Those Old Darts #92: “Hallowed Be Thy Name”

#92: HALLOWED BE THY NAME (IRON MAIDEN)

For many years I despised Iron Maiden. I used to like some heavy metal bands from the 80s, such as The Scorpions, Saxon, Judas Priest or Dio –I even loved some early hair metal hits like Europe’s “The Final Countdown” or Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer”, cheesy as those might have been– but I never quite got into Iron Maiden. Somehow, I found their songs too intricate and overblown, and the overall sound was, to my ears, far too loud, dull and annoying. Maybe the reason for these feelings was that my musical ‘education’ in the genre of hard rock music came through listening to Deep Purple/Rainbow (and, to a lesser extent, Led Zeppelin), and not Black Sabbath. Actually, I had not heard anything from Tony Iommi’s band until I was in my late thirties, which may explain my complete ignorance about one of the most influential rock bands from the 70s. To this day, I still profoundly dislike anything Sabbath might have released (save for their early 80s couple of albums with Dio on vocals; but that is just because I love Dio’s voice), no matter how good their music may be.
That said, I must admit my initial reluctance against Iron Maiden was dissipated when I listened to “Wasted Years”, from the Somewhere in Time (1986) album, and, especially, “No Prayer for the Dying”, from the No Prayer for the Dying album (1990). As you can see, both are (sort of) “ballads” (at least by Iron Maiden standards). I was blown away by both songs, and this lead to an interest in other albums by the band. So I listened to Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988) (which included the marvellous “Can I Play with Madness?”), the Ed Hunter (1999) compilation (where I got to know early gems like Phantom of the Opera, Killers or Wrathchild), and then, of course, The Number of the Beast (1982) (which included the thrilling “Run to the Hills”, a song I had already listened to some years before, as well as the title song, with its infectious chorus).
“Hallowed Be Thy Name” belongs to the latter album. By late 1981 the band had just changed their singer (Paul Di’Anno was sacked due to his drug problems and was replaced by ex-Samson’s singer Bruce Dickinson), which was in itself quite a risky move that might as well have been for the bad. Not so in this case: Dickinson proved to be not only the best choice —in spite of having a voice and singing style ostensibly different from Di’Anno’s— but also a singer capable of adding that badly needed extra punch of charisma in the band’s live performances, making the music sound darker and simultaneously more majestic —Di’Anno’s singing leaned more on a raw punkish approach, whereas Dickinson’s harked back to the more sophisticated and grandiose progressive rock excess. Personally, I’ve always preferred Di’Anno’s voice, and I know I’m on a minority here; nevertheless it seems pretty obvious that Dickinson is a far more versatile singer than him.
The song starts on the predictable foreboding doomsday bells with a slow tempo. Dickinson enters in an unusually low voice —not that this is any less menacing than his signature loud screams. The pace speeds up a bit when Clive Burr’s drums kick in and the song’s basic outline is firmly delineated. Dickinson sings a couple of verses, followed by very brief instrumental interludes led by Steve Harris’ pounding yet dynamic bass line. And so we get to the second half of the song, where the pace speeds up yet again with a succession of piercing guitar riffs and wailing solos (I don’t know it is Murray, Smith or both that play them, but they are terrific in any case), which leads to the main melody in the devastating final part: the whole band perfectly synchronized to produce one of the best song-endings in the history of metal.
The lyrics for this song, as you should know if you’re a heavy metal fan, are about the thoughts and feelings of a prisoner sentenced to death as he waits for his punishment to be fulfilled: “I’m waiting in my cold cell/As the bells begin to chime” —those are just the first lines. Very down-to-earth for Harris’ usual writing, much more prone to dungeons and dragons fantasy stories, or sci-fi bleak descriptions of the future of mankind, or hilarious tales on mutant demons or ‘powerslaves’ (whatever the hell that means), but still very effective while retaining a high level of emotion (which seems to be quite genuine, for a change).
All in all, this is a fairly impressive song and definitely one of the best in Iron Maiden’s entire output. If there is anything I had to mention as a ‘minus’ element, that would be Dickinson’s final ‘Yaaayyyaaayyyaaayy! Hallowed be thy name!’ shrill scream at the end of the song. It just sounds far too over the top and bombastic to a fault, to the extent that it even detracts a bit from the excellence of the aforementioned double guitar interplay. To be honest, I must admit I have never really liked Dickinson’s voice, which I often find too flat and dull, especially in the ‘core’ Maiden albums from the 80s.

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