'Sign Of The Cross' is a genuine Harris epic, over 11 minutes in length. It begins with a low and ominous-sounding Gregorian chant, and slowly builds a dark and brooding mood before suddenly bursting into the fast and powerful verses and chorus. The middle of the song is dominated by a long instrumental which has a great deal in common with the early masterpiece 'Phantom Of The Opera'. The instrumental passes through the song's entire stylistic range, from the soft Gregorian chant up through an exquisitely Maiden-sounding riff melody to the climactic guitar solos. This song cannot be described as anything other than a masterpiece.
The lyrics of the Gregorian-sounding chant seem to be "?ternus halleluiah", or "Praise The Eternal", and the chant itself provides an excellent atmospheric start to this dark song. The "eleven saintly shrouded men" have also been subject to some polemic. Who are those men? Their number is also not clear. Is the "one in front with a cross held high" a twelfth man or is he part of the group of eleven? Some have claimed that those were the Apostles, whose number was twelve, minus Judas Iscariot who had killed himself, leaving therefore only eleven. Whoever they are, and what they actually represent, they make an interesting tie with some of the lyrics of an early Genesis song, 'Supper's Ready' on the Foxtrot album (1972), which has also a lot of religious imagery in the lyrics and is, like 'Sign Of The Cross', a very long song with multiple sections:
Six saintly shrouded men move across the lawn slowly
The seventh walks in front with a cross held high in hand
The first verse show the narrator "standing alone in the wind and rain" and in fear. It seems reasonable to assume, given the topic of the song, that he is a afraid of the Inquisition, who has "come to wash [his] sins away", and he knows that his "faith will be put to the test".
Another indication that this story may very well be that of a man facing torture at the hands of the Inquisition this abomination whose exactions and large-scale cruelty have only been matched in Western Europe by the Nazis in the 20th Century is that somebody is "asking the question time and again", and it is well-known that torture was euphemistically called "The Question". Under such torment, the narrator is wondering "why then is God still protecting [him] even when [he] do[es]n't deserve it", showing that he recognises that he has doubts concerning his own beliefs and that he is not worthy of divine protection. This statement is also one of resignation to his fate, as he is "blessed with an inner strength, some they would call it a penance". There, he seems to consider that being unable to die despite the pain he's enduring is indeed a "penance", but isn't that after all what life is about in general? Anyway, his doubts include even the certainty that "praying to God won't keep [him] alive". Indeed, prayer's never been known to do anything concrete, or the world would be a much nicer place.
"They'll be saying their prayers when the moment comes." Those "saintly shrouded men" will pray when the stake is lit, and they will pray again "when it's judgement day", as the narrator seems convinced that they are condemning him whereas he's innocent of any major crime well, certainly not that of heresy and that they are the guilty ones who will "bleed when that moment comes", whereas he will be forgiven and "God'll lay [his] soul to rest". This is most probably how many victims of the Inquisition felt when they climbed the stake to be burned for a heresy which they were convinced they hadn't committed.
The link with the excellent book and no less excellent film The Name Of The Rose resides maybe in the chorus: "The sign of the cross, the name of the rose", although this seems to be the only similarity with Umberto Eco's novel (or with Annaud's film for that matter!). The "fire in the sky" is probably also that of a burning stake whose conflagration lights the sky. In any case, if this song can spark an interest in this classic story, then it will have achieved even more than being simply a musical masterpiece!
The last lines are however quite intriguing: "Lost the love of heaven above, chose the lust of the earth below." Could this be a reference to the film/novel The Name Of The Rose where Adso, the young monk narrator of the story, has a sexual encounter with a young woman (who is tried later for sorcery and with whom he falls in love, although he has to eventually leave her but he will never forget her!), meaning that he has broken his vows of abstinence as a priest? This could confirm that the man in the 'Sign Of The Cross' story is indeed a member of a religious order, a believer who faces his doubts. We all have convictions in life and, sometimes, events happen that severely dent these convictions, even to the point of destroying them totally. All we are then left with is the fear of the uncertainty of what lies ahead.
