Paul TJ O’Neill of The Bolton Iron Maiden – Puppet Master: The Rise And Rise Of Slick Dandy: Album Review

Welcome Back. Through the wonders of time travel, Paul O’Neill picks up where The Bolton Iron Maiden left off 44 years ago.

Release Date:  14th December 2020 (pre-orders being taken now)

Label: Perfect Pitch Recording Services

Formats: CD

Now here’s an idea… If you find yourself with 42 minutes in which you’d really like to lose yourself in your dreams, absorb yourself in science-fiction exploration,. Maybe travel back in time to the days when anything was possible and, above all, have a great time listening to an amazing piece of straight ahead rock, then get yourself a copy of this new album from Paul TJ O’Neill. Slip it into the player and sit back.  Regular visitors to At The Barrier will be aware that we’ve been awaiting the release of this album with bated breath and now, at last, it’s (almost) here.  And it’s a stonker!

To recap, Paul was the drummer and vocalist in The Bolton Iron Maiden, the band that emerged from Bolton in 1969 and went on to establish a strong following across Northern England in the ensuing years.  They weren’t a tribute band and were, in fact, making waves at around the same time as the earliest riffs were starting to be heard from the band of the same that came to be rather better known. 

The Bolton Iron Maiden (BIM for short) broke up in 1976 and were consigned to the drawer labelled ‘Happy Memories’ until Paul established a website for the band in 2005 and brought out a couple of CDs of mainly live performances.  Since then, life on the BIM front went fairly quiet, until recently when we got the news that Paul had recorded an album of all-new material with the intention that it would be released in late 2020, under the moniker Paul TJ O’Neill of The Bolton Iron Maiden.  And now, here it is!  Incidentally, we told the story of BIM and broke the news of the preparation and impending release of the album about a month ago (read here).

Puppet Master… was recorded at Paul’s small home studio in St. Neot’s, Cambridgeshire and mixed at Abbey Road Studios (!) in 2018.  Paul plays drums, percussion, acoustic guitar, bass and keyboards and takes the lead vocal duties. He’s helped out by Rob Harris (Jamiroquai) and Martin Low on guitars, Don Airey (Deep Purple) on synth, Nick Hill on trumpet, Brian Sages on saxes and Paul’s daughters, Rachel and Victoria, supply some lovely backing vocals.

Paul O'Neill

And the music…!  First of all, let me say that the production thoroughly belies any preconceptions anyone may have about the album’s modest origin; the sound is deeply satisfying, spacy, lush and sympathetic when it needs to be and loud, direct and compulsive when we start to rock – and on this album, that’s pretty often!  The production is perfectly balanced and each instrument comes over fluently and clearly.  When the core and classic guitar/bass/drums element of the band start to cook, the years just fall away and, before you know it, we’re back in a hot sweaty club room in 1975.  But best of all, at least for me, it’s just so great to hear Paul’s vocals again, sounding as fresh and passionate as they did all those years ago.

The album itself is a concept piece that tells the story of Norman Normal who enlists the aid of the Time Traveler (first encountered in BIM’s 1970 epic song Maiden Flight) to reconfigure his destiny and become the rock star, Slick Dandy.  Slick Dandy is ensnared by a dastardly impresario, Matthew L Fox (MLF – The Maker of Legends and Fame) and, as is the case in all situations where the space/time continuum is disturbed, things get a bit messy. 

But don’t be guided by my version of the tale. The album, and the accompanying booklet tell the story (or ‘Storical’) in a far more enjoyable, and even exciting, way than I could ever manage.  As a concept, the album is obviously best enjoyed when listened to as a cohesive piece, but such is the strength of many of the tracks here (particularly Getting Nowhere, Menamong Man, Master Of Time, Slick Dandy and Gone Are The Days) that they stand as self-contained works even outside the framework of the story.

And we’ve got a bit of everything here!  The classic sound of BIM shines through on most of the rockers – those that I’ve named in in the paragraph above. On Time Traveler we venture into the realm of space-rock; Matthew L Fox is light, poppy and has an almost Beatle-y feel to it, Life Is A Circus and Old Sad Clown are so evocative that you can almost smell the sawdust and Who Pulls The Strings is a sad ballad that almost brings a tear to the eye. 

There are some wonderful lyrics to enjoy as well. Rock N Roll Star, the closest thing on the album to a power ballad, contains the sublime: “I could shine bright, in the limelight – if I could just get my timing right” and Gone Are The Days offers a tremendous piece of reassurance to all of us who started this musical journey at the beginning and who remain on board the bus: “You’re never too old to keep on dreaming.”  Absolutely!

But, for me, there are two tracks that stand out even on this wholly excellent piece of work.  Slick Dandy is introduced with a breathtaking synth solo, played by Don Airey. That’s before the song mutates into a pulsing, funky rocker that brings to mind Ziggy Stardust on the verge of meltdown and features a relentless torrent of drums and guitar, fantastic sax sprinklings and some heavenly backing vocals.  Possibly even better, Gone Are The Days brings the album almost to a close with an irresistible tune and a lyric that alternates between frustration, hope and acceptance. It first rues opportunities that have been missed, before going on to express contentment for what has been achieved and then to offer hope for the future.  Invigorating and inspiring!

Paul has expressed regret that, due to distance and technical issues, neither Derek Austin nor Noel Pemberton-Billing (the original and latter-day bass players in BIM and, alongside Paul, the surviving members) were unable to participate in the recording of the album.  If ever COVID relents sufficiently to allow Paul to arrange a live performance of this music (and I’ll be in the front row if he does…) he intends to invite both Derek and Noel to play. That would be brilliant.  Nevertheless, I truly hope that Derek and Noel get as much pleasure out of hearing Puppet Master… as I have, and I hope that you do too.

Puppet Master… is available for pre-order from the Bolton Iron Maiden website (see link below).  Royalties and sales revenue from the track Time Traveler will be donated to Cancer Research and Macmillan Cancer Support in memory of BIM’s late guitarist, Ian Boulton Smith.  Get those orders placed!

Congratulations Paul – you’ve made a brilliant album!

Paul talks about Puppetmaster… and the glory days of The Bolton Iron Maiden: Read the At The Barrier interview with Paul TJ O’Neill here.

Watch the Video for Gone are The Days from the album here:

The Bolton Iron Maiden Online: The Bolton Iron Maiden Website / Paul TJ O’Neill Website

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