammer's biggest Maiden superfans to duke it out and offer their arguments for which album is truly Maiden's all-time high point.
Iron Maiden (1980)
Steve Harris invariably raises just one bone of contention with Maiden's seminally thrilling debut. Wil Malone's indifferent production lacks the punch and sparkle that Martin Birch would bring to bear on a flawless run of recordings, but really, a 1980 metal debut should be a bit rough around the edges. Steve also repudiates any talk of punk influence, but the out-of-control energy levels are positively complemented by the raw, street-level sound, helping make ravenous headbangers like Prowler, Phantom Of The Opera and the eternal set-closing title track among the most powerful instigating forces on the intensification of metal in the early 80s.
And they felt it at the time: Geoff Barton in his Sounds review enthused about the record’s “blinding speed and rampant ferocity” - yet despite containing the heaviest metal yet conceived, it stunned the band by entering the U.K. Top 5. In terms of sheer bolt-from-the-blue impact, no other Maiden album can compete with this one. The LP laid down a gauntlet to the whole genre - Paul Di’anno’s career-best vocal performance, bursting with vim and spunk; the spiky finesse of the Murray/Stratton twin-axe attack; Steve’s pulverising undertow; Clive Burr’s propulsive momentum - and metal would never be the same again.
Scandalous as some may believe it to be, there are those of us who found Maiden’s continual march towards more expansive and progressive material too histrionic, overblown and lacking in grit after Bruce Dickinson replaced Paul Di’Anno on vocals in 1981. Steve Harris can pooh-pooh the influence of punk rock all he wants, but the fact is, Maiden’s first two albums had the same kind of gobby, street grease, no-fucks-given pace and aggression that appealed to fans of the genre in the same way that made Motörhead such crossover legends.
The self-titled debut is clearly the go-to album for pure, adrenaline-kicking power, but Killers is Maiden’s finest ever moment. Much of that is thanks to their significant evolution towards the bombastic, anthemic material that would come to define them, while still keeping the sandpaper-rough heaviness and foot-to-the-floor pace of their debut. On Killers, Maiden have their cake and eat it: the careering speed of Genghis Khan starts like a Discharge song and ends on a brilliantly technical solo; the fact Wrathchild has been covered by everyone from tech-metal pioneers Sikth to UK gutter punks Gallows says everything about its wide appeal; Murders In The Rue Morgue sounds like Sabbath, Thin Lizzy and Sex Pistols kicking seven bells out of each other. They’d get a “better” singer (although Di’Anno is fantastic throughout here), and they’d certainly write more “challenging” songs, but on a purely musical level, Iron Maiden never topped Killers.
The Number Of The Beast (1982)
When it comes to great Iron Maiden albums you can argue all day about which has the best songs, but there’s only one record that truly defined the band and changed the tapestry of heavy metal itself. Bruce Dickinson’s Maiden debut, The Number Of The Beast shifted gears from the “punky” descriptor of their Di’Anno era releases to a bells-and-whistle heavy metal extravaganza. Number… is the sound of a band ready to devour the world, bolting out the gates with Invaders and barely pausing for breath for a relentless 40 minutes and 22 seconds. Dickinson is worth his weight in gold with Shakespearean theatricality delivered with arch cheekiness, showing Maiden were actually having fun – something heavy metal seriously needed with Spinal Tap just about to point how utterly ludicrous the pompous self-importance of the 70s had been.
Children Of The Damned, Number Of The Beast, The Prisoner, Run To The Hills, Hallowed Be Thy Name – this is Maiden in full flow, equipping heavy metal for the decade ahead as it embraced maximalism and became a genre that could rule the world. Before the prog-pomp crept in, before they had a stage-show bigger than Broadway, they had Number Of The Beast; the album that showed even the devil was a mere puppet in the Maiden machine.
Piece Of Mind (1983)
Following a such a genre-defining album as The Number Of The Beast was a big ask. With Piece Of Mind, Iron Maiden didn’t just match it, they bettered it. The fact that nobody ever recognises this is absolutely baffling. From the immortal opening drum tattoo that introduces both new boy Nicko McBrain and the album itself, Piece Of Mind has the greatest run of killer songs on any Maiden record. Where Eagles Dare, Revelations, Flight Of Icarus, Die With Your Boots On, The Trooper, the slightly strange and eternally underappreciated Still Life… even more than Run To The Hills and The Number Of The Beast itself, these are the songs which built Maiden’s global success.
