Iron Maiden's 'Seventh Son of a Seventh Son' at 30: Artists Reflect on Then-Controversial Metal Classic

 Ilpo Musto/REX/Shutterstock 
Iron Maiden photographed in 1988.

It was on the sunny side of the mid-80s that Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson was caught on camera talking to an aspiring metal musician in Poland with dreams of incorporating synths into his sound.

"You can't play heavy metal with synthesizers," he quickly retorted, scoffing at the very notion of incorporating the same instrument his British counterparts in pop and new wave had been heavily implementing at the time.

For the metal legends' next album Somewhere in Time, however, guitarists Adrian Smith and Dave Murray, along with bassist Steve Harris, all began to incorporate synth modulators into their instruments to mirror the 1986 LP's futuristic overtones -- to a mixed reception from fans and critics alike.

Two years later, Maiden would ignore the jeers and double down on the digital experiments with their seventh album Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, released 30 years ago on April 11, 1988. It was the first time we heard actual keyboards on a studio recording of theirs, used to supplement the record's concept, whose roots derived from Orson Scott Card's sci-fi novel Seventh Son, which Harris had been reading at the time. And while some metal purists in the press accused the group of becoming Genesis, Seventh Son was largely celebrated as a high watermark in the Iron Maiden lexicon; its lean into progressive rock served as the basis for some of the most revered songs in the band's canon like "The Clairvoyant," "Moonchild," "Can I Play With Madness" and the album's epic title cut.

For some, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son is the definitive Iron Maiden LP, flanked by that memorable Derek Riggs cover art depicting the group's sinister zombie mascot Eddie as a cyborg floating above a lake of ice in an apparent allusion to the ninth circle of Dante's Inferno. And 30 years later, Mick Wall's prediction that it will be "will eventually be hailed alongside such past milestones as Tommy, Tubular Bells and Dark Side of the Moon" in the April 11, 1988 edition of British metal magazine Kerrang has come closer to fruition.

To celebrate this milestone, Billboard spoke with some of today's modern metal mavens on how Seventh Son played a role on their travels along the heavy metal superhighway.

Dez Fafara, DevilDriver:
I love the intro to Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. Once that first riff hits, it's obvious Iron Maiden! Then, when the vocals hit with that straight Bruce tone, it brings me everything I love about Maiden! I heard Number of the Beast for the first time taking bong hits in 8th grade and from then on was HOOKED. I personally I enjoy when a band expands their sound or moves the needle with what's expected of their sound, so and that's exactly what they did on Seventh Son. First time I heard this record I was off tour driving to the beach for the first relaxing moment in months and all the way there the record kept reminding how much I love touring. And love to tour so instead of a relaxing day at the beach I backed my car in and turned this record up ALL DAY LONG and had metal moments with friends and Maiden at my favorite spot.

Greg Tribbett, Audiotopsy/Mudvayne:
I can remember sitting in my bedroom as a kid listening to "Wrathchild" off Killers in anticipation for Seventh Son's release. I thought it was very different back then compared to what they were doing on their earlier stuff. For me, the introduction of keyboards into their sound just shows their versatility and fearlessness to evolve as they want to. Every band should evolve.

Boondox:
The first time I heard Seventh Son of a Seventh Son was when a friend (who was a huge Maiden fan) played it for me. I was a "casual" fan at the time, I owned The Number of the Beast and Killers, but it wasn't until Seventh Son that I became a true fan. I really liked everything I'd heard previous, but Seventh Son to me made the band sound even more epic than anything previous. It was also the first of any album that I would listen to from front to back. To me, it was perfectly put together, and flowed seamlessly. It also made me go back and TRULY appreciate everything the band had done prior. I soon went out and bought Piece of Mind, Powerslave and Somewhere in Time right after hearing SSOASS. As far as the inclusion of keyboards, I didn't really miss them from previous records after hearing SSOASS, but I guess they played a part in my really appreciating Iron Maiden, because they were there. But it was everything about it, from artwork to the songs that awoke the real Iron Maiden fan in me. This album is still one of my favorites of all time, and gets played at least twice a week in my rotation.