'Lord Of The Flies' is based on the William Golding 1954 novel of the same name, which was also made into films in 1963 and 1990. The story tells of a group of school boys who are marooned on a tropical island, and who gradually descend into tribal savagery. This is an energetic type of song, whose lyrics glorify the animal nature that is inherent inside all people. This theme is also dominant in the story told in 'The Edge Of Darkness', where a man, dwelling in the depths of a jungle and freed of all social constraints turns to unspeakable savagery.
In his novel, Golding's intention was clearly to take the counterpoint of previous similar stories where people stranded on a desert island cooperated in order to recreate civilisation as they knew it. In this more realistic story, we see children commonly (and often wrongly!) assumed to represent innocence and fairness return to the tribal savagery of our ancestors, and destroying all trace of civility that some where trying to preserve. As Golding was a teacher, we can assume safely that he'd observed the behaviour of children in the schoolyards and drawn the right conclusions: the lack of social constraints that are ingrained in adults through their upbringing and education is clearly obvious in the way younger children establish their relationships to others. A kindergarten yard is basically a jungle where the strongest simply try to crush the weakest. Take away the discipline that the adult society enforces and you end up with a bunch of savage little animals who "just want to live [their] own fantasy." (Disclaimer: I'm not saying that all kids are systematically either bloodthirsty animals or hapless preys of those, as it also depends on each individual's personality a non-negligible human trait.)
Each character of the novel represents a part of human nature that is either kept at bay or put forward by society in order to make social life as peaceful as possible. The song sees the story most probably through the eyes of the character of Jack, who represents evil and violence, the dark side of human nature. Originally a choirboy, he becomes the "chief" of the "tribe" and throws away all social conventions that make a civilised society possible "Who cares now what's right or wrong [...] We don't need a code of morality." Ralph and Piggy, respectively standing for civilisation and fragile intelligence, try to oppose him and make sure that everyone is sheltered and fed properly, but Jack is only interested in the hunt not for food, but for the thrill of the action itself ("I've found that I like this living in danger").
"Lord of the flies" is the literal translation of the Greek word Beelzebub, a term used for the Judeo-Christian notion of Satan, or evil personified. What the novel highlights, as well as does the song, is that this evil resides in all of us and, provided that the social barriers cease to exist for whatever reason, breaks loose in extreme situations "What was meant to be is now happening." This "Something willing us to be lord of the flies" is simply ourselves.
This song is based on the 1993 Joel Schumacher film Falling Down starring Michael Douglas and Robert Duvall, about an apparently "normal" man a middle-aged white-collar worker who finally snaps under the stress, frustration, and absurdity of big city life. It is another of the few up-tempo songs on the album, and, although the guitar solos are quite short and the song itself is not quite as deep as some of the other material on the album, it's a really good little rocker from a musical point of view.
Away from the jungle of 'Lord Of The Flies' and 'The Edge Of Darkness', we are taken here to the urban jungle of a vast megapole namely Los Angeles, but any other gigantic city in any industrialised country could have been the scene of such action. Like in the aforementioned songs/stories, the main character's sense of self fades away after he's reached his breaking point (in his particular case after losing both his job and family) and he finally loses control "Each step gets closer to losing his head." The song's theme is somehow similar to that of 'Age Of Innocence' and highlights the flaws of an ungrateful modern society that does not look after its citizens (may it be through the lack of care for the unemployed who are made redundant or the lack of proper law enforcement against criminals) "'Cause nothing is fair just you look around."
Even if most of us can relate to his frustrations from over-priced conveniences like a soft drink to being unable to be served what we want in a fast-food restaurant the main protagonist somehow "takes the law into his own hands" and ends up being considered a criminal, following what Nietzsche warned us about:
"Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you."
Towards the end, the main character asks in disbelief: "I'm the bad guy? How did that happen?" Indeed, whereas the lack of social structures creates wild predators out of otherwise perfectly decent human beings in 'Lord Of The Flies' and 'The Edge Of Darkness', the unfairness and hypocritical constraints of a "civilised world" can also achieve the same when some individuals are pushed beyond the edge. Let's just hope that this is not "a glimpse of the future."
'Fortunes Of War' describes the mental anguish of a soldier returning from war the nightmares, the voices, and the terrible memories. It makes a good counterpart to 'Afraid To Shoot Strangers' which describes the anguish of a soldier who is about to go off to war. It can also be linked to 'The Aftermath', although it hasn't got the same historical specificity and is delving in the dark thoughts of any soldier returning from any conflict of the 20th Century onward.
