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BRUCE DICKINSON The Mandrake Project

By Nathan Dufour, Great White North
Friday, March 1, 2024 @ 8:42 AM

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The Mandrake Project


For the last ten years, Bruce has been talking about his new solo album to anyone who would listen. Also within the same time frame, the inimitable IRON MAIDEN has released a few albums - to varying degrees of Maidenness - and still, at any and every opportunity, Bruce has been whetting the collective appetites to see what he has been cooking all this time. Oh, and it's been 19 years since the last BRUCE DICKINSON effort to bear the eponymous moniker. But, alas, if you're reading this then you know all of that. What you should know, before even pressing play, is that The Mandrake Project needs a few things from you: quality headphones or stereo equipment, undivided attention, and, in the words of the man himself - more or less - remembering that internal 15 year old who is absolutely and unequivocally fucking stoked at how Heavy Metal makes them feel. Got it? Feel it? Good, yes, let it flow through you.

One word that keeps springing to mind as I sit in deep contemplation of the work before me is gargantuan - evocative of size, yes, but also of density. A word that conjures description without the fragility of further qualifiers to diminish its scope - meaning both monster of myth and vastness of the mind's eye at once - at mere mention of the word gargantuan, the mind races to give it form. The Mandrake Project is gargantuan. There is no escape. The poison is already inside you. Dear Bruce, Roy Z, and the rest of the band: "Welcome home, it's been too long, we've missed you."

Speaking of large and in charge, can we take a minute collectively to gasp in wonder at that riff that drives lead track "Afterglow of Ragnarok"? I mean, it's bonkers, there is just no other way to describe it. What a way to set the mood. From the first verses, Bruce sounds arguably better here than he has in years, pure joy barely below the surface of his legendary timbre - in a word - fun. From the outset, The Mandrake Project is all but guaranteed to put a big dumb grin on your big dumb face. But, again, listen with good equipment because, not unexpectedly, there is a lot going on in the background here.

Oh man, hearing those awesome gated drums on "The Many Doors To Hell" along with the barn burning singalong course and the ludicrously enjoyable keys underneath the main gallop of a riff and that's it - I am just done. And the album isn't even really getting started. I mean, you'll sing along to the damn thing all day and into tomorrow and wherever eternity has yet to fail. This is all too much fun, and you know damn well that the face is coming.

"Rain On The Graves" has a riff that won't quit and the sneering ghost of Cash and Lemmy watching over its storyline. It has orchestral flourish and solos that are almost, almost MAIDEN but so much more than the militant attitude that that act demands. A standout track among standout tracks is no small feat.

Keeping up with the very nearly spaghetti western theme, why not bongos? Sure. I mean, The Mandrake Project as a whole is like a movie in your head, a loose concept of concepts, a general overarching storyline of the age old battle of battles, but goddammit if "Resurrection Men" is not an absolute trip. From the bongos to the absolutely grotesque slowdown that would make BLACK SABBATH blush to, holy flying Mary Poppins - that bass solo should come with a bit about age verification because it's straight sex in full view. It's messy, it's fun, I can't stop grinning. And then, somehow, back to the dustbowl of some abandoned ghost town that still needs law enforcement from a grizzled gent with an ungodly moustache. Is this real life or is this fantasy? Because both "Resurrection Men" and followup, the equally fantastic "Fingers In The Wounds" contain some of my favourite lyrics possibly ever. There is simply so much to unpack here, with everything about The Mandrake Project feeling both fresh and familiar, invigorating like jumping into a swimming pool - you've done it already of course, but each time is a slightly different experience. Do you feel like you've been here before?

I am confident we have all felt, in some way or form, that we have been able to sing along to a song we haven't heard before. Well, in truth, you have heard "Eternity Has Failed" before - but not in its originally intended form. And that is one weird feeling, friends, knowing a song intimately for the last almost 10 years, knowing full well it was never supposed to be an IRON MAIDEN tune but was just that good. Well, here we are, flute and all. And, it works perhaps better than the version that is most familiar. Outstanding.

And then it happens, 1997 comes screaming from the great beyond like a prayer for the dying, the main riff of "Mistress of Mercy" quite mercilessly pillaging the remains of standout track (again, among standout tracks) "Freak" from Accident of Birth. Then the chorus absolutely bores its way into your brain with no remorse, no regrets, the keys swelling in playful toying under the crushing weight of the guitar work. The whole exercise is quite haunting, truth be told.

Follow up quasi ballad "Face In The Mirror" immediately toes the line between sentimentality and brutality lyrically and, oddly enough, "Man of Sorrows" in arrangement, at least to my ears. That is, until the guitar solo - Bruce's first in fact - that is not flashy but somehow emotionally devastating all the same. Maybe it's the delicate piano accompaniment that does it or the lyrics or something else about the whole package that The Mandrake Project brings: above all joyous but not without immense depth and complexity. I don't mean to sound as though I was expecting less but at the same time, I had no idea what to expect when I picked this album up.

Remember that word gargantuan and how it immediately provokes an immediate and visceral reaction? "Shadow of The Gods" is, uhh, bigger than that. I mean, this thing is planet devouring huge, with Dickinson taking on all the voices originally meant for THE THREE TREMORS and I am literally in tears, it is such a towering and staggering achievement. I mean, the man gets as close to gravel chewing vocal fry as we have ever heard from him and the band is so hot their flames cannot be seen.

Closing out with epic (has it not all been epic?) "Sonata (Immortal Beloved)" somehow manages to tie together not only the story of the album, but also flashing bits of every mood of every song before it. Track by track breakdowns, as a rule, are something I try to stay away from personally, but in the case of The Mandrake Project I was absolutely compelled.

Not only can I not speak highly enough of the effort to anyone who will listen, I cannot begin to impress upon you how varied and complex the outing is - you really should hear it for yourself. Like all of the prior BRUCE DICKINSON material, The Mandrake Project is its own entity, both a part of and apart from its brethren within the solo line of a man who is one of the most important and legendary figures of our time. Bruce is a legend, Roy Z is a legend, the rest of the band are about to become legends.

The Mandrake Project is a must listen, top album of the year (or any year goddammit), thrilling and stupefying testament to the pure and unadulterated power of music, and of Heavy fucking Metal. Required.

5.0 Out Of 5.0

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