Turn Off Shuffle:
Concept Albums Explained

by Paul-Newell Reaves

Somewhere In Time
Iron Maiden

Iron Maiden gets my vote for the most evil rock’n’roll band in all of history.  

Their band name comes from the 18th-century instrument of torture, wherein a person is encased in a metal shell, but the insides are lined by sharp spikes– now that’s evil.  The band’s live performances feature actual sword fighting with giants– freakin’ cool type of evil.  Then their mascot, dubbed Eddie the Head, is a crazed zombie who appears on every single one of their album covers– that’s a scary level of evil, an omnipresent crazed zombie.  Then their sound, it’s kind of like Glam Rock– which is already evil in a vile way– but Iron Maiden is evil Glam Rock– making it evil^evil (evil to the power of evil).

Their “Somewhere In Time” album– released in the middle of a trio of albums which some fans consider their best work, though many fans consider their sell-out point, “Powerslave”, before, and “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son”, after  – is some sort of weird, wild, and very, very evil time-travel machine.  

But this time machine clearly isn’t functioning correctly, because it bounces us around, not only in chronological time, but also between different understandings of what time is, and what the word time means.  In fifty minutes it takes us from Alexander the Great to a fictional book published in 1959, from having time to spare, then to aging, then the moment of death, and finally to repeating time entirely.  Weird.  Wild.  Evil.

With that in mind, as we probe this concept album for meaning– lyric-by-lyric, one at a time– let’s examine the tracks not in some so-called chronological order, but in a mixed-up order of my own divination.  Grrreeekvrrrooom [evil noise of time travel machine turning on].

Track three, “Sea of Madness”, doesn’t have any overt references to time or time travel, but I argue that these lyrics expose the inner workings of time travel, the operating method of the time machine.  It functions by driving you Mad.

And this is clearly Madness with a capital M, madness used in a swaggering, braggadocio sense– not only is Madness something for us to boast about, but something we want in greater and greater amounts–our goal is to be more mad than anyone else.  Oh, so you think you’re mad, do you? an Iron Maiden fan might say, ‘Well, I’m immersed in a Sea of Madness.

In the bridge section, there are lyrics of note, advancing this swaggering madness: “the sun don’t shine on the sea of madness.  There ain’t no wind to fill your sails.  Madness, when all you see can only bring you sadness.  On towards the sea we go”.  Eternal darkness, only sadness– these are conditions often associated with madness– however, the true braggadocio, the real swagger of this madness, is the absence of wind to fill the sails– there is no way out of these horse latitudes, no escape from this sea, a sea which is composed entirely of Madness.

Yet there is something going on in this song beyond mere posturing, there are a number of lyrics relating to sight.  The chorus, every pre-chorus, and the bridge all contain references to sight.  The pre-chorus contains this line: “my eyes they see but I can’t believe”– inability to believe what you see, that could be understood as hallucination– while the chorus and the bridge go thusly, “when all you see can only bring you sadness”– yes, that sounds like depression.

The second verse is the only verse to contain notions of sight–  unifying the above lines and giving them meaning.  “You got to hope when you are falling to find the world that you have seen”, followed immediately by the pre-chorus, “My eyes they see but I can’t believe”.  Hope.  You’ve got to hope.  But in the Mad mechanism of this evil time machine named “Somewhere In Time”, you can’t believe in the world you are hoping for.

The repetition and return of these lines act to perpetuate the endless waves of this sea, this sea which, lest you forget, is composed entirely of madness.

How about we skip to track six, “Stranger in a Strange Land”.  The first verse opens with these lines, “was many years ago that I left home and came this way,  I was a young man, full of hopes and dreams.  But now it seems to me that all is lost and nothing gained.”  In the spirit of skipping about, let’s skip the second verse and go straight to the chorus: “Stranger in a strange land, land of ice and snow, trapped inside this prison, yeah, lost and far from home”.  We have established a character, a voyager, and this character, over time, has lost his hopes and dreams.  Here it gets interesting.  

Ever read the Icelandic Epic “Saga of Njáls” from the 1200s?  I recommend it, ‘cause it’s super metal– blood feuds, Vikings, vengeance.  And, wait for it– the earliest translation into English contains this epigraph: “Nothing Ventured; Nothing Have”.  I think that’s a lot like the all is lost and nothing gained lyric, above, and the reference would definitely fit the song.  

Wait, wait– if you think that’s a stretch, consider the lyrics of the pre-chorus: “No brave new world.”  Maybe when you think of that phrase, you think of the Adulphous Huxley dystopian novel of that name, or maybe you think about Iron Maiden’s 2000 release by that name, but it’s also a line from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, “O brave new world, that has such people in’t?”  But this Iron Maiden line is no brave new world, and as the song develops, our character– lost, far from home– will freeze in the ice, not to be found for 100 years.  There are no people in’t. Also a stretch. But it also fits the song. It doesn’t matter if these references are intentional, for the lyrics are open for us, the listeners, to read-into, and far beyond the control of their creator– most Madly so, most Madly beyond Iron Maiden’s control.

Whatever you read out of those quotations in an Iron Maiden song, they at least open up the possibility of a journey across textual references– from the ice and snow of 13th-century Iceland to Black Plague-era 17th-century England, and the industrial wasteland of early-20th century London.

The final verse then contains another type of time: “one hundred years have gone, and men again they came that way to find the answer to the mystery.  They found his body lying where it fell on that day preserved in time”.  Preserved in time would mean frozen in ice, a body that has not fully decomposed.

On that sinister note, let’s head to the first track, “Caught Somewhere In Time”, where we are in the hands of something evil, indeed.  Picking and choosing from different sections of the song, we have, “can I tempt you, come with me… Don’t be afraid, you’re safe with me, safe as any soul can be… You’ve only got your soul to lose– eternally”.  