Steve Harris describes accurately what goes through the minds of those who fought when they are returned to civilian life and face those who only saw the conflict from afar: "I can't help but feel that I'm on my own, no one can see just what this conflict has done to the minds of the men who are on their way home." The feelings of misunderstanding and loneliness are heightened by contact with people who, as hard as they may try, simply cannot understand what an ordeal like combat can do to someone, and it is only natural that those who fought often seek their former comrades-in-arms in order to once again be surrounded by those who lived through the same hell and who understand. Those are mentally "scarred for life" and all too often have to face the aftermath alone, "the vivid scenes and all the recurring nightmares."
Those who have never been confronted to a combat situation dish out the usual banalities that "time's a perfect healer, that the nightmares they will come to pass" but they never really do. Most veterans end up "living in [their] own world" and often question their sanity ("Could I really be going crazy?"). Strength of character and sometimes professional help can provide the former combattants with the appearance of a "normal" life and put aside those mental scars, a necessary requisite to "carry on."
Like 'Afraid To Shoot Strangers', it starts out softly with some acoustic guitar and low singing, but then breaks into a slow and heavy rhythm that is vaguely reminiscent of Black Sabbath. There has been a bit of criticism about this song that suggested it was too "generic", but this is absolutely not the case. There is nothing remotely resembling "generic", here, and this piece is an incredibly powerful song that is full of dark emotion. It is among the best tracks of the album.
This is another introspective song about facing and overcoming one's fears. Like many songs on this album, it begins with an acoustic and soft singing intro, and then breaks into faster and heavier verses and chorus. Although the main body of the song is not quite as dark than the intro, it is still a pretty good song with a tune that sticks in your mind.
Whatever fears and nightmares the protagonist experiences, they seem to stem from his dark past "In the house of my soul, in rooms of ugliness and cold, memories locked away" and he never had the courage to face them until now. This songs conveys a message of hope to those who are haunted by ancient memories that never properly dealt with: win or lose, the only way to conquer the remnants of an ugly past is to face them with a clear and lucid mind.
To shadows of the past
Take a breath and I scream "attack!"
'The Aftermath' is a song that questions the validity and necessity of war. The main verses are built around a very simple sequence of guitar chords, but the instrumental contains some great riffs and guitar solos. This song is not readily accessible, and many will not like it at first, but it will eventually grow on you once you fully realise its depth and power.
Although it deals with the psychological wounds endured by any soldier who fought in a war from the early 20th Century until now, the text mentions barbed wire and mustard gas, implying that we are faced here with a veteran of the First World War, even if this not as explicit as in 'Paschendale'. Mustard gas was only employed on a large scale during this conflict and the realisation of the horrifying wounds and deaths it caused probably prevented its further use in subsequent wars.
Quite interestingly, the famous British war poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote a poem called 'Aftermath', which also denounces the horrors of all-out war and the loss of innocence of those who went to war merely as boys, but who returned mentally wounded from the terrible battles of the Great War.
After the war, left feeling no one has won
After the war, what does a soldier become?
This song faces the inevitable questions that all people eventually ask at some point in their lives regarding the meaning of existence, given that it actually has any meaning. It it has a dark and despondent mood that blends perfectly into the overall feel of the album. This is another song that takes a while to sink in and appreciate fully. However, after a few listens you'll have a hard time getting the tune out of your head and it may well become one of your favourite songs on the album.
'Judgement Of Heaven', like 'No Prayer For The Dying', contains an unusual plea to God "A silent prayer to God to help you on your way" and Steve Harris does not seem to seek the answers in the world around him, but from a hypothetical divinity instead:
And if there is a God then answer if you will
And tell me of my fate, tell me of my place
Tell me if I'll ever rest in peace
Unlike many other similar songs whose theme is depression and the quest for a meaning of life, this one does not seem to offer much hope, but asks a few essential questions to ponder, such as: "If you had the chance again would you change a thing at all?" In any case, Steve may have had his doubts, but "all of [his] life [he has] believed Judgement of Heaven is waiting for [him]", so why change his mind now?
