The perfect companion for the kind of full-oeuvre deep dive that the streaming era has made so accessible.
With 16 studio albums and only a handful of hit singles sprawled across nearly four decades, the discography of New Wave of British Heavy Metal pioneers Iron Maiden can seem daunting to the uninitiated. Luckily for aspiring metalheads and record-collecting completists alike, Martin Popoff’s Iron Maiden: Album by Album offers a succinct and entertaining overview: the perfect companion for the kind of full-oeuvre deep dive that the streaming era has made so accessible.
Covering all of Maiden’s studio albums from their self-titled 1980 debut to 2015’s The Book of Souls, Album by Album does exactly what it says on the proverbial box, but with a twist: rather than writing in-depth reviews on his own, for each album Popoff assembles a group of other writers, musicians and media personalities, including former Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman, Metal Blade Records founder Brian Slagel and even professional wrestler-turned-rock singer Chris Jericho. The result feels more like a panel discussion or a judiciously-edited podcast than a traditional book, with contributors weighing in from a variety of perspectives while Popoff takes the role of moderator.
A cynical interpretation is that this format goes some way toward explaining how Popoff is so damn prolific: a veteran rock critic and author of the Collector’s Guide to Heavy Metal series, he published similar volumes on Pink Floyd and Queen within months of this one. But he’s also clearly doing more than just typing out transcripts. Each “panel” is thoughtfully selected, bringing together a range of voices with different tastes, experiences and areas of expertise. Meanwhile, Popoff’s own knowledge is clear in the way he skillfully guides the discussion to cover certain key topics: everything from an analysis of Steve Harris’ trademark shuffling basslines (“the Maiden gallop”) to considerations of how lineup changes altered the band’s sound over the years. Because many of the contributors are musicians as well as fans, they offer valuable insight into the mechanics behind the music—even firsthand insight in the case of Blaze Bayley, who played with Maiden from 1995 to 1998.
Of course, the downside of a book written (or at least spoken) primarily by musicians is that it can also descend into shop talk: Readers who need to be convinced about larger issues of Maiden’s musical or cultural importance, rather than just which song has the tastiest solo, may find themselves in over their heads here. Conversely, hardcore Maiden fans may be frustrated by such a cursory gloss of the band’s 40-year career. The result is a book that feels oddly pitched between audiences: a kind of “Iron Maiden 101” for people whose interest levels are already far beyond the typical neophyte’s.
Perhaps the ideal reader of Iron Maiden: Album by Album is, well, someone like me: an existing fan of a few key albums (in my case, Iron Maiden, Killers and The Number of the Beast) with an active interest in exploring the rest of the group’s discography. I read Album by Album while listening through the band’s entire catalogue, which I have to imagine is exactly the way it was meant to be read; each chapter served as a kind of commentary track for the corresponding album, bringing out nuances I probably wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. Also enhancing the reading (and listening) experience was the book’s design, heavy on photos and as pleasing to the eye as a bunch of pictures of the members of Iron Maiden can possibly be. Readers with an existing desire to explore the Maiden library from end to end could do a lot worse than to have Iron Maiden: Album by Album at their side. For everyone else, just wait a couple months; at the rate he’s been pumping them out, Popoff will probably have an Album by Album to suit each and every one of our tastes soon enough.