The band's current "Maiden England," tour is a semi-recreation of the their 1988 tour in support of their then-current album Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. Dreamed up by bassist and chief songwriter Steve Harris as a meditation on the number seven (it being the band's seventh LP), the album incorporated themes from sci-fi writer Orson Scott Card's bizarre 1987 fantasy/western/mystical allegory Seventh Son (with a nod or two to controversial early-20th-century British spiritualist and purported psychic medium Doris Stokes). Harris hit paydirt, weaving tales of clairvoyants and gothic prophecies into arena-rock gold nuggets like "Can I Play with Madness." The album's success, like all Maiden accomplishments, epitomizes ideals that have defined metal for generations: large themes, grand scales, and straight-up fantasy.
There is a certain rock-critic trope that heavy metal is part of rock's evolution in creating confusion and exploring society's grey areas and dark themes. A legendary pre-Maiden metal band like Black Sabbath fit this idea neatly; their hit "Paranoid," for example, is a three-minute ode to frustration, heartbreak, and emotional numbness, with a lead guitar break so fuzzed-out and jarring that it sounds like those moments in a dream when you try to speak and can't make the words come out. But when Maiden stormed rock's pantheon in 1975, they were a different breed entirely — unconfused literalists in a sea of metal fatigue and ephemeral metaphor peddlers. Whereas scores of bands toyed with Satanic themes as a way of delving into dangerous territory and exploring their own dark impulses, Maiden not only rendered dark themes harmless but also turned that negative energy outward into a glorious celebration.
Compare, for instance, "Number of the Beast," from the 1982 album of the same title, with, say, the Black Sabbath song "Black Sabbath," and you begin to understand Maiden's genius: whereas the Sabbath tune is a dirgey testament to self-flagellation and eternal damnation, with a lone trinote figure encapsulating seven centuries of heretical music into one man's ode to shame and torment, Maiden's tune is pure voyeurism. The protagonist witnesses the sights and sounds of a Black Mass the way a child witnesses pirates plundering a town in the Disneyland Pirates of the Caribbean ride. "6! 6! 6!/The number of the beast/Sacrifice is going on tonight!"
"Number of the Beast" isn't an investigation of evil, or an allusion to the banality of cruelty — it's just an account of an event set to music. This is unusual for the world of modern popular music, where meaning is buried in symbolism, but it is not unusual for the world of musicals or opera, where the song tells a story and the story fits into a greater theme amidst musical pageantry. Maiden's music, like a Disney film or ride, is about harnessing the power of the theme and presenting that power in as big a way as possible.
Cynics might call bullshit at this point— because if the band doesn't really say anything or mean anything, or challenge anyone with controversial and/or personal ideals, then how "metal" are they? If they are mere adaptors of themes, an institutional export that doesn't confront and isn't dangerous, why should we care about them? They also haven't adapted their music for the times, still mining a guitar-rock sound that never strays from being halfway between Nektar-tinged prog and UFO-style twin-guitar '70s boogie. In this sense, Maiden are the musical equivalent of the bloated 3D cinema epic, grossing big internationally with a style that is no longer cutting-edge Stateside.