Here’s the thing: the subject matter of “Hallowed Be Thy Name” is grim, depressing, and a little disturbing. This goes double because the song forces you inside the narrator’s head the entire time, meaning that we are forced to bear witness to a young man struggling to come to terms with his impending death, and that’s if we don’t get so firmly inside his head that we feel his fear as our own. Admittedly I’m not a heavy metal rocker, but were I in a heavy-metal band, and writing a song about a young man on death row, or just dying in general, the obvious choice would be to wring as much nightmare fuel out of it as possible. Indeed, Metallica (who admittedly came around after Iron Maiden) have no fewer than two songs that do just that: “Ride the Lightning” and “Master of Puppets” (it’s true that “Master of Puppets” isn’t about death row, but it still features the untimely death of a young person because of forces over which he has no control, and roughly corresponds to “The Number of the Beast” period in terms of where it falls in Metallica’s discography). Both of these songs feature young people dying in a way that’s bleak, grim, and really horrible, and are unrelentingly sad and gloomy. And are perfectly respectable songs. So, had Iron Maiden chosen to simply write a bleak, depressing song about a young man being hanged, they presumably could have done so, and it would have been perfectly good.
Yet that isn’t what happens. “Hallowed Be Thy Name” starts off sounding sad and eerie, with the ominous bell toll and Bruce Dickinson singing in a hushed-up way as though he were too scared to raise his voice. Then the opening riff starts and the real melody (which sounds slightly less fearful) begins, followed by the lyrics about how the narrator processes his impending death. For the first verse, the narrator is as terrified as you might expect he’d be: “Somebody please tell me that I’m dreaming/It’s not easy to stop from screaming/But words escape me when I try to speak.” But then it gets considerably more interesting: “Tears flow but why am I crying?/After all I’m not afraid of dying/Don’t I believe that there never is an end?”
The song then leaves that to hang there as the next instrumental break begins, slightly less mournful-sounding than the one prior. It’s established the narrator as a religious, or at least, a spiritual man who believes in an afterlife—but this could go any number of ways. Maybe, as Steve Harris has apparently teased in an interview, his faith will fail him at the last moment, and then this song will be bitter and depressing throughout. And indeed, the second verse does contain a bit that goes “If there’s a God, then why has He let me go?”
But then we see the narrator come to terms with his death (“As I walk my life drifts before me/And though the end is near I’m not sorry”), and by the next portion of the verse he’s overcome his fear of death entirely, and hasn’t lost his faith but embraced it. Now safe in Heaven, he breaks the fourth wall to reassure the audience that everything’s okay now (“Mark my words, believe my soul lives on/Don’t worry now that I have gone/I’ve gone beyond to see the truth”) and follows it up by promising them that “When you know that your time is close at hand/Maybe then you’ll begin to understand/Life down here is just a strange illusion.” It’s not just about him anymore—he’s reassuring the audience that you, too, will be prepared to die when your time comes, and like him, you’ll realize that it’s nothing to be scared of. It then cuts into another, very long instrumental, until the very end of the song. The last couple of lyrics sound positively joyful, with Bruce Dickinson lustily belting out “Yeah, yeah, yeah!/Hallowed be Thy Name!” The narrator, who was cold, scared, lonely and miserable at the start of the song, is now, finally, truly happy and free.
This, I think, is the real cornerstone of what makes this song so special. It takes a subject that could have been straight-up depressing (without anything of value being lost) and turns it into a surprisingly heartfelt piece about how people can find hope in even the direst of circumstances. To a young, spiritual person who fears death (like me), this song is fundamentally soothing, to the point it became my de facto lullaby when I traveled in England. It can make you cry, not because it’s so depressing, but because it obviously cares enough about this character and your connection with him to provide a light at the end of the tunnel—in essence, you cry at this song because it gives you permission to cry (again, compare “Ride the Lightning” and “Master of Puppets,” which end up being so bleak they basically hold your sympathy hostage).
Of course, what all this means is that the song ends up betraying, after a long album of fairly typical-sounding metal songs, just what sets Iron Maiden apart from the crowd—and, ultimately, what they’re “really like.” Heavy metal as a genre (at least in the America-Britain-Australia circuit that defines what most people think of as heavy metal) has always had a history of bands vying for the title of the toughest, meanest, baddest band on the block—and Iron Maiden know how to play that game (largely thanks to Eddie). A song like this, though, makes it clear that underneath it all, what they really are is a warm-hearted, compassionate band that really care about whatever it is they write about. I wouldn’t say for sure that “Hallowed Be Thy Name” was the first song they put out that was like this (that’s hard for me to judge, as I’ve only ever sat down to listen to one of the songs from the Di’Anno era, and that’s “Wrathchild”), but it was definitely a mission statement, whether they meant it that way or not.
And you can see its reflection in the stuff they’ve come out with since. All their songs about war are as anti-war as they come, and they even know how to end some of those songs on a hopeful note ("Paschendale," one of their most brutal anti-war songs, ends with “Friend and foe will meet again,/Those who died at Paschendale”). When they get bored with writing nightmares about Satan they write mind-bendingly weepy songs about Lucifer-as-tragic-hero. When other metal bands write power ballads it seems out of character; Iron Maiden have no fewer than three (“Wasting Love,” “Journeyman,” and “Out of the Shadows”) that get just as much praise as some of their heavier stuff. As one metalhead I met in England put it, it’s entirely possible to rock out to one song on any given Iron Maiden album, and then find yourself sobbing uncontrollably at the next. But all this, everything they are capable of, is embodied first and foremost in “Hallowed Be Thy Name.”
So…yeah. That’s my long-winded explanation as to why “Hallowed Be Thy Name” is so special.