Monday marks 85 years since the crash of R101, the ill-starred flagship of the British government’s dirigible program. Rushed into its first official flight, a planned round trip to India — the Secretary of State for Air, Lord Thomson, wanted the journey to bookend the 1930 Imperial Conference in London — the craft encountered turbulence over France, apparently causing its fabric cover to tear. Already flying heavy, R101 plunged, nose-first, into a forest, exploding upon impact. (Like other early airships, R101 was kept aloft by extremely flammable hydrogen gas.) Of 54 passengers and crew, 48 (including Thomson) were killed.
The R101 disaster remained a historical footnote outside the United Kingdom, but loomed in the British imagination for generations. (Indeed, many Americans know of it by way of a Monty Python reference.) In retrospect, it symbolically presaged a subsequent period of upheaval and decline, culminating in World War II and the postwar dismantling of the British Empire.
R101 is having a musical moment, courtesy of the British heavy metal band Iron Maiden, whose latest album, “The Book of Souls” (released last month), includes “Empire of the Clouds,” an 18-minute orchestrally augmented retelling of the ship’s fate. The group has often drawn on literary and historical inspirations; one of its more enduring songs, “The Trooper,” evokes the Crimean War. Lead singer Bruce Dickinson, who wrote “Empire of the Clouds,” is an aviation enthusiast who has piloted the band’s chartered jetliners while on tour.
And the song’s musical nature brings it full circle, in a way, to the band’s prehistory — the embryonic, late-’60s and early-’70s progressive rock out of which the louder, more combustible heavy metal sound coalesced. “Empire of the Clouds” recapitulates numerous prog hallmarks: novelistic length, sectional structure, alternating orchestral and electrified sounds, even a requisite echo of folk-rock (the song shares a chord progression with Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” — which, after all, ends as “the wind began to howl”). It rekindles a pop music moment mirroring the historic cusp embodied by R101: a time just before possibilities collapsed, inevitably, into certainties.
But the song’s vision is also stark. If, as prog-rock historian Edward Macan has suggested, that genre’s interchange of acoustic and electric was, in part, meant to bring together quasi-Jungian feminine and masculine archetypes, in “Empire of the Clouds” it emphasizes a rift between an unreachable past and a violent present. “Just ashes in the past,” Dickinson sings, “just ashes at the last.”