on 10 August 2010
I've made a track-by-track review, but if you don't want to read everything, just skip to the Conclusion right after the 10th track.
1. "Satellite 15... The Final Frontier" (Smith, Harris)
Contrary to what you might have been led to believe by the official video, this song is actually 8:40 minutes long, half of it being a very, very, very unusual intro for Iron Maiden -- 4:40 minutes of an eerie piece of futuristic, space-like, void-feeling material, slow-paced but at the same time emanating disturbing melodies before those known hard-rock chords can soar. From then on it's the same thing you hear on the band's official video.
2. "El Dorado" (Smith, Harris, Dickinson)
Not much to say. It was the first song released, downloadable for free, so you know what to expect. I'm just very glad that it's probably the worst song on the album.
3. "Mother of Mercy" (Smith, Harris)
Rather slow-paced, not a rapid, furious & heavy-rhythm'ed as I had thought it would be before listening to it. It's a tune I actually wouldn't picture Iron Maiden coming up with. It's very Maiden in its simplicity, but at the same time the melody itself is not usual in terms of what we've witnessed in the past 15 years. Which is, I must say, something that pervades the entire album, this tendency to venture into the unexplored. It's an interesting song, but not much more than that. I'm glad it's just 5-minutes long, otherwise it would become quite boring.
4. "Coming Home" (Smith, Harris, Dickinson)
Wow, a balad. But this sounds very much like a Bruce Dickinson ballad, rather than an Iron Maiden one. Think "Tyranny of Souls" (the album), though (not "Accident of Birth"). Very catchy chorus, and a very nice melody throughout. I'm thinking the band will be playing this one live. Interesting progression at 3 minutes into the song, with a clean-sounding solo by Dave, with nothing but a reverb on it. Then Adrian comes in with some distortion on his solo, very beautiful melody lines as usual, and then it falls back to Bruce singing the chorus.
5. "The Alchemist" (Gers, Harris, Dickinson)
Truly, this has nothing to do with Bruce's homonymous song. Not quite unlike what's Maiden's done since 2000, however. This one's more forward than the previous tracks (Satellite 15 excepted), with a nice chorus too, mainly because of the guitar trio coming up with those harmonic combinations that completely fill out the background. There's also some modulation thrown in, which you don't see a lot in Maiden. I personally enjoy the guitar melody on the bridge and chorus for this song. Solo exclusively by Janick, followed by the 3 guitars. Falls back to the chorus and the song ends (very similar to the "Coming Home" approach).
6. "Isle of Avalon" (Smith, Harris)
If it weren't for the bass right in the beginning, you wouldn't guess this is a Maiden tune, even though it is somehow in synch with what the band's been doing since Kevin Shirley took up the production seat with the boys. Mysterious-like melody, but fast-paced intro, which holds on for a good 2 and a half minutes before it finally picks up at around 2:50, with an interesting vigor. It falls again to a certain mystery-ridden melody right after, before a short Dave Murray solo kicks in at around 3:40, followed by some solid rhythm-base session, and then by Adrian playing a little with what seem to be synthetizers (you may hear some Somewhere in Time-like material at this point, even though the song itself is far from that). You gotta think in terms of epic-like material, in the same line as Alexander the Great, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son and Sign of the Cross. It's 9 minutes long, and it's one of those songs where you'll pay closer attention to the lyrics while some interesting tune plays in the background (and not the other way around). The chorus is very nice, however, and brings the melody forward.
7. "Starblind" (Smith, Harris, Dickinson)
This one's got a slow start, Bruce calmly pronouncing his words over a guitar melody. I thought it would be another slow song, but then some distortion guitars kick in, gladly. The main part of the song (not the bridge or chorus) is a very solid crescendo, whih sounds very amazing to me, and they build just the right amount of expectation. Bridge's very good too, and you know you got something good on your hands. It's hard to correctly describe this song. It's not fast, but it's not exactly slow-paced either. It's a very interesting tune, really, with a few unexpected twist and turns, and sometimes some of its distortion guitar levels sound as though they had nothing but a Fender-like sound to it, as if they had only had said Fender amp to provide heaviness (this goes mainly for Adrian or Janick). Adrian seems to have used synthetizers for his soloes, however -- with some mean reverb on them. Bruce does very well here, singing a solid tune with variations, going from low to high-pitched notes in the same sentence. There's some modulation present here, too. All in all it's a good song, and you may feel hooked even though it's almost 8-minutes long.