Sure, that perfect streak screeches to a halt with the turd in the punchbowl that is Quest For Fire – a serious contender for worst Maiden track ever – but that’s offset by exhilarating unsung classic Sun And Steel and batty Dune knock-off To Tame A Land, a song which laid the groundwork for Maiden’s future prog-metal epics. And anyway, TNOTB had Invaders and Gangland, so Piece Of Mind is one up on that front. The Number Of The Beast, Powerslave and Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son will always be more loved, and even the once-divisive Somewhere In Time got a belated burnish recently. Piece Of Mind, however, remains the closest a band of Iron Maiden’s stature have to a lost treasure. The campaign to restore it to its rightful place as the jewel in Maiden’s crown starts here.
There are several reasons why Powerslave is the best Maiden album. It begins with Aces High, the band’s greatest ever show-opener, and follows it with 2 Minutes To Midnight; one of their greatest ever live tunes. It ends with Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, the ultimate Maiden epic. Derek Riggs’ artwork is phenomenal and, at the very least, in the top three Maiden covers of all time. Dave Murray’s moody solo midway through the title track is actual magic. Even the album’s less celebrated songs, like Flash Of The Blade and Back In The Village are total face-melters.
Most important of all, however, is the self-evident fact that Iron Maiden were on the form of their lives when they recorded Powerslave in the Bahamas during the first half of 1984. After five albums and as many years of relentless touring and recording, they were reaching the peak of their collective powers, and long-time producer Martin Birch was just the man to capture the magic. Epic, fiery and diverse, their sixth studio effort is a 51-minute blizzard of energy and bravura musicianship, as Maiden slipped into a higher gear, embraced their more adventurous, progressive side, and wrapped it all up in cool-as-shit, Ancient Egyptian imagery. 39 years on (FML), Powerslave remains the full Maiden package.
Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son (1988)
It may be half the length of The Book Of Souls and Senjutsu, but Seventh Son… is the biggest collection of songs Iron Maiden have ever put out. Every second of The Beast’s final 80s album is crammed with bombast, heralded by the gloriously melodramatic narration of Moonchild. From there, it’s all as overblown as can be: Infinite Dreams bathes in lush prog synths, before Can I Play With Madness announces itself with one of the band’s best vocal hooks. Then there’s that title track. Bloody hell. In the rich pantheon of Maiden epics, that song could be the most consistently huge, throwing choirs, an earworm chorus and a symphony of guitars at you for 10 minutes.
Everything else, from the hurrying bassline of The Clairvoyant to the venomous snarls during The Evil That Men Do, only reaffirms this is an album with no wasted space and no lapse in energy. Its massive ambition was rewarded with massive success: Maiden claimed their rightful place atop the UK album chart for the first time since 1982, then headlined Monsters Of Rock to 100,000 acolytes. For ending the band’s greatest decade at their creative and commercial peak, how can Seventh Son… not be Maiden’s masterpiece?
Brave New World (2000)
The narrative around Maiden's great 2000s comeback is well-worn at this point, but there's just no overstating how immense the album that started it all really is. While the two Blaze Bayley-fronted Maiden records are far better than many gave them credit for, Brave New World felt like a band reborn, evident from those first few urgent, chugging riffs of The Wicker Man, now rightly regarded as one of the metal legends' greatest ever album openers.
And the hit rate doesn't let up from there. From the adventurous, swashbuckling Ghost Of The Navigator to the colossal, stomping title track to the stirring, unifying Blood Brothers, all the way to the frantic push-and-pull of Dream Of Mirrors and towering sci-fi epic Out Of The Silent Planet, there's just no chink in Brave New World's armour, Bruce sounding refreshed and fired up and the now three-prong guitar attack of Murray, Gers and a returning Smith gelling magnificently. The album also features Maiden's best power ballad - the surprisingly intimate, emotional The Thin Line Between Love And Hate. Brave New World may have marked the start of a new golden age for Iron Maiden, but make no mistake about it: it's a 10/10 record in its own right and deserves to be held in the same esteem as anything from their OG glory days.