90s Metal Weirdness: Bruce Dickinson – Skunkworks

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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