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Hearing The X Factor Before Killers

My first Iron Maiden album was The X Factor. (This isn’t exactly the metal lifer’s equivalent of “My name is X, and I’m a Y-aholic,” but it’s not far off.) At a time when the internet was still embryonic, there were fewer places to feel confronted by the necessity of having the “right” opinions, which meant that more learning took place individually. You might go to a record store, see something that looked neat, and take a gamble.

My interest in this article is in those gambles that yielded exceptionally weird pay-outs. I imagine that plenty of you out there have had similar experiences, whereby you unwittingly took the first step into a long-running band’s universe with what seemed to many at the time like a baffling left-turn, or at least an extremely non-representative portrait of the band. So I’m curious: How does such an experience shape one’s perceptions of the rest of the band’s music?

A few caveats: Some bands are more or less immediately exempted from the conversation. Bands like Boris or Ulver, for example, are mostly disqualified, because neither band has stayed still long enough to have a representative sound. On the other end of that equation, bands like Bolt Thrower or Motörhead have probably never strayed from their chosen path far enough to produce a real outlier of an album.

So, back to Iron Maiden. As an eager adolescent scraping odds and ends to stuff my parents’ mailbox with the most random of randoms from the BMG music club, I ordered The X Factor with absolutely zero preconceptions. It was dark and dense and meandering and overlong, but I loved it. Most importantly, though, I didn’t have anything to contrast it with. The X Factor “was” Iron Maiden to me. Given that my inaugural Iron Maiden experience (other than probably hearing “Run to the Hills” in passing on the radio) was “The Sign of the Cross,” it became more difficult to trawl back to the comparatively raw punk attitude of the two Di’Anno albums.

Of course, as my metal fandom increased over the years and my desire to stuff myself full of its history grew accordingly, it was easy to situate the album, and to understand its contentious place in Iron Maiden’s catalog. (Point in retrospect, though: those last two ’90s albums with Dickinson are pretty pretty bad.) But then, eventually, doesn’t that just become a form of submission to milquetoast consensus? Shouldn’t we want to preserve some remnant of these idiosyncratic encounters?

A few other (less dramatic examples) are suggestive. My first encounter with Neurosis was the Sovereign EP, bought on a completely blind whim. While that’s hardly a shift in sound as drastic as going from Bruce Dickinson to Blaze Bayley, I think in retrospect that the EP format simply does not do Neurosis justice. Of course, at the time I acquired it, I was altogether too impatient for the slow build and spoken word of “Prayer.” Because the playing time is so abbreviated, the pacing feels occasionally forced, as if the band was trying to shoehorn the dynamics of a sixty-plus minute album into barely half the time. It wasn’t until hearing “Locust Star” on one of Relapse’s Contaminated compilations that Neurosis really blew my doors off.

One last example: My first Faith No More album was Album of the Year. Although it doesn’t represent a massive shift for the band, it’s also a hell of a distance from the colossal weirdness of the crooning, avant-funk metal collisions on The Real Thing and Angel Dust. It’s the sound of the band getting even further smoothed out and pop-oriented, but the reason that hearing it first made it difficult for me to parse the remainder of the band’s work is that Album of the Year feels so much of its time. The weirdly soulful electronic songs (“Stripsearch,” “Last Cup of Sorrow,” “Paths of Glory,” etc.) felt very much of a piece with the burgeoning post-grunge landscape, while the more jittery material (“Got That Feeling” and “Mouth to Mouth”) seemed an easy precursor to equally divisive acts like System of a Down. Approaching such a singular band at a time when they didn’t feel quite so singular has repercussions.

Ultimately, this might just be a bit of a bum pitch for nostalgia, but I still wonder if these types of random encounters are increasingly rare with the ease of access afforded by the internet’s wealth of information. At the time I was getting into these albums, I was young, didn’t have any friends who were into metal beyond Metallica, and, most importantly, didn’t have a global electronic opinion bazaar to plug into. In retrospect, I certainly could have been reading metal magazines or exploring rudimentary internet message boards, but sweet mercy am I glad I didn’t wander into a NWN or FMP-styled message board as a 13-year old.

By contrast, if you’re a relatively savvy 13-year old today, and someone suggests that you might like Iron Maiden, you can take a quick five minutes to read a few career overviews, maybe head to Metal-Archives and see which albums are most highly rated, and then take a spin of the band’s entire damn catalog through Spotify (or less above-board methods). On the whole, of course, that’s good. But where that leads to problems is where it suggests an ironclad consensus. “Oh no, don’t listen to The X Factor, it’s warmed-over dogshit. Oh no, everything that sounds like Pantera is garbage. Oh, shucks, anything Mayhem did after Deathcrush is like kissing your sister.” For as iconoclastic an art form as heavy metal likes to envision itself, there are cunning straightjackets of thought draped over nearly every chair. We need to be careful where we take our seats; the best musical education is the one you craft for yourself.

But I want to hear from you if you’ve had any similar experiences. Was Cold Lake your first Celtic Frost album? Was Pink Bubbles Go Ape your first Helloween album? Was Born Again (or — gulp! — Thirteen) your first Black Sabbath album? Was Reinkaos your first Dissection album? If so, did encountering those bands at widely derided (or at least atypical) periods shape the way you heard the rest of their music?

(But seriously, please don’t listen to Virtual XI. It IS warmed-over dogshit.)

— Dan Lawrence

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