Take 4 of 4: Iron Maiden - The Final Frontier (EMI)

Overall this is a disappointing album. It's definitely intricate and mature in its execution, and kudos to Maiden for making the album they wanted to make with no concession to what the fans may want or expect. But it also leaves you sometimes wondering exactly who Iron Maiden are these days.

 

I’d like to preface this review by saying that I am writing this not as a cliché journalist but as a Maiden fan. A REAL Maiden fan. I’ve been with this band through thick and thin, including the Blaze era, listened to everything they have done with an open mind and given it a chance.

 

Indeed the majority of the Maiden material from Fear of the Dark onwards has invariably needed a few spins of the disc before you really “got it” rather than only being good for one go, like a piece of toilet paper.

 

However, with their recent Early Days and subsequent Somewhere Back in Time tours, one can be forgiven for anticipating that their next opus would be a return to something more akin to their older material. News that they had returned to Compass Point Studios, where classic works such as Powerslave and Piece of Mind were conceived, was enough to stir the trousers of many a long time Maiden fan and further heighten such expectations. But I have to say, you’ll need your hand or a severed head to finish the job, because this album wont be doing that for you.

 

The album kicks off with the intro Satellite 15, and more to the point an alarming bass line: we are definitely already in unchartered territory here.  The track, whilst pointless in the most part, is harmless enough.  Three minutes in, a drum beat kicks in, only it’s a drum machine, with a triggered kick drum sound, which is about as relevant to Maiden as a blast beat.

 

Cunningly, Maiden have joined the intro to the opening track to force you to listen to it, as no doubt they are aware that most sentient beings would hit the “next” button in a heartbeat to go straight to The Final Frontier, the title track and true album opener.  We have all heard this track on the Maiden website prior to the album's release, and so have had a chance to get to know it. It’s a safe but sound up-tempo number, catchy riffs with Nicko punctuating everything nicely.

 

The vocals sound flat for the most part, something not exclusive to this track, and lacking in enthusiasm, but as the album unfolds its clearly a production thing rather than Bruce having lost his vocal range.

 

Next up is Eldorado, another number that everyone has heard well in advance of this release, and one that took some getting used to. But really, this is one of the better tracks on the album. A more straight-ahead rocker, Bruce sings in a lower register for the majority of the song, which only makes sense when you hear the chorus juxtaposed against it to give the song its dynamic. 

 

The lyrics are rather crafty and overall it has a rather gritty sound, being adventurous for Maiden and sounding like something Bruce would do on one of his solo albums. They succeed in pulling it off with great aplomb. Thumbs up to a memorable number that doesn’t use the trademark Maiden melody approach.

 

From here on in, the album starts to take a different turn, leading into some of the longer and more adventurous tracks, be they epics or a foray into the territory of overblown prog they touched on with A Matter of Life and Death.  You may have read reviews of astonishing time changes, all the twists and turns and heard the buzz on the streets that rivalled that of my recent eBay slipcase auctions. I’m not going to follow their lead and start wanking on about a 5/16th polyrhythm or interlaced arpeggios.  This is metal, it rules or it sucks, if you want to intellectualise it go listen to Dream Theater or take acid.

 

With that in mind I’ll lay it down bluntly based on much listening to give the material a chance. One overlaying theme is that from hereon in the album has that more “rounded” polished sound that they pioneered on Brave New World. It's obviously a Kevin Shirley thing.

 

Mother of Mercy is mostly mid-tempo after a slow intro, but other than the chorus is not too memorable and I am already starting to hate the keyboards. I’m all for atmospherics but they mostly use the same sounds and it would be great if they just went away three albums ago.

 

Coming Home, not as slow an intro, no particularly memorable riffs or melodies, and yet again those keyboards I love so much.  What is notable here however are Bruce’s vocals, this track has more enthusiasm than the rest of the albums vocal tracks combined, and this alone makes the track, reminding us just how great Bruce can be and how poisonous Kevin Shirley has been to the rest of the album. Being a song about flying planes and travel probably has something to do with the passion he lays into this track.

