Exclusive: Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson Goes Solo on ‘The Mandrake Project’—“This is the Most Extraordinary Record I’ve Ever Made”

Bruce Dickinson avoids writing obvious love songs. “I’m always skeptical about writing love songs with happy endings, because a lot of times it doesn’t work out that way,” Dickinson tells American Songwriter. “The drama involved, the love, breaking up, and stuff like that, then dramatizing it like Romeo and Juliet on a big scale.” 

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The closest he may have come to constructing any Shakespearean requiem of love is “Shadow of the Gods,” the penultimate track from his seventh solo album, The Mandrake Project. “It’s like a rogue, cosmic Romeo and Juliet story with star-crossed lovers. Are they doomed to be apart forever? It’s not their fault, but maybe they could be together in this heartless, horrible world that’s screwing with them.”

The Mandrake Project is the iron-lunged Iron Maiden vocalist’s first release under his own name in nearly two decades. It isn’t all about love and its many distresses, nor is it centered on dystopian imagery. There are personal elements included, though, Dickinson says, along with songs centering around death, rebirth, and eternity—and whether it exists. The album also features more tongue-in-cheek lyrics like “Rain on the Grave,” a track that plays more like a dark comedy.

“A guy wanders into a churchyard to meet the Devil, who says, ‘So, what are you here for? And don’t lie, because I’ll know.’ When I say ‘personal,’ it might be the very smallest personal thing that starts off the story, but by the time it gets to the bottom of the hill, it’s turned into a big snowball,” he says.

The album also marks the continuation of Dickinson’s 30-year partnership with musician, songwriter, and producer Roy Z, who has remained his collaborator since his second album, Balls to Picasso, was released in 1994.

Recorded at the Doom Room in Los Angeles, The Mandrake Project features Roy Z on bass and guitar, keyboardist Mistheria, and drummer Dave Moreno, who also worked on Dickinson’s 2005 album, Tyranny of Souls.


The record opens with one of its more dramatic moments. “Afterglow of Ragnarok” is a heavier track Dickinson says represents the “light and shade” to come in the remainder of the album. Afterglow of Ragnarok / I am your very soul / The one you do not know / I am the truth that’s playing hide and seek / And I will not be free

Mandrake journeys through many different stories, from the thumping “Resurrection Men” where Roy Z channels Black Sabbath’s bassist (it’s “Geezer Butler on Mars,” says Dickinson), to one of the straight-up heavier tracks, “Mistress of Mercy.” And then the album shifts toward something more ambient with songs like “Face in the Mirror”: I drink to ease the pain … look at your face in the mirror, a waiting game. “That’s the turning point,” Dickinson says of the abrupt shift on The Mandrake Project. “And you have no real clue that that’s going to happen.”

Dickinson adds, “It’s such an unexpected moment when it suddenly turns left, and you go, ‘Where did that come from?’ There’s loads of those moments. ‘Fingers in the Wounds’ is like that, where all of a sudden you have the Moroccan stuff and the orchestra. I love those moments on the record.”

More piano flourishes drive the romantic saga “Shadow of the Gods” before the epic final statement of “Sonata (Immortal Beloved),” a song that’s been gestating for more than 20 years.

“I didn’t know I had it in the works because you don’t know what’s in the works until it drops out of your mouth,” shares Dickinson of the closing track. “I’m a big believer in the subconscious writing your story. You don’t even know it, but if you allow it to happen, then that’s the best way of all.”

“Sonata (Immortal Beloved)” clocks in at nearly 10 minutes. It was originally inspired by Roy Z, who had just seen the 1994 drama Immortal Beloved. Gary Oldman portrays early 19th-century German composer Ludwig van Beethoven in the film. Z was so inspired by the performance that he stayed up the night he saw it and began composing the music for what would become “Sonata.”

When Dickinson heard what Z had come up with, he set up a mic in Z’s dark garage, closed his eyes, and began singing. “I thought, ‘Where am I? I’m in the dark forest.’ And that’s what I sang. And as I looked around in my internal dark forest, I saw the frozen eyes, and that angels sleep here. The vocal is hesitant because I don’t know what I’m going to sing next.”

