Cast your minds back to a time when metal music was not cool. Nay, indeed, a time when metal was anathema to all that was considered to be “chic” and “in.” A time when your favorite bands were actually encouraged by the music industry to play slower, cut their hair, and write sensitive lyrics about their childhoods. Yes, this unfortunately really happened.

Our new semi-irregular feature “90s Metal Weirdness” focuses on albums released between 1992 and 2001 and which we all probably would rather forget. But in the service of publicly shaming the musicians involved, we have pushed forward. — AMG

BRUCE DICKINSON: Skunkworks (1996)

Bruce-Dickinson - Skunkworks 01The Back Story: Skunkworks‘ origin story is fairly convoluted, but the short version is this: Ex-Iron Maiden vocalist Bruce Dickinson found himself in need of a backing band for a tour, and enlisted guitarist Alex Dickson, bassist Chris Dale and drummer Alessandro Elena. The four of them completed said tour and began writing new material, at which point Dickinson suddenly decided they were collectively a new band named Skunkworks. Of course, his record label refused to put out an an album that did not have Dickinson’s name on the cover. Hence, the project became a Bruce Dickinson solo album named Skunkworks.

What Does It Sound Like: This album has often been viewed as Dickinson’s attempt at grunge rock, and the enlisting of producer Jack Endino (Nirvana, Soundgarden) certainly sounded suspect at the time. (Many years later, High On Fire and Toxic Holocaust would both put Endino’s skills to use and emerge with metal cred intact). Dickson brings a serious Alex Lifeson (Rush) vibe to the guitar work, more focused on textures and riffs than on soloing, although he’s pretty handy at that too. Having only one guitarist was an inspired move, since it allowed Dickson to spread out sonically, and also minimized any comparison to Iron Maiden‘s dual-guitar attack. Dale and Alessandro provide an appropriately solid backbone to the songs, holding things down without ever hogging the spotlight. Endino’s production gives the rhythm section that 1990’s punch that I never get tired of, even if everyone else has.  Dickinson himself is in fine form vocally, raw-sounding yet powerful as ever. He’s positively seething on “Faith” and “Headswitch,” and refreshingly human on “Solar Confinement.” It’s like he simply woke up in the morning, drank a cup of coffee, and belted out these songs.

Are There Any Songs About Molestation? While this album would’ve been a golden opportunity to sing about getting molested, Dickinson went a different route. While not a concept album exactly, Skunkworks has several tracks that explore space travel and worlds beyond our own (opener “Space Race” comes to mind). There are some more personal lyrics as well, although even these are literate and intellectual in true Dickinson fashion. The highlight might be the surreal “Strange Death In Paradise,” which is practically a Dali painting in song form.

Stupid Political Lyrics? I’d like to remind you that, at the same time Skunkworks was released, Mr. Dickinson’s former band released a song based on that movie where Michael Douglas goes nuts and kills everyone.

Is There Any Rapping On The Album? No, although through Spotify I discovered a bonus track called “I’m In A Band With An Italian Drummer,” which is sort of a weird rap-polka thing.

Were Haircuts Involved? In 1995, Bruce walked into a barber shop and handed the barber a photo of Edward Furlong circa Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Further solidifying his status as the coolest guy ever, Dickinson explains his haircut in this video clip, diffusing the situation with humor and valuable insight.

Bruce-Dickinson - Skunkworks 02

How Bad Was It Really? From sword fighting to writing novels, Dickinson has excelled at every goddamn thing he’s ever done in his life, and Skunkworks is no exception. Yes, it has too many songs (just like every other record from the ’90s), and it’s less blatantly “metal” than Maiden or his later solo stuff. But it also has a real sense of urgency, with Bruce sounding more genuine and more invested in the material than most things he’s done. I’m undoubtedly in the minority here, but I think Skunkworks kicks the shit out of all his solo records except for The Chemical Wedding.

The Aftermath: Most articles about Skunkworks state that the band simply “fell apart” after touring this album. Dickinson himself offers a less passive-aggressive version: “Skunkworks was a record which I tore myself apart to make and nobody seemed to give a shit.” I think it’s safe to say that record sales played a role in the band’s demise.

The three guys who weren’t Bruce Dickinson resurfaced as Sack Trick a few years later (woo hoo). Dickinson, meanwhile, reconnected with writing partner Roy Z. and got his career back on track with the more traditional Accident Of Birth. He also rejoined Iron Maiden in 2003. He will probably cure cancer and bring peace to the Middle East at some point.

It’s worth noting that in the ensuing decades, Dickinson has treated Skunkworks with a certain amount of reverence. He hasn’t played any of the material on later tours, and none of it ended up on his best-of collection. I’m sure some of that is due to the underwhelming response the album received. But it also reaffirms Bruce’s original intention for Skunkworks to be a separate entity from his solo band. Intentions aside, Skunkworks is a unique entry in Bruce Dickinson’s long career, vastly different from anything he’s done before or since.

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  • xul

    Minor quibble, but Bruce rejoined Maiden in 1999, not 2003. That aside, it’s nice to see some appreciation for an album that generally gets shit on. Accident of Birth and Chemical Wedding were both far superior, but Skunkworks was an intriguing album.

    • tomasjacobi

      You’re right. In 2003 Iron Maiden had done several tours with Dickinson and they released “Dance of Death”, the 2nd album after the re-union with Dickinson/Smith.