Written about the Bosnian war (19921995), 'Blood On The World's Hands' describes the horror, injustice, and brutality that took place at that time in this little region of the planet, although this could quite sadly be applied to the rest of the world. It features an interesting bass intro whose closest counterpart is probably the intro to 'Innocent Exile' way back on the Killers album.
The reaction to such conflicts, wherever they are, can vary from person-to-person, or even depending on the mood when the information is received ("Sometimes it makes me wonder, sometimes it makes me question, sometimes it makes me saddened"), but Steve expresses here very rightly what any normal human being would feel when confronted to such news: "always it makes me angry". Territorial and/or ethnic wars are probably the most infuriating of all, with the blatant injustice that goes with them. The massacre of people because they look different or think according to different beliefs is quite simply intolerable.
The war in the Balkans in the mid-90s has seen the most atrocious treatments of human beings on European soil since the Nazi abominations of the 1930s and 1940s. The whole world was aware of what was going on through reports of war correspondents and images broadcasted every evening during the televised news reports ("But when you can see it happening, the madness that's all around you"), yet no one actually stepped in to prevent such atrocities ("Nobody seems to worry, the world seems so powerless to act"). The UN troops sent to the battle zone were even expressedly ordered not to intervene and even not to return fire when fired upon!
The song also questions the "Western lifestyle", which is supposed to be so safe that conflicts are thought to be nowadays impossible: "security of a world that brings one day another killing, somewhere there's someone starving, another a savage raping". This description suits perfectly well what was happening right before our eyes, and even "right next door"! The Bosnian War saw not only the massacres that most conflicts generate, but also the resurgence of concentration camps didn't the world learn the lessons of Nazi Germany? where people were held and starved to death simply because they belonged to a certain ethnic group or had a particular faith. Besides, the "savage raping(s)", that have been part of warfare ever since the dawn of mankind, were used systematically during this conflit for the horrible purpose of "ethnic cleansing". The women of one ethnic group were either raped to death, or until they fell pregnant with their attacker's child, in which case they were detained until a termination was impossible, therefore giving birth to "the enemy's" children and being rejected by their own community, as well as developing such self-loathing that they would most often commit suicide.
And "meanwhile there's someone laughing at us." This is probably a reference to the former Yugoslav leaders who where performing their awful deeds in front of the whole international community, and laughed at the fact that they could do it in full impunity at the time (things have changed since the implementation of an international criminal court, although a certain "world-leading" country still considers itself to be above such laws). "They say things are getting better", well that's what all governements would like us to believe, although it's a pretty hard thing to do when you see "the madness that's all around you."
Before its abrupt end ("Someone should..."), the song reminds us that the horrors mentioned happened very close-by: "There's chaos across the border." Indeed, no Western country is protected from such events occurring yet again on their territory and, if we're not careful, "one day it could be happening to us." So let's think about it and work together to make the world a safe place for the generations to come.
This song is based on the 1979 movie Apocalypse Now, which was in turn inspired by Joseph Conrad's (18571924) classic Heart Of Darkness which was also made into a 1994 film for the television. The lyrics reproduce in many parts the dialogues of Coppola's masterpiece and tell us of a man's journey up a river into the jungle during the Viet-Nam war, in search of an insane genius who has succumbed to the innate savagery that resides inside all of us. It is another dark and brooding song in the same vein as 'Sign Of The Cross', with the riffs and rhythm shifts that have become a Maiden trademark.
In both the film and the novel, the character of Kurtz is that of a well-educated Western man who abuses his power in a place where the laws and customs he was previously used to broke down or even never existed. May it be in colonial Africa of the 1890s and 1900s, or during the Vietnam war of the 1960s, the horrors he witnessed and even accomplished for the "good of Western civilisation" made him sever all ties with the world he once belonged to, and gave him the will to become a power by himself. However, power corrupts and the darkest instincts took over as "There's a conflict in every human heart and the temptation is to take it all too far." As Colonel Kurtz rightly stated in Apocalypse Now:
"In a war, there are many moments for compassion and tender action. There are many moments for ruthless action. What is often called 'ruthless' ... may, in many circumstances, be only clarity: Seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing itdirectly, quickly, looking at it."