Vincent Castiglia, metal album cover artist:
I bought Seventh Son on cassette around the time that it came out. It was groundbreaking. Iron Maiden had it all, which is why they're still tearing it up decades later. Every song was like a history lesson or something. And the music, the compositions, the solos, the ingenuity of their sound - there was no stone left unturned in their creative pursuit. Seventh Son of a Seventh Son and Somewhere In Time are actually two of my favorite Maiden albums. A lot of people, metal purists, didn't like the synths, but I loved them, and still do today.

Kris Gustofson, Trauma:
For me I really do not have a favorite Iron Maiden album. They are all brilliant. I listen to them often. All the albums Maiden recorded in the '80s and beyond are metal masterpieces. Especially in the '80s when hair metal was being ramrodded down everyone's throats from the labels at the time. The first time I heard over the radio loud and clear "Can I Play with Madness" I almost crashed my car. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. The vocals the guitar work the drumming everything STELLAR. I also wasn't to surprise to hear keyboards since the band enjoys new sounds. I thought it was really cool and done very well on the album. I remember the track "Can I Play Eith Madness" being on the radio 24-7. Every time Maiden releases a new album, it is a constant reminder of the dedication the band has to making superb music. Very inspirational. A band to look up to. Not to mention the members in the band are great guys. I had the pleasure of talking to Nicko McBrain at the 2018 Namm show in Los Angeles. He had his drum set on display at the Sonor booth. A true gentleman...

Timo Ellis, Netherlands:
I first saw Maiden in '83 at the Garden in NYC, on the Piece On Mind tour. I was 13, my mom took me. She actually snuck a camera and a cassette recorder into the show in her purse (because security didn't search her) and I was able to document the whole thing… a three-hour-plus concert! This experience was additionally memorable, as the metalhead dude standing next to my mom offered her a huge line of coke on a pocket mirror, which I'd never seen before. (She politely declined.)  Personally I appreciated the use of keys/pads on Seventh Son, as to me it seemed like they were experimenting with "goth-ier" textures and trying to stretch out a bit from their by-then well-worn songwriting style. (Kudos, for this!) For me it's a more introspective record… It took a little while for it to sink in, to really get a sense of what they were "trying to say" with it – ultimately not my overall fave (that would be Killers) but it definitely grew on me and although I missed that tour I'm sure it fu*kin crushed live! They ARE Iron Maiden, after all.

Garett Bussanick, Aeviterne:
Seventh Son of a Seventh Son exists in a strange spot among my early musical interests. I got the tape in 8th grade, at the height of my thrash metal devotion. Some perspective: a year earlier I had gotten my first Iron Maiden and Metallica tapes simultaneously, and whereas Ride the Lightning would be the springboard for much of my future musical interests, the "Flight of Icarus" single mainly collected dust. Over that intervening year I built up my thrash collection, and it was to its backdrop that I got turned on to Seventh Son. A friend owned it, and when I was over one day and heard the short run of palm muting leading into the vocals of "Moonchild" (I mean after the acoustic intro), I was intrigued. "I like palm muting, and therefore, am interested in this." So I got the album and quickly learned there wasn't much palm muting to be heard, but listening to it did feel completely acceptable to me. And it's this acceptance of Seventh Son at that time that is interesting to consider; it was not my beloved thrash metal. So why did it not collect dust? 

I think it comes down to a few related factors: It was progressive like a lot of the thrash that I liked was. It satisfied the requisite amount of evil by featuring a Bible frozen under ice on the back of my tape's U-Card. Probably most importantly, it was the album's darkness and mood that had me returning. Although "Can I Play with Madness" and the intro to "The Clairvoyant" do feel more "Run to the Hills" than dark, there's a heavy vibe running throughout (most of) the songs, both musically and lyrically. It was viewing Seventh Son through a thrash context that made it work for me. The quality (and darkness!) keeps me a fan these years later.

