At first glance, the two summer tour giants — Iron Maiden and R.E.M. — hitting the Bay Area this week have fuck all in common. One wields epic odes to mayhem and bloodshed with all the subtlety of a rampaging Viking; the other elevates navel gazing to new heights with a mix of cryptic lyrics and dreamy atmospheres. But consider this: Both groups hit the apex of their critical and commercial success in the 1980s, refining distinctive styles that continue to influence their respective metal and college rock disciples today.
Furthermore, the two acts have taken a decidedly retrospective approach for their latest projects. Maiden is coming to town in support of its latest greatest hits collection, Somewhere Back in Time: The Best of: 1980-1989. The band even pulled the massive Egyptian-themed stage set from the 1984 Powerslave tour out of storage for the big event. Meanwhile, R.E.M. bounced back from several years of floundering to rediscover distorted guitar for Accelerate, its most vital album in more than a decade.
Given those facts, we've concocted a five-round death match for your concert dollar between the raging metallic yin that is Maiden and the testosterone-challenged yang of R.E.M.
Round One: Opening Acts
With all the whiplash-inducing gems Iron Maiden has to unleash, the band should have no time for a stinking warmup act, right? Wrong! In an egregious case of nepotism, bassist Steve Harris' daughter Lauren Harris will be boring the saps unlucky enough to arrive early with her solo act of tepid pop-metal trash. Conversely, R.E.M. wisely tapped younger indie torchbearers Modest Mouse and the National to entice an audience who might otherwise skip the grizzled alt-rock headliners.
Round Two: Resident Renaissance Man
Besides ably earning the nickname "Air Raid Siren" with his ridiculous voice, Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson is a globally ranked fencer, author of ribald period novels, and the co-writer and producer of Chemical Wedding, a new horror flick that just premiered at Cannes. And he's piloting the band's custom-designed jet, Ed Force One, during the current tour.
For someone who originally got noticed because of his obfuscating delivery, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe has become an eloquent activist for causes ranging from environmental concerns to animal rights. He also produced such notable films as Being John Malkovich and released a photo journal while becoming indie rock's go-to gay BFF. But can he fly a goddamn 747? Didn't think so.
Round Three: Cultural Relevance
Along with forebears Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, Iron Maiden is one of the cornerstones of modern metal. It's hard to imagine the chugging riffs of Metallica and Slayer (not to mention the myriad subgenres that followed) without Maiden's twin lead guitars and thunderous gallop blazing the trail. R.E.M. deserves credit for its pioneering impact on the alt-rock revolution, but loses points for its undeniable contribution to the wussification of said revolution during the '80s. Weak-ass bands like the Rembrandts — yes, the shitheels responsible for that annoying theme song from Friends — owe their painfully lame careers to aping R.E.M.'s high harmonies and jangly guitar. "Everybody Hurts" indeed.
Round Four: Stage Spectacle
In addition to singeing the arm hairs off fans with its huge pyrotechnic displays, Iron Maiden brings a not-so-secret weapon onstage with Eddie, the band's undead mascot. The only question is which 20-foot- tall incarnation of the beloved ghoul will shamble into Sleep Train Pavilion. Will it be Somewhere in Time cyborg Eddie, mummified Powerslave Eddie, or lobotomized, straitjacketed Piece of Mind Eddie? Who cares? Eddie rules! Meanwhile, over at the Greek, R.E.M.'s Stipe will spastically flap his arms like a chicken and paint his bald dome.
Round Five: Fans
Any metal show is bound to have its share of troublemaking reprobates, but a big-ass Iron Maiden gig in the middle of suburban hesherdom? Off the fuggin' charts! And yet even the surliest misanthropes will be hard-pressed not to embrace fellow headbangers once the opening riff to "The Trooper" kicks in. On the flip side, R.E.M.'s Amstel Light–swilling nostalgists will be squealing with obnoxious glee if the band taunts them with songs off Lifes Rich Pageant. Even worse, though, is the thought of smiling Gen X couples singing along to "Shiny Happy People." That leaves me in the corner, losing my lunch.
And the summer tour trophy goes to:
Even though Accelerate has more teeth than anything else in R.E.M.'s catalog, the band has mastered the art of rocking without rocking. No amount of distortion can redeem the irreparable damage the group has inflicted on the testicles of modern music. Those who dismiss Maiden as juvenile or hamfisted will miss out on experiencing one of the most visceral live acts on the planet, a show well worth the long haul to Concord. I guess you can take the hesher out of the suburbs, but you can't take the suburbs out of the hesher.