Well, boys and girls, we've finally reached it. 155 songs later, and we've finally arrived at the pinnacle of human creativity, imagination, and artistry - an 18 minute song about a dirigible created by a man suffering from cancer and straining to hit notes, brought to life via a simple piano, a stolen riff, repetitive pieces, and faux orchestration. When it's phrased like that, it suddenly becomes hard to see why this song is so popular, but then, that statement would be selling "Empire of the Clouds" short.
"Empire" begins the most different way possible - piano. A simple piece of piano opens the epic song up, but its simplicity is what makes it so effective. It's surprisingly emotional, painting a picture better than a thousand words could, and as it slowly builds up on itself, it only gets better. I dare you not to start tearing up - I certainly can't. The whole thing last for two minutes before anything really happens and already it's just so good
. And then Bruce comes in...
To ride the storm, to an empire of the clouds
To ride the storm, they climbed aboard their silver ghost
To ride the storm, to a kingdom that will come
To ride the storm, and damn the rest, oblivion
It's the perfect prologue to what's to come. The opening lines bring forth imagery which only grows with the next stanza:
Royalty and dignitaries, brandy and cigars
Grey lady giant of the skies, you hold them in your arms
The millionth chance they laughed, to take down his majesty's craft
To India they say, magic carpet float away
An October fateful day...
These are some incredibly vivid scenes spun before the listener's eyes. You can see all the people as described, laughing and joking about the maiden voyage of the zeppelin, not yet aware of all that will soon take place.
Mist is in the trees, stone sweats with the dew
The morning sunrise, red before the blue
Hanging at the mast, waiting for command
His majesty's airship, the R101...
And there she is, the "grey lady giant of the skies" herself. Awaiting her time to shine. But watch closely here - "red before the blue" is more sinister than you may at first suspect if you glance over it. "Red sky at night, sailor's delight - red sky at morning, sailors take warning." But who has time for that when we've got the biggest aircraft ever built on our hands? Indeed:
She's the biggest vessel built by man, a giant of the skies
For all you unbelievers, the Titanic fits inside
Drum roll tight, her canvas skin, silvered in the sun
Never tested with the fury, with the beating yet to come
The fury yet to come...
This thing is huge. It's massive. It's impressive. It's a symbol of British might and power. Yet again, no one is ready for all that will come.
In the gathering gloom, the storm rising in the west
The coxswain stared into the plunging weather glass
"We must go now, we must take our chance with fate.
We must go now, for a politician, he can't be late!"
This scene almost reminds me a bit of the tunnel disaster in Atlas Shrugged
, where all the warnings have been given but "a politician, he can't be late!" Yes, it's a stretch. Still, they knew of all that could go wrong but were under great pressure to push forward. Meanwhile...
The airship crew, awake for thirty hours at full stretch
But the ship is in their backbone, every sinew, every inch
She never flew at full speed, a trial never done
Her fragile outer cover, her Achilles would become
An Achilles yet to come...
The men aboard the airships were a staunch and ready crew, but the ship itself could often be its undoing. Conditions had to be just right for things to go perfectly, and oftentimes if the wind got too strong, the thing could be tossed up and down like a balloon. On occasion, an airship could survive that, but usually it ended in disaster.
Sailors of the sky, a hardened breed
Loyal to the king and an airship creed
The engines drum, the telegraph sounds
Release the cords that bind us to the ground!
Said the coxswain, "Sir, she's heavy; she'll never make this flight."
Said the captain, "Damn the cargo! We'll be on our way tonight!"
Groundlings cheered in wonder as she backed up from the mast
Baptizing them her water from the ballast fore and aft
Now she slips into our past...
More incredibly vivid scenes from Bruce as we watch the R101 launch and sail away into the distance. The opening piano piece returns again, only this time on guitar, before we suddenly reach a piece tapping out the SOS signal in musical form. This moves through and builds on itself until it changes into a fairly bright piece to show the ship sailing along, but in the distance the cloud is ever growing. The SOS bit returns quickly and moves into another piece as we see the storm cloud overtaking the ship, before the SOS bit returns again and ushers in a riff taken blatantly from "The Legacy"... but it shockingly works even better, showing the ship starting to lose itself in the flurry.
Suddenly the song gets faster as we see the ship being tossed and turned in the wind, before we return to "The Legacy" riff and get a great solo from it. Then the heaviness returns, this time with Bruce's vocals:
Fighting the wind as it rolls you
Feeling the diesels that push you along
Watching the channel below you
Lower and lower into the night
Lights are passing below you
Northern France asleep in their beds
Storm is raging around you
A million to one, that's what he said
The ship is being conquered by the storm. Another piece leads us into the next verse.
Reaper standing beside her
With his scythe cuts to the bone
Panic to make a decision
Experienced men asleep in their graves
Her cover is ripped and she's drowning
Rain is flooding into the hull
Bleeding to death and she's falling
Lifting gas is draining away
Oh my god, what imagery is presented in these lyrics! Such utter poetry, showing the tragic death of the airship and all those aboard her. The song changes-up in a simple but effective piece signifying the crash, before Bruce returns with:
"We're down, lads!" came the cry, bow plunging from the sky
Three thousand horses silent as the ship began to die
The flares to guide her path, ignited at the last
The Empire of the Clouds, just ashes in our past
Just ashes at the last...
The opening piano bit returns again and builds into a rushing climax:
Here lie their dreams as I stand in the sun
Over grounds where they built, and the engines did run
To the moon and the stars, now what have we done?
Oh the dreamers may die, but the dream live on!
Such passion. The culmination of all we've been building up to. Utter perfection. And then, as an epilogue:
Now a shadow on a hill, the angel of the east
The Empire of the Clouds may rest in peace
And in a country churchyard, laid head to the mast
Eight and forty souls, who came to die in France...
What can I possibly say about this song that can properly express how much I love it? What "Paschendale" is to LooseCannon, what "Rime" is to Foro and Number 6, and what "Hallowed" is to so many fans of Iron Maiden, so to is "Empire" to me - a work of art that transcends music as a whole and is, for lack of a better word, perfection. It's the culmination of a career that, despite its ups and downs, is still as strong today as it was back in the day, if not more so.
I'd love to give this song higher than a ten if I could, because it deserves it. I don't know how Maiden could possibly top this song, but I'd love to see them try. 10