Joe Johnson, Necropanther:
I remember hearing Seventh Son on cassette at scout camp in '88 or '89. One of the older kids brought it. It was one of my first focused exposures to what you might call "true metal," beyond Metallica and MTV glam. Like many others, I was mesmerized by the cover art, which had the definite glimmer of evil. Maiden's clarity of vision and expression on that record is remarkable and sets the bar for any metal band that writes melody. There are no flaws whatsoever in the writing or performances. It's an unassailable monolith, a complete realization of their aesthetic.

The concept, the voices, the scope of the record is enigmatic. The music is direct, but with funky leads and progressive arrangements. It's music that they made for themselves, which is a great accomplishment for that point in their career. If you criticize the keyboards or the clean production, you're missing the point. It's easy to be obscure and messy. It's hard to have a point of view and stand for something. Maiden is focused, powerful, intelligent, dynamic, organized. They're not selling out. They're making other bands sound sloppy and weak. Every song is so memorable, they could drop any tune from Seventh Son into a set list today, and the crowd would roar. Thirty years later, that's remarkable. "The Evil that Men Do," "Seventh Son," and "The Clairvoyant" are all time favorites.

Matt Harvey, Exhumed/Gruesome:
I remember spending my allowance on Seventh Son of a Seventh Son as soon as it came out. I listened to it on my Walkman as I mowed my Dad's lawn that Saturday morning. I was immediately drawn in by the idea of a concept album, and the narrative dynamics were mirrored by the more nuanced instrumentation of the record - "Infinite Dreams" in particular seemed to be much more dynamic than the stuff on Somewhere in Time. I'm a huge fan of both of those records though, mostly because they're the albums where Adrian Smith's songwriting really comes to the fore. His sense of melody almost veers into an AOR kind of vibe, but in Maiden, he's offset by Steve Harris' distinctive and hard-driving songwriting approach. It's a perfect alchemy here, with Maiden turning in some of their best performances and a great storyline that is actually pretty fucking dark. Bruce's delivery is unapologetically theatrical which brings things to life, and in lesser hands would feel clumsy and ham-fisted. Seventh Son is the final Maiden masterpiece to me - capping off a phenomenal, perhaps unrivaled streak of "all killer, no filler" that continued unbroken from their eponymous debut to this album. Even "Can I Play With Madness" makes the cut, with a classic ever-so-'80s video featuring the late, great Graham Chapman (of Monty Python fame) and an a cappella chorus that has aged surprisingly well. I personally really dig the synths on the record, they came out from the shadows where they had been dwelling on Somewhere in Time to add a necessary layer of dynamics that bring the story to life and make it feel truly narrative. Guitar synths were everywhere in the mid-80s and this was perhaps their best use (although ZZ Top did great stuff with them as well, and Turbo has finally gotten a long-overdue re-evaluation and vindication). It seems almost redundant to praise Maiden's "classic era" at this point - like saying "water is wet," but these anniversaries are great opportunities to revisit these killer records and place them in proper context, which in the case SSOASS, is firmly in the pantheon of stone-cold heavy metal classics. 

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John Jarvis, Scour/Pig Destroyer/Agoraphobic Nosebleed:
I made a trade for this cassette with a friend when I was in the fourth grade, based on the artwork alone. I was familiar with the name "Iron Maiden" because I had a friend who could play the intro to "Wasted Years" on guitar, but I had never actually heard the band until Seventh Son. This was one of the first "concept" albums I ever owned, cool idea, great artwork, classic album!

Joshua Brettell, Ilsa:
My first exposure to Seventh Son wasn't actually with the music on the record. I was 11 years old - about three years before I started listening to music at all. I used to go to Waxie Maxie's, a record store at my local dirt mall to look at the poster rack and sneak peeks at the big posters of Samantha Fox. This is where I first saw the poster for Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, and even better, the poster for the single "Can I Play With Madness"! I used to look at them just to freak myself out. They really informed my ideas of what heavy metal art should be like. With my own drawings for Ilsa and other bands I've worked with It's always been important to ask myself if 11 year old me would be freaked out by it, like is this the kind of drawing a kid would hide from his parents? Of course later on I became familiar with the music and loved it, but I'll never forget the weird feeling that those Samantha Fo- I mean Iron Maiden posters gave me.

