Top critical review
Repetitive and mundane - but it is still Maiden
on 15 June 2017
‘Virtual XI’ came out when I was 15 and I was obsessed with Iron Maiden. Maiden were the first band I fell in love with and while I was too young to fully appreciate the X Factor, I was totally on board for ‘Virtual XI’. The album was, to my 15-year old ears, perfect. The songs were epic in length and scope, there were plenty of guitar licks and solos and I memorised all the lyrics. I didn't care that Blaze wasn't Bruce, all I cared was that Iron Maiden were making music.
Today I’m a grizzled old 35 year old cynic. I have enjoyed the direction Iron Maiden have taken since Bruce and Adrian rejoined in 1999, especially ‘Dance of Death’ and ‘A Matter of Life and Death’. Re-listening to ‘Virtual XI’ is always a little painful. It isn’t that Blaze is a bad singer, it’s simply that he is weaker than Bruce. Blaze cannot carry the cheesy choruses and anthems like ‘The Clansman’. To compound matters, far too many of the songs simply feature the same phrase repeated over and over and over again. This is certainly the most repetitive Maiden release. Each time Blaze repeats himself it is like he is trying to nail the delivery and for some reason they decided to include the outtakes. This is most noticeable on ‘The Angel and the Gambler’, which sounds like a band spending 10 minutes rehearsing a 3-minute song.
Other tracks have their own shortcomings. ‘Futureal’ is a mess. The lyrics are absolute gibberish and I’m always flabbergasted that people look on this as a highlight of the album. ‘Lightning Strikes Twice’ contains some interesting guitar work that points to the proggy direction Maiden would take on ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, but the lyrics are rubbish and the whole song feels like it is a few bpm too slow. ‘The Clansman’ is the obligatory Steve Harris anthem and is the obvious standout track here. ‘When Two Worlds Collide’ has some really interesting ideas – in places it sounds more like a rock tune and the clean guitar works really well. Though I doubt it was intended to be a reference to Seinfeld, I will forever associate the two (‘You’re killing independent George! The anger the pain!’) ‘The Educated Fool’ starts strong, but by about 2 and a half minutes is just a mess. ‘Don’t Look to the Eyes of a Stranger’ is very similar to ‘Lightning Strikes Twice’ – some interesting and gloomy guitars twist and turn while the song builds to a nice climax and some lengthy and satisfying guitar work ruined by lyrics that sound like they were written on the bag of a beer mat down the pub. ‘Como Estas Amigos’ is a lovely ballad to round out the album.
The loss of two key songwriters (Dickinson and Smith) who offered a different dynamic and sense of pacing to Harris meant that by 1998 the band were on life-support. ‘Virtual XI’ is testament to the fact that Harris could write decent music in his sleep and that his passion for the band got them through some really difficult times.
P.S. all the West Ham stuff in the insert – too cheesy, even by Maiden standards, come on!