Sound: First and foremost, Balls To Picasso is in a whole different ballpark to most of Dickinson's other work. This is the second album of his solo career, at which point he was trying to break away from Iron Maiden's style of songwriting and properly establish himself as a solo artist in his own right. This is strongly reflected in the more experimental songs; there are definitely some more unusual compositions here. However, the album has solid songwriting and performances and is a worthy addition to the collection of a fan of Dickinson's vocals. Kicking off the album in a slightly unorthodox way is the 8-minute-long instrumentally oriented epic, Cyclops. It tries to evoke an eerie sort of feeling, and succeeds. The song gradually builds up from the heavy, but somewhat soft and sinister intro into the chorus, which gives the listener a taste of what is to come with very impressive and powerful vocals. It has some interesting musical ideas; my only criticism of the song is that sometimes it seems like a bunch of riffs plunged together; it doesn't flow perfectly. Hell No follows this song and contributes to the album mainly through it's fantastically catchy chorus, with strong vocals and well employed vocal harmony. Laughing in the Hiding Bush and 1000 Points of Light continue the trend of catchy choruses and strong vocals. In the former, the guitar work also stands out, especially the main riff, which manages to be used many times while not sounding tired; the latter takes a different approach, being a slower, heavy song with a more serious lyrical theme.
The ballads of the album, including the well known track Tears of the Dragon, are even more outstanding. Gods of War, for example, (maybe it is a bit of stretch to call it a ballad though) is one of the strongest songs on the album and along with the other two ballads has all the makings of a good epic. This then brings me to Fire and Shoot All The Clowns. Fire has a powerful riff and bassline that stands out, which degenerates to a terrible chorus and forgettable solo. Overall, it's average. Shoot All The Clowns is a joke, literally, as it was never meant to be taken as a serious song. That should not have been an excuse to make it unredeemable by any feature though. It is a shame that this song in particular lets the rest of the album down. On the whole, the vocals are the most impressive part of this album. The instrumental sections are most memorable on the softer ballads, as they capture the mood perfectly, and definitely show off the skills of the guitarist. The heavier songs with their riffs and catchy choruses are also excellent. // 8
Lyrics: As you might expect from a part of the solo career of a highly celebrated lead singer, the main attraction of the album is the vocals. As usual, on the heavier tracks Dickinson pounds out melodies with energy and accuracy with his very capable voice, and on more somber tracks, the singing has that same energy behind it while capturing a totally different mood. There are few singers who can compare to the Air Raid Siren in my books. This album also has some elements of rap (dare I say it) in it; in Sacred Cowboys, the vocalist sings the verses in more or less a monotone, placing a lot of focus on the rhythm, lyrics and energy behind them. This gives variety to the song and album and is very effective used in this way. Shoot All The Clowns, on the other hand, has a straight-out rap section, which is executed very poorly. The vocal harmonies are mostly excellent and contribute a lot to the song rather than just filling space, but some just seem over-the-top and forced (Shoot All The Clowns is the culprit again). The vocals are supplemented by mostly well-written lyrics, which range from thoughtful, deep or clever musings on life and war (like in Gods of War and Sacred Cowboys) to the light-heartedly nonsensical (Hell No and Shoot All The Clowns). Ignoring Shoot All The Clowns this album is very strong in the departments of lyrics and vocals. // 9
Overall Impression: In conclusion, this is an album worth your time but a deviation from the Dickinson standard. If you have never heard his solo work before you might be better off giving The Chemical Wedding a listen, if only because it is more representative of his work. Balls to Picasso does have its flaws, but on the whole is an excellent album. The highlight tracks are Hell No, Gods of War, Laughing in the Hiding Bush, and Tears of the Dragon. // 9