And what does this sinister tempter have to say about time? Only this, “time is always on my side”, implying that no matter how much you resist temptation, no matter how safe you might seem, you will lose your eternal soul– it’s only a matter of time.

The song ruminates on other meanings of what the word time means, as well.  In the first verse, “if you had the time to lose, an open mind and time to choose”.  Time to lose would mean the same as time to waste, or time on your hands, while time to choose would mean enough time to make a choice. 

So, “Caught Somewhere In Time” is the title track of the album– but only sort of, because the album is named “Somewhere In Time”.  Since Somewhere in Time is the larger project, then the eponymous track, and by extension the rest of the songs on the album, are caught in time.  Each track is a moment, a moment in the larger album.  With that in mind, let’s journey from this, the first track on the album, the first place where we are caught in time, to the very last track.

“Alexander the Great”, the final track, is mostly a history lesson– not an overly evil one, but definitely super metal.  

For it’s a tale of conquest, a tale of defeating the same foe over and over, a tale where a 19-year-old boy becomes a king, then a god, to only then die like all other mortals.

There are a lot of instrumental sections in this song– very long ones– and after the longest of these, the lyrics relating to the “Gordian knot” occur– a mythology explained quite simply in the song: “legend said that who untied the knot, he would become the master of Asia”.  Alexander cannot unhitch the knot, so slices it apart with his sword. It becomes the crux of the song, as well as the legend– if you cannot free it with the mind, then take it with the sword. Probably the evilest part of the album.

Yet, as the tale continues, “the battle-weary marching side by side, Alexander’s army line by line, they wouldn’t follow him to India”.  Alexander the Great is now prophecied to become Master of Asia, and on his own strength he would be, but his weakness is in his own armies, his comrades in arms, who grow battle-weary, grow weak, and can’t continue.

At this point, historically, Alexander’s kingdom stretched to the Amu Darya river in Afghanistan and the Indus river south of Pakistan.  I guess that counts as ruling Asia Minor, but doesn’t really make him the Master of Asia.  Iron Maiden doesn’t focus on that last bit too much, but they definitely stress the part about his own armies defeating him.

The final lines of the final chorus of the final song on the album, “Somewhere in Time” say this, “Alexander the Great, his name struck fear into hearts of men.  Alexander the Great, he died of fever in Babylon”.  For a song with so many lengthy instrumentals, the instrumental outro following this death by fever is short, under thirty seconds.  The band emphasizes that even a man who strikes fear in the hearts of men will die, ingloriously, and mortal.

Another moment caught in time– this one in the late 1950s– “The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner” is a direct reference to the Young Adult short story by Alan Sillitoe– included in his collection released in 1959.  It is a story of a disenfranchised youth who takes to cross-country running as an escape.

The principle statement of the song, and of the story, appears in the third and final verse: “Run over stiles, across fields, turn to look at who’s on your heels.  Way ahead of the field, the line is getting nearer, but do you want the glory that goes?  You reach the final stretch, ideals are just a trace.  You feel like throwing the race– It’s all so futile!”  All the running that this youth does is not about victory, it’s not about ideals.  This running is about escape from working-class reality. So screw the race, screw winning– it’s all futile, anyway.

Iron Maiden’s fan base– in the 1980s– was mostly young kids, mostly male kids, so stories like this one would directly appeal to them. Rock music, especially metal, was an escape from the difficulties of youth, whether for 50 minutes of an album, or an hour-and-a-half concert.

Let’s venture back to the second track, “Wasted Years”, where we are vaguely ruminating about what time is, and what time can do.  The song doesn’t have a great deal to say, exactly, but it’s murkily about the passing of time across human lives– what the human body experiences as aging.  The chorus goes, “Don’t waste your time always searching for those wasted years… realize you’re living in the golden years”.  First, it establishes time as something we can waste.  Next, it refers to the  Golden Years, years when Western culture deems you should have enough money to retire– namely, old age.  However, Iron Maiden was a band thoroughly entrenched in Youth Culture, and old age was the opposite of what these young metalheads wanted.  The Wasted Years are desired, and everyone else is old and lame.

“Heaven Can Wait”, the fourth track in the album, firmly cements the evilness of the album, while addressing simultaneously two separate aspects of time– the delaying and postponing across time that humans experience as waiting, and the moment of death, referred to in this song as my “time has come”.  

The song begins with a dream that cannot be believed.  “This isn’t real, this is only a dream… I’m looking down on my body below, I lie asleep in the midst of a dream… could it be that the angel of death has come for me?”  The dream is of bodily discorporation, a dream of the soul floating away from the body, stolen by the angel of death. However, the next lyric followed by the chorus makes the dream, and along with it the song, evil: “it’s my soul and I’m not gonna let it get away. Heaven can wait.” This character– lost somewhere in time, bouncing between different understandings of what time is, trapped in a weird, wild, evil time machine– appears to be more powerful than death itself.

“Deja-Vu” is the second to last song on the “Somewhere in Time” album, and it restarts time, itself– as well as restarting the album– all over again.  The pre-chorus says it all: “’Cause you know this has happened before, and you know that this moment in time is for real, and you know when you feel, deja-vu”.  The best way to define déjà vu is through the etymology of the word: it comes from two French words, meaning already and seen.  Pretty simple, defining it that way.  But the point is that time itself is repeating, we are no longer caught in time, we are cycling repeatedly and unendingly through it.

There is a related word: déjà entendu.  The next time you listen to this “Somewhere in Time” album, you will most certainly experience déjà entendu.

More Concept Albums Explained,
including The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,
and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61, Revisited

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