Iron Maiden released their second album, Killers, on This Day In Metal – 2nd February 1981. With over 40 years now passed since then, it would be easy to think the album could sound dated or be weakened by time, but it’s one of a handful of metal albums from that era that still packs a massive punch and continues to win over new listeners.
My own voyage of Iron Maiden discovery began some years after Killers, with 1985’s Live After Death. As a youngster who liked the more melodic Dickinson-era sound, I was drawn to the soaring epics of the Powerslave era and the futuristic prog-metal of Somewhere In Time. The first two albums – with Paul Di’Anno on vocals – left me mostly quite cold. They were rougher and tougher and altogether a little too savage for my burgeoning metal tastes. Of course, as time went on, my brain got warped, my metal got heavier and now I find these two records are the ones I find myself revisiting the most – and every time, they sound even better.
That said, Killers isn’t necessarily an easy or instant listen. It fits all the stereotypes of a “difficult second album”. Maiden’s self-titled debut was a triumph for them. Many years of concerts and demos and plugging away at anything and everything had finally paid off. The LP was such a bold statement of intent, it spearheaded an entire movement of new heavy music. For their diehard fans, Iron Maiden were more than a band, they were a lifestyle, but they also reached far beyond the subculture. Their debut bothered the upper reaches of the UK albums chart, yielded two Top 40 singles and landed Maiden an appearance on the prestigious (and otherwise very lightweight) Top of the Pops TV show. How to follow something that was so popular with critics, metalheads and the general public alike was a tough brief, especially for such a young band.
To make it worse, behind the scenes, there was substantial turmoil. Guitarist Dennis Stratton had been fired (as legend has it, because his music tastes were too soft! He listened to The Eagles and had to go!) and was replaced with a far heavier player, Adrian Smith. Singer Paul Di’Anno was not coping well with either the band’s newfound success or their musical direction and was allegedly struggling with substance abuse issues too. The band’s touring schedule was exhausting and, between juggling that and the personnel disputes, band leader and (then) main songwriter Steve Harris had little time to create material for a new record. There was label pressure to capitalise on the first album’s success so Killers was largely cobbled together from songs that already existed in Maiden’s live repetoire and could arguably be seen as ones that didn’t make the cut for the first album… cast-offs and misfit tracks.
This doesn’t sound like a recipe for a classic and yet, somehow, the chaos all came together to something form something spectacular. Bringing things under control a little was legendary producer Martin Birch, who’d sat behind the mixer for many of the key proto-metal groups of the 70s (Deep Purple, Rainbow, Blue Oyster Cult, etc). Maiden themselves, still young and new to the studio, were in awe of Birch and let him take charge. This strange combination of terrified youngsters and a veteran sympathetic to their vision worked so well that Birch wound up producing all of Maiden’s studio albums up until 1992’s Fear of the Dark, so his contribution to Killers can’t be underestimated.
However, the songs would probably speak for themselves even if they were recorded in a toilet, by an enthusiastic goat, with a mic made of potatoes and tins. Several of them are still regarded as undisputed metal classics to this day. A song like Wrathchild, with its unmistakable riffing and no-nonsense chorus, has been covered by everyone from Ensiferum to Stuck Mojo and Devin Townsend to Six Feet Under. It’s an huge, huge anthem. As is Murders In The Rue Morgue (one of just two songs to be written specifically for Killers), a gruesome Poe tribute with a snaking riff and some of Di’Anno’s most threatening snarls. Likewise, the title track is maybe the most brutal and sinister track Maiden recorded, like an ultra-dark sequel to the comparatively cheeky Prowler from the first album. Lead single, Purgatory, is still one of my very favourite Maiden tracks – it rips along at breakneck speed, faster and harder than almost anything at the time, culminating in some of Di’Anno’s most intense and expressive vocals.
Of course, Purgatory’s falsetto sections (and its cover art) arguably hint at what’s coming next – the firing of Di’Anno and the addition of Bruce Dickinson for Maiden’s breakthrough album, Number of the Beast. While it would be hard to argue that Killers is a “better” album (Number of the Beast is rightfully regarded as one of the greatest metal albums of all-time) it does have a lot going for it that Beast doesn’t…
Perhaps the problems the band were experiencing at the time help lend it an edge of genuine tension. There’s a dark and jittery energy to Killers that’s represented perfectly by its beautifully macabre Derek Riggs cover art. Killers has the vibe of a record that’s spinning somewhere in a grotty east end bedsit, well after midnight, somewhere in the middle of a long dark night of the soul, illuminated only by a single hanging lightbulb. Probably one with bloodstains on it. Even its sort-of ballad, Prodigal Son, has this edgy insomniac haze to it. There’s a grit and a nastiness through all of Killers’s mixed-up cast-off songs that really only lets up for the comparatively gentle Deep Purple-esque gallop of the closing track, Drifter (Maiden’s only song to contain the word “cuddle”, I believe?), a necessary exhalation after breathing in all the horror that comes before it.
Put into the context of modern metal, it’s obviously a lot less sonically extreme but Killers still feels like something that would upset huge swathes of “decent society” and that’s metal as fuck. There’s a very ‘real’ sound here, one that directly feeds the outsider appetite of metalheads and makes others feel uncomfortable. Whatever anxiety and anger the band were feeling is captured perfectly by Martin Birch and preserved in the annals of metal history.
While this difficult period for Maiden is maybe not fondly remembered by the band themselves, Killers has remained a fan favourite for four decades and counting. Perhaps it’s because it channels all these negative emotions so well, turning personal stresses into these songs of (primarily) death and despair. Perhaps the fact that most of them didn’t make the first album gave the songs their own kind of dejected hunger. These are all universal themes that never grow old and Killers wrestles them into a one rough and ready metal classic.