8. "The Talisman" (Gers, Harris)
Beautiful beginning. The production and general feel very closely resemble what you hear in "The Legacy" (A Matter if Life and Death's last track). This actually perdures for 2:20 minutes until some power rhythm guitars kick in with more solid, heavy riffs making the bed where Bruce seems to comfortably lie in. Very forward tune, which I thought somewhat lacking at times, because it's a long album, and some of the tunes (like "Mother of Mercy" and "Coming Home" being put together, one after the other) sort of gives you the feeling that things are somewhat slow for a while. Also, much like "Dance of Death" and "A Matter of Life and Death", this album is filled with little, slow acoustic intros that tend to make you feel like there isn't much punch or drive to it. "The Talisman" can show a lot of raw power, however, which is always a good thing when it comes to Maiden. Nice vocal melodies at around 5 minutes into the song, with great soloes right after. They remind me some of the material on "Fear is the Key", probably because of the vibrato unit/tremolo bar being used. Good song.
9. "The Man Who Would Be King" (Dave Murray, Harris)
Again slow intro. But nice follow-up, with solid bass chords underlying the guitar melody -- which, to be honest, remind me a lot of "Out of the Silent Planet". The drums come in, in a crescendo, and then we got some heavy, forward-sounding riffs and Bruce's vocal lines (which now remind me somewhat of "The Thin Line Between Love and Hate"). All in all this is a tune of its own, truly. As you reach 4 minutes, you will be listening to some really (really!) different material. I'm betting you could never guess this to be Iron Maiden. Very unlike what's been done in 30 years of history. You'll understand what I mean when you listen to this. At around 6 minutes, when Bruce sings again, his vocal lines remind me of Dance of Death's "Wildest Dreams". This song's 8-and-a-half minutes long, and it does feel long (unlike other, longer Iron Maiden tunes, I must say).
10. "When the Wild Wind Blows"
Last -- and longest -- song on the album. As usual, a slow-paced intro, but gladly, off the top of my head, it doesn't remind me of any other Maiden song. It's as if it wants to, but it doesn't. Beautiful tune, really, and great change of pace at around 3:40. Adrian comes in with a solo at 4:46, followed by Dave, and both melodies are tremendously beautiful. This is possibly the song with most potential on the whole album, and I'm very pleased to say that even though it's 11:01 minutes long, ranking as the 3rd longest Iron Maiden song -- the first since The X Factor album, released 15 years ago --, it is seriously addictive, and begs for another listen immediately. Due to its length, perhaps Maiden will refrain from playing it live. But if they could work out a way to play "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", I think they could definitely pull it off for this one. It's worth it.
So what's the verdict? Well, this is not the best Iron Maiden album ever released. But it is far from the worst. It is solid, much more coherent and consistent than anything they've done since "Brave New World". It has some of the most intriguing tunes I've ever listened in an Iron Maiden album. Very different material, and you get the feeling right from the start that the band is really trying to outdo themselves and come up with stuff that clearly stand in uncharted waters. Thankfully, they don't stray too far -- probably a product of Harris's traditional approach --, and they manage to unite tradition with exploration. The result is satisfactory, even though there is room for improvement. For example, since 1995 Harris seems intent on coming up with tunes that start with that same slow intro melody technique, which is a dangerous thing to do if it pervades an entire album. Which is the case with "The Final Frontier". Worse if it's been used so constantly in the last 5 albums (excluding present material, which would total 6 albums). I mean, if you take up Powerslave, Piece of Mind or anything before that (even Somewhere in Time) any one can see that you don't need to overuse it. My guess is that Harris started this approach very meekly with "Moonchild", perfected it throughout "No Prayer for the Dying" (the album), halted a little in "Fear of the Dark", but let it take full control from "The X Factor" onwards.
Generally, however, the album is a good listen and worth buying. If not for the honest attempt into reinveinting Iron Maiden and coming up with some new material, then at least for the sheer amount of music it proportionates (after all, this is one of the longest plays in the Maiden catalogue).
I feel very strongly about rating this album. I want to give it 5 stars, but won't, simply because the truth is that some of the material in it was too obvious to be dismissed as a necessity, and it could have been turned into something much better. So I had to somehow be impartial (or at least try to) when judging it. But in my heart, as a fan, it deserves 6 (yes, 6) stars simply because it is so honest in its composition, writing and in its lyrics. I don't see an Iron Maiden trying to cash in some big fat checks, as much as I see a group of people really giving their best shot at recreating or re-garnering some of that inventive energy that seemed to be lost for a while and that now is beginning to resurface after some good deal of soul searching.
I don't think many people will be disappointed in this album, especially those who actually liked the track "El Dorado" -- to me, the worst song on the album. They've got some great material here. Again, this is completely worth buying.
Up the Irons!