He continues, “By this point, I had come up with a story. It was a twisted version of 

Sleeping Beauty, in which another prince comes back, the king comes back, and his queen is dead and he thinks, ‘If I kiss her, I’m gonna bring her back’—not because he loves her but because he needs her. Without her, he is not king anymore. So he does, and the Angel of Death appears and says, ‘Buddy, you don’t get to do that. There’s a price to pay, and she’s dead forever.’” 

Dickinson recites the closing refrain of “Sonata”: Love has brought you here and love will tear you apart. “It’s a very emotional song, and it touches a lot of nerves about growing old. the power dynamic between men and women, and women being afraid of losing their looks and their beauty. How many albums do you get where you feel something at the end of it? They’re rare things these days.”


Long after the release of The Mandrake Project, the album will live on through extended stories for another four years as a 12-part comic series produced by Z2 Comics. Written by Tony Lee and illustrated by Staz Johnson, the series will present an “epic saga of opposing forces battling to use the powers of science and magic to gain control of immortality,” according to Z2.

“Episode 1 is kind of cool,” says Dickinson, “and then it gets more gnarly as we go.”

Accompanying the release of the album is Issue 1 of the comic. Within the storyline is the introduction of 19th-century British poet William Blake, who has been a recurring “theme” and influence throughout Dickinson’s career. In 1998, Dickinson’s song “Jerusalem” from his fifth album, The Chemical Wedding, was inspired by Blake’s early-19th-century poem “And did those feet in ancient time.” In 2018, Dickinson also attended the unveiling of Blake’s tombstone in London’s Bunhill Fields. Blake, who died in obscurity in 1827, had been buried in an unmarked grave.

“To me, he’s the ultimate artist,” says Dickinson of Blake. “He’s a man that sacrificed everything—and I mean everything—and made no compromises. And there’s his quote: ‘I will not reason and compare; my business is to create.’ That should be burned into the forehead of every film director, artist … your business is to create the copy, not to measure, not to use metrics, not to say, ‘What’s the audience reaction to this?’”

Blake’s precept has guided Dickinson well, from what he’s crafted with Iron Maiden since the early ’80s through to his solo work. His debut solo album, Tattooed Millionaire, was a collaboration with Maiden guitarist Janick Gers after being asked to write a song (“Bring Your Daughter… to the Slaughter“) for the 1989 horror film A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. Dickinson says his second album was more reflective of the direction he wanted to go as a solo artist.

Released in 1994, that album, Balls to Picasso, also connected Dickinson with Roy Z, who has continued working with him on every solo release since with the exception of Skunkworks(1996).

“He’s got this musical soul, which is on another world,” says Dickinson of his longtime producer and co-writer. “You either get it or you don’t. He’s never really been that exposed. This guy is not just a producer. He’s also an incredible musician. The noises that come out of his guitar—that’s why I want to take him out on the road with me. The world needs to see this.” 

After the third album, Skunkworks, Roy Z rejoined Dickinson to co-write and produce his fourth effort, Accident of Birth, which also features Iron Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith. Z stayed on board through The Chemical Wedding in 1998, and then Tyranny of Souls.

Around the 2015 release of Iron Maiden’s The Book of Souls, Dickinson was diagnosed with throat cancer. After a full recovery, The Mandrake Project was already in the works before COVID hit. Production eventually started to back up during the pandemic.

“The thing that surprised me was that it still sounded 100 percent fresh and contemporary,” says Dickinson of returning to work on the album. This was particularly true of some of the older tracks like “Sonata.” “Nothing about it had aged. The way you do that is by being authentic and not trying too hard. Sometimes it’s hard to do if you’re known as being a heavy metal singer. It’s a little bit of a straightjacket that you’re in. It’s a nice, comfy straight jacket, and I’m quite comfortable wearing it. But at the same time, you can struggle like crazy trying to escape from it.

“For me, I think this is the most extraordinary record I’ve ever made.”

Photos by John McMurtrie

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