 

The Alchemist: This heralds the arrival of the album's true saviour, Janick Gers. Opening with a Maiden-esque guitar line (hang on this IS Maiden! I almost forgot) and keeping the tempo going all the way through memorable, almost classic sounding riffs and melodies, provides a foundation for Nicko to play off and remind us just how good he is.  It seems Janick at least hasn’t forgotten how to write a kick ass Maiden song.

 

Isle of Avalon:  This track starts off with a long and drawn out intro, which is aimless and doesn’t really contribute to the song, which in itself, is not entirely memorable. At about this point someone should have told Adrian Smith to stop writing.  The track just wallows and is pompous and overdone and gets lost in the other tracks of this album. Sadly he didn’t stop and we got some more songs about war and soldiers... <yawn>

 

Starblind: Wow. Another slow intro. How surprising. At least this one isn’t so long, but again this song just feels long, pompous, overdone and out of touch with reality. Maybe if this was track 3 it would be OK but after where we have been so far, I just want to go home.  Thankfully, Janick Gers heard our cries

 

The Talisman: OK before I seem like a hypocrite, yes, another slow intro, and to be honest maybe a bit overdone. BUT we can and MUST forgive, because rather than aimlessly meandering like the previous tracks, the combination of Janick's aforementioned songwriting skills and Braces haunting vocals help draw us into the tale they are telling and actually take us somewhere. The title is quite symbolic as Janick is quite literally the Talisman of this album, fending off the evil that is the other less memorable tracks. Again Nicko seems to be inspired by Janick's writing, and ups the ante.

 

The Man Who Would Be King:  Three seconds into this I was ready to hit the skip button after another slow intro and melancholy vocal line from Bruce. And let's not forget those keyboards, can someone please smash the synthesizer next time they are in the studio?

 

The fact that this is a rare Murray lead songwriting credit sufficiently piqued my curiosity to keep me going, and I was pleasantly surprised. Maybe Dave really wrote this years ago and saved it for a rainy day.  It's hard to describe what it is, but this song has “it” maybe because it doesn’t meander too much, maybe the chorus. Whatever it is, all I can say is, this song stuck in my mind for an eternity. This is one of the better songs on the album, and probably the only one that does have any of these much touted twists and turn that are unexpected. Some of the tempo and chord progressions are a little left of field, even for Maiden, and whilst the ending is nothing revolutionary, Bruce makes it float off into the distance carrying it like no one else ever could. And maybe that’s what it is, this song is complete, something lacking in many of the others.

 

When the Wild Wind Blows: Interestingly this is the only Steve Harris solo composition on the album. Predictably long, epic, and based on some form of literary work, it definitely doesn’t disappoint in the substance stakes.  The opening is long and drawn out, with an almost Celtic feel and it takes quite a while to get going. Unlike some of the preceding tracks it does actually go somewhere, and after a few listens becomes digestible, but it's just not quite up to scratch. The lines about drinking tea and feeling snug in the shelter especially blew it for me, as well as Bruce's vocal phrasing in the intro which sounds plain dodgy. It’s just not what a Steve Harris epic should be.

 

Overall, this is a disappointing album.

 

It's definitely intricate and mature in its execution, and kudos to Maiden for making the album they wanted to make with no concession to what the fans may want or expect. But it also leaves you sometimes wondering exactly who Iron Maiden are these days.

 

Any one of the longer numbers are fine in their own right, but a collection of so many on the one album leaves the listener feeling a little alienated and most likely not inclined to reach for it in years to come. One can’t help but notice how little Bruce contributed and consider what to read into this. This album mostly sounds like A Matter of Life and Death Part 2, but, as we know, sequels are rarely better than the original.

 

It's clear that Maiden have drifted into outer space.

 

I hope they come back.