Jeff Irwin, Will Haven 

This record brings back a lot of memories, I was introduced to Iron Maiden from my 3 cousins who I would spend the weekends with, they were all into metal and Iron Maiden was one of their favorite bands, I remember going to their house and seeing the posters all over there walls and was captivated right away, I had heard them playing it before but might have been too young to understand it at the time, but when this record came out I was old enough to understand what they were and how amazing they are I remember my cousins rocking this record all summer and this album was our soundtrack that summer, so a lot of memories of swimming, riding BMX bikes and motorcycles and rocking this record, so this record has a special place for me and that's when I became a solidified Maiden fan. This is an awesome record and will find myself going back to it a lot just to remember the time and how much this record was a part of my life.

Drew Daniel, Matmos:
Did Iron Maiden look in the future and know that their synth-tinged concept album about predestination was going to be a lucky seven? I don't know, but there's something apt in the open-hearted gesture of Eddie on the cover, welcoming you in. "Can I Play With Madness" is the tip-off - the lyrics coil around the fear of damnation and being-towards-death, but the proggy form is, yes, playful. A great record.

Mike Vest, Bong:
I remember hearing the Seventh Son of Infinite Dreams/Killers/Still Life live 7-inch singles. It was the first 'heavy metal' cover I had even seen. Eddie crowd surfing on a motorbike?!! I was maybe 8 or 9. By the time I managed to hunt down the album at school, every single copy I ever saw was covered in the most obscene adolescent graffiti due to its clear blue cover. I have seen that cover in so many different states. I've seen Eddie doing some serious acts of hideous perversion. Also remember playing it to my dad who was a big Jimi Hendrix head. He said it reminded him of Wishbone Ash, due to the dual chorus sonic guitar solos, complicated lead/rhythm guitar melodies and expansive subject matter for the time. For me it's the most psychedelic of all the Maiden albums due to its production with keyboard/synths being used. It sounded like it was recorded at the location that is displayed on the cover, although I hadn't and would never visit such a place, the album made me feel like I had been there many times. Creating a somewhat familiar yet unknown imaginary world through sound is a real accomplishment, through tones, keys and production. I think, at the time, this album was looked at as another Iron Maiden album rather than a sonic heavy metal album for the time. It definitely melted my mind as well as my face.

Kamille Sharapodinov, The Grand Astoria, Legendary Flower Band:
It's very hard for me to come with anything about this album but the word EPIC! When I first heard it in 1999 I was already the die-hard Maiden fan, listened to the most of their catalogue (I bought the tapes saving money from school breakfasts - quite a regular story, isn't it?) and sure thing this kinda concept album got me right away! English is not my native language but even by that time I already understood how cool the lyrics were. This fantasy-driven storytelling is my thing 100 percent. I don't know any bad song from this band so I am not the best judge here but I can easily recommend this record to any Maiden newcomer. Songs like the title track, "Evil That Men Do" or "Moonchild" are just beyond amazing! DON'T MISS: Bruce's mandrake scream in the middle of "Infinite Dreams." After all these years it still sends shivers down my spine.

Stevie Floyd, Dark Castle/Taurus:
As a little kid, I remember skateboarding up to this "8 till late" to get a Jolt Cola and then two miles to this dusty, smoke record store...called Westside Records. I saw the Seventh Son album cover and bought it immediately. Back in those days there was no way to check out a record ahead of time. You just bought something because it looked evil or weird, and sometimes you got home and put it on and it was killer...and sometimes it wasn't...you just spent your allewance you worked your ass off all week for on this record for nothing. Anyway that record was the former and changed my life forever, and I knew it would the minute I heard it. In our current world of millions of metal bands, there is still nothing that sounds like that record.

Hank Williams III:
I was rockin' Iron Maiden from an early age. But for my money, "Run to the Hills" is still up there with Seventh Son for me.

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