Iron Maiden is easily one of the most influential bands in the history of heavy metal, leading the charge for the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and following in the footsteps of bands such as Judas Priest and Motorhead while paving the way for countless other acts to follow. However, Iron Maiden's legacy would be dramatically different had they not made a key lineup change in the early 80s.
The band had already established themselves as a legitimate force in the UK metal scene with their first two albums Iron Maiden and Killers. They had charted in the UK, crossed the pond and toured the United States, and by anyone's standards doing pretty darn well. Unfortunately (or so it seemed), things had turned sour between the band and vocalist Paul Di'Anno, whose addictions were becoming increasingly problematic. Following the Killers tour, the band would part ways with Di'Anno, and replace him with a man by the name of Bruce Dickinson. It would turn out to be one of the greatest lineup changes in the history of not only heavy metal, but the rock music in general. Dickinson's addition to the lineup took Iron Maiden from a great band to a fantastic one. The addition of the man known as the "Air Raid Siren" resulted in a change in the band's style that resulted in a string of some of heavy metal's most legendary albums, beginning with their best known work, The Number of the Beast in 1982.
To put it bluntly, The Number of the Beast is required listening for every heavy metal fan not only for its significance but also for the fact that it still holds up tremendously even after 30 years. Whether or not it is the band's best album remains a point of contention among fans (you can easily make a strong case for many of the albums that followed), but it goes without saying that the band's first album with Dickinson is their most important. It was on The Number of the Beast that the band would establish the sound that they are known for - good old fashioned, traditional heavy metal that is centered around the galloping bassline of Steve Harris that is rife with guitar harmonies and the soaring vocals of one of metal's most dynamic singers.
While The Number of the Beast has an awful lot going for it, it is best known for two simple reasons - the album's legendary title track and "Run to the Hills," which is easily their most famous song. While the album builds a ton of momentum on its early tracks, it is on "The Number of the Beast" that the album truly hits its stride and really becomes the stuff of legend. Featuring an incredibly memorable chorus, consistently galloping riffs, and and some of Dickinson's best vocals to date (including a glass shattering shriek at the end of the first verse that can rarely be duplicated), "The Number of the Beast" is one of the songs that immediately cemented this band's legacy as a true force in the heavy metal genre. Equally as significant is the following track "Run to the Hills," the band's preeminent retelling of the Native American plight following the British settlement of America (ironic of course given the band's origins). While "Run to the Hills" may not be not the band's best song per se, it is quite possibly their most famous and one that proven itself to be incredibly capable of rocking arenas for over three decades. "Run to the Hills" has yet another fantastic chorus and a galloping main riff that truly sounds as if a tribe is riding into battle with spears in hand. Dickinson once again dominates this song vocally, and the dueling guitar solos (another one of the bands trademarks) make this into a mini-masterpiece that will live on long after the band has hung up their instruments and called it a day.
While the two singles are the main focus of The Number of the Beast (and rightfully so), there is of course plenty more worth mentioning on here. Closing track "Hallowed Be Thy Name" is easily one of my favorite Iron Maiden songs and ends the album on a rather epic note. It has been a live staple (appropriately enough usually at the end of a set) and is also one of the band's most covered songs. Telling the harrowing tale of a prisoner about to be hanged, "Hallowed" starts off as a slow march before building into a bombastic conclusion that adds the album on a chilling and yet triumphant note. Many polls have named this as the best Iron Maiden song, and you know you are talking about a pretty legendary album that has not one, but two songs that are better known than this gem.
These three songs alone make The Number of the Beast an incredibly worthwhile album. And while it may not be as strong of an album from start to finish as some of their following albums such as Powerslave or Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, that doesn't mean that the remaining songs are duds. "The Prisoner," inspired by the British TV show of the same name, is another high point on the album that gallops along is an almost ironic manner, managing to be surprisingly upbeat given its nature. "Children of the Damned," on the other hand, is a straight-up metal ballad...if ballads were evil, of course. Dickinson would later remark that the song was inspired by Black Sabbath's "Children of the Sea," only this is a much heavier and much darker song. While some people aren't incredibly fond of "Gangland" and "Total Eclipse" (the latter of which was not included on the album's original pressing), they by no means detract from the overall experience of the album in any significant manner.
Like I said earlier, Iron Maiden's "best" album will forever remain a point of contention among fans. Many people will argue for Powerslave or Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, but at the end of the day, The Number of the Beast is the band's most significant, and therefore, most essential album. Because quite honestly, how can you go wrong with the most legendary album from one of heavy metal's best known bands? Iron Maiden would go on to release plenty of other classic albums following the arrival of Bruce Dickinson, but it was on Beast that the band found their way and truly began to establish themselves as a true force to be reckoned with in the world of heavy metal.