In other words, the confusion that reigns in extreme situations can force the most reasonable person to perform the most abominable actions with full consciousness when it happens, only to live and be haunted by the events for the rest of his life. In Heart of Darkness, Fresleven was considered "the kindliest, gentlest creature that ever walked on two legs," yet he became uncontrollably violent after a period of immersion in absolute horror, indicating that there is an incredibly dark side to the human mind that can and often will express itself given the right circumstances (consider how the children left to their own device on a desert island in 'Lord Of The Flies' expressed the most basic human instincts that "bring out the animal" in them).
Whereas Mr. Kurtz is a sick and weakened ivory trader being merely picked up by Marlow's boat, Colonel Kurtz is a strong US Army senior officer who is supposed to be eliminated "with extreme prejudice" by Willard. The only similarities between Conrad's Marlow and Coppola's Willard are their rank of Captain and the fact that they undertake a journey up-river through the jungle to reach their respective Kurtz and face the heart of human darkness by doing so. Besides, Marlow is more philosophical and pondering the horrors he witnesses, whereas Willard is simply a special forces soldier with a mission, although both have a fascination for the character of Kurtz.
The trip on a boat into the depth of the jungle is in itself quite symbolic, as the means of transport is water the river representing life. Both Marlow and Willard are on an initiatic journey that brings them to the roots of human savagery and to the very heart of their own darkness those places of the mind that modern civilisation prevents us from exploring for fear that we might discover the truth within ourselves. An interesting parallel can be made with the lyrics of Bruce Dickinson's 1996 song 'Back From The Edge' on the Skunkworks album:
A silent river flowing black
Strange attractors, no turning back
Present danger I recall
That pins my senses to the wall
Back from the edge
Where the darkness has fled
And Im swimming in light
And Im falling...
Falling from the edge
Back from the edge
I fell from grace, and thats a fact
I still have urges, I fight back
Cold decisions wear me thin
Kill yourself, begin again
Back from the edge
Where youre not worth a damn
Throw yourself into light
And the rush as you spin from the edge...
Back from the edge
Back from the edge
Both Marlow and Willard have travelled this silent river to the "edge of darkness," from which they eventually returned ("Back from the edge"), but certainly not unscathed. Because "when you've faced the heart of darkness even your soul begins to bend."
' 2 A.M. ' is a beautiful song with a catchy tune that underlies some extremely insightful and powerful lyrics. At least, it is stuff that many people can exactly relate to the meaninglessness and futility of life. There is not too much to say about this song, except maybe that the lyrics seem almost hauntingly autobiographical.
The meaning of life is questioned: is there really one? "I wonder why I'm here", "Life seems so pathetic". All those questions are more likely to arise when you're alone in the middle of the night, reflecting on what you've actually achieved so far and what the future may reserve. No answers are given, but an alternative is evoked: should we simply end this apparently meaningless life ("I wish I could leave it all behind") and this could refer to suicide, as well as to starting a radically new life or should we grit our teeth and keep going ("Hold on for something better")? The answer is for each and everyone to find for himself.
Do you just let go or carry on and try to take the hurt?
The Unbeliever' is another introspective and inward-looking song, perhaps the most non-standard and misunderstood songs on the album. Many people dislike this song, mostly at first, but it isn't as bad as it seems and, provided you give yourself time to adjust to its peculiar style, after several listens it will grow on you a lot, especially with the chorus and mid-song instrumental.
Pretty much like 'Judgement Of Heaven', this song describes the feelings of depression and an inner sense of ugliness, as the first verse shows:
When you start to take a look within
Do you feel at ease with what you see
Do you think you can have peace of mind
And have self-belief or be satisfied
Do you think you even like yourself
Or really think you could be someone else
But the very same person who "believed Judgement of Heaven [was] waiting for [him]" also realises that "All [his] life... [he's] run astray, let [his] faith... slip away" and ends this rather dark and introvert album with a really good piece of advice that everyone should think about a bit more:
Are you scared to look inside your mind
Are you worried just at what you'll find
Do you really want to face the truth
Does it matter now, what have you got to lose
Try release the anger from within
Forgive yourself a few immortal sins
Do you really care what people think
Are you strong enough to release the guilt