Iron Maiden's latest record, A Matter Of Life And Death, was surrounded by a lot of pre-release hype. What were fans actually anticipating? The best record since Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son? A decent record, worthy of the Iron Maiden logo on the front? Or would it be a failure, along the lines of No Prayer For The Dying?
Well the answer is, in my opinion, neither. First of all, I want to say that for me, this album is overhyped. I feel it gets more praise than it deserves overall. For Maiden, I feel that this is an awfully average slab of heavy metal. Maiden have done better in the past. But, to say this is a critical or commercial failure, also doesn't do the album justice, there are definitely highlights and good points to the album. It's just that for Maiden, they are too little and too scattered over the album.
The opener, Different World, already showcases this duality I have about the album. It's definitely Maiden and co, and it definitely has that trademark sound, and it's heavier than ever, but the lyrics are absolute trite. I feel as if I've entered into Bruce's midlife crisis, and I don't know but that's not what I want to hear from the Irons, I feel that the opener despite musically adequate by Maiden standards fails to get me into the album.
These Colours Don't Run is a typical grade A top-notch piece of Maiden work. Maiden have always been one of the best metal bands to roam the earth, and this song proves that they, nearly thirty years into their career, show no signs of relenting, and are still now on the top of their game musically and lyrically. A brilliant war epic, focusing on the nationalism of soldiers fighting for their country, it takes a rather neutral stance, trying to put things more into perspective rather than outspokenly yelling out an opinion without nuancing it. Iron Maiden are a mature band, and that's to be expected at their age.
War and its perspectives are a recurring theme on the album, with Brighter Than A Thousand Suns, describing the atrocious effects of the atomic bomb being a notable highlight. Bruce's soaring vocals are still at high level, although the guy has aged, he can still wail out the notes, definitely still one of metal's top vocalists. The bass lines laid down by old 'Arry are still of superb quality. Musically the band is still on top of their game, and I really think that with their capabilities, it's a miracle that there's only one other song on the disc that I like.
That song is Harris' sole epic, the anthemic For The Greater Good Of God. Taking a stance on religion and the holy wars (yes, again!) is the name of the game, and Iron Maiden remains critical of religious manipulation, that despite the reiteration of the theme in heavy metal since its inception, is still a valid issue today. The introduction bassline is one of the best Harris has ever done, and Bruce again wails out the lines like he means business. Maiden are still up there.
But it's sad, because those three tracks are the only ones that really stand out. The rest is either mediocre, or just awful. The twin ballads, Out of the Shadows, and The Reincarnation Of Benjaming Breeg, are totally bland and boring, and contain no grain of energy. It's like Maiden put them in just because they were playing anyway, and it sounded good to them, but it's just more of the same, dark, brooding, but totally boring. It has nothing that catches the listener, there's just no vibe in it. And Maiden HAS a vibe, which makes it to me all the more disappointing. Lord of Light suffers from the same problem in my opinion, another disastrous track that again fails to convince on every level. It may be long and progressive, breaching the seven minute mark like more songs on the album, but it doesn't do Maiden any good, because Maiden fall into repetitivity during their epics usually. I'm not a big fan of any of their epics, Hallowed Be Thy Name, The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, and Fear of the Dark aside (and the BNW tracks).
The rest of the tracks are average Maiden tracks, good to keep the flow, but they aren't really out of the wazoo. The Legacy is a decent epic with a cool soft, haunting intro, and the chorus stands out in particular, but other than that, the song is standard Maiden drivel. The Pilgrim uses that Eastern vibe that Maiden sometimes has, like on The Nomad, but it comes over as a rather watered down version of the former. It does have more energy, and Bruce shows again why he is metal's best vocalist in the chorus, but it again misses just that extra ten percent that Maiden can give. The Longest Day has the same problem, it is overshadowed by its fellow war epics, and therefore feels like useless filler on the album. Maybe this album was just one track too long. It's just decent by Maiden standards, but nowhere near their classics.
So, overall, why do I give this album a rating of 3/5 when I seem to have so much trouble with digesting it? It's mainly because despite the fact that some tracks fall flat rather obviously, and prove to be huge landmines for the band, it's that there really are some plus songs on the album, and that after all these years, their musical focus to do different things every album and their ability to chase after that dream with their immense skills is still present, albeit somewhat suppressed on some of the songs. I just feel, that while the Irons are a really good band, they are just not making use of their talent well enough. It's there, and it shows during moments, flickering like a star in the night sky, yet it's not consistent enough for a truly epic record. If you're a Maiden fan, you'll like this record, though. I'd recommend not getting this however if you are new to Maiden, you're better off with the older discs instead. This will take more time to digest, and may disappoint you in the end. However, Maiden are still aging with a grace that most other bands haven't been given, so overall we can say this is just another piece of the Maiden legacy.
Therefore I can, and will, with hope that their next record will be just as consistent as their glory days (yet not necessarily having the same sound), and end this review with the unabashedly cheesy: UP THE IRONS!