      • Fisting_Andrew_Golota

        Alright, alright, we screwed up!

        • Carlos Marrickvillian

          Steal the glory, share the blame…could be a maiden tune

  • Bought this album when it came out, have always enjoyed it. Solar Confinement is my favourite track – I think the vocal melody shares some similarity with Queensryche’s Empire.

    I have Bruce’s 2CD best of and it has Back From the Edge from Skunkworks on it.

    • Fisting_Andrew_Golota

      Apparently there are some gaping holes in my research for this article. Interesting call on the “Empire” thing as well — I definitely hear what you’re talking about.

  • Jukka Alanen

    Definitely a worthy platter. The live dvd from this era is also worth to check out.

  • BaboonKing

    Great review. I agree on all points, although I would rate Accident of Birth above Skunkworks. Still, a very fun listen, showcasing another side of Bruce while still delivering plenty of interesting and enjoyable songs and vocal work (the end of Strange Death in Paradise gives me the chils every time). Sadly, it was panned by the stupid “but it’s not metal!” brigade.

  • RilesBell

    Skunkworks is certainly the Darkhorse of his solo career. I find myself frequently coming back to this album along with Chemical Wedding and Tyranny of Souls. Really impressive songwriting and his voice is as clear as ever. I read last year he was recording new material for his next solo album. Has anyone heard anything about it recently?

  • As ever these articles are making me feel very old. 1996? I still think of this as a recent album. (everything after Seventh Son is a recent record to me).

  • tomasjacobi

    This is definitely a cool record even though his subsequent albums are even better. Especially “Chemical Wedding” which to me is hands down the best metal album from the 90’s.
    I like the Maiden albums he did after rejoining, but they don’t come close to the splendor of “Chemical Wedding”

    • Fisting_Andrew_Golota

      “Chemical Wedding” was a damn near flawless victory for Bruce & co.

    • I love that album with a burning passion. Strong affection for Accident of Birth too.

      • tomasjacobi

        “Accident…” is also great, but “The Chemical Wedding” is the album I would take to that Island that people always talk about taking stuff to.

        • Cuba?

          • tomasjacobi

            Aren’t they godless communists?

  • Steve

    Sits about the middle of his discography. Very misunderstood album and it’s way better than his previous two albums or any of Maiden’s 90’s output.

  • Grymm

    I must admit that I’ve yet to hear a single note of this record, and I’m a huge Maiden fan.

    I must rectify this.

  • Jeff Kent

    I love this record. Of all the Sanctuary reissues, this one fares the best with the remastering process.

  • Wilhelm

    “Skunkworks kicks the shit out of all his solo records except for The Chemical Wedding.”

    C’mon, Accident of Birth was clearly his best solo effort, even though Chemical Wedding was amazing. Quibbling aside, Skunkworks is a cool album, more like heavy alternative but solid songwriting and more adventurous than say, the last Maiden disc.

    • Fisting_Andrew_Golota

      Accident Of Birth had the element of surprise on its side, but Chemical Wedding is easily a better album overall, IMO.

  • sickbroski

    D-FENS doesn’t go on a killing spree at all.

    • Fisting_Andrew_Golota

      I’m glad SOMEONE got the reference.

  • Carlos Marrickvillian

    The 90s was definitely a very strange time during which I completely missed this.
    Faith seems a neat tune, though I just can’t help it when I hear Dickinson’s vocals. I want a galloping drum beat, melodic bass and OTT guitars in a larger than life song about Pharos battling Napoleon in some kind of time space continuum disaster…

  • Majara

    Very much liked the different approach that Mr Dickinson took with this album. In many ways it was a good bridge between the more dated sounds of his first 2 solo outings and the more sold sounding later albums. Back from the Edge is one of my favourite songs to have Bruce’s voice on it.

  • Ralph Plug

    But Skunkworks really does kick the shit out of all his solo stuff except for The Chemical Wedding. Criminally underrated album, unfairly maligned mostly because it’s not full-on metal.

    And Bruce rejoined Maiden in ’99.

  • dritt

    Better than Maiden worse than Soundgarden.

  • André Snyde Lopes

    “I discovered a bonus track called “I’m In A Band With An Italian Drummer,” which is sort of a weird rap-polka thing.”

    Must. Listen.

    • Tofu muncher

      upvote for a mere mention of the man Zappa.

  • This sounds a lot better than I remember first time around and deserves a more considered listen all the way through.

    That said, The Chemical Wedding is still his best solo album. As tomasjacobi said, tCW is one of the best metal albums of the 90s and still a damn sight better than anything Maiden have put out since reforming.

  • Phil Daly

    Can recall an interview where Dickinson talks about his motivation for this being along the lines of David Bowie’s with Tin Machine, concluding “It didn’t work for him either”. Not an album I’ve listened to that much beyond the few tracks on the Best Of, so may have to revisit.

  • Xenu

    Such a badly informed article. You got dates and facts wrong. How can that even happen?

  • Solid, if overstuffed, listen. Is it me or does “strange death in paradise” have a serious King’s X vibe? I hear the 90’s rock stuff, but plenty of the disc has a mild Rush influence as well. Thanks for featuring!

    • Dr_Fisting

      I can totally see how “Strange Death” sounds like Kings X, now that you mention it. And yeah, Rush as well.

  • Thomulus Durle

    Faith is not a molestation track but could be construed as a song about spousal abuse. Not quite the same but in the same arena. I’m so glad I found these blogs. A+