Review Summary: Several superb songs don’t necessarily make a good album
Since Dickinson’s and Smith’s return in 1999 Iron Maiden really seem to have recaptured their youth. The band is as popular as it was in the 80’s, popularity reflected both in album sales (provided of course that fewer people actually buy records these days) and tours, where Iron Maiden are selling out venues all over the world. As a result Iron Maiden’s 14th album was one of the most anticipated records of 2006 and it eventually met significant success.
“A Matter of Life and Death” is a good album, with some very obvious (and disturbing) flaws. It contains some of Iron Maiden’s best ideas since 1988, Bruce Dickinson is in form, though he is no longer the “air raid siren” we met in “Number of the Beast” and he delivers some of his best vocal lines in years. Smith, Murray and Gers sound like a guitar trio at last and Steve Harris holds a prominent role in the band’s sound, as always. As far as songwriting is concerned, the length of each song tells as much as you need to know; more than anything this is a progressive work, in the sense that only one track closes under the 5 minute mark and all other songs are full of riffs, melodies and solos. There is a dark atmosphere throughout the record, which brings to mind (a much better version of) “X-Factor”.
Honestly, most songs on the album, taken individually, sound awesome. The problem is that altogether, “A Matter of Life and Death” can get really weary. This happens mostly because 7 out of 10 songs of the album follow the same patterns; they all start with creepy (though earful) acoustic melodies, they build up in the same fashion, very slowly with pounding riffs, and they climax on choruses the exact same way. This tendency to follow the same patterns buries several incredible songs like “For the Greater Good of God”, “These Colours don’t Run” and “The Longest Day”.
More than anything, what weighs this album down is the lack of any change of pace. It’s not that songs are long. If you are a heavy metal fan that is rarely a problem, and Iron Maiden have written excellent long tracks over the course of their career (“Rime Of the Ancient Mariner”, “Hollowed Be Thy Name” “Seventh Son of A seventh Son” etc.)I don’t remember where I read it, and I’ m not even sure if it concerned this album, but it fits perfectly: “songs march rather than gallop”. Only they march without ever excelling and the trademark Iron Maiden galloping is long gone, and in my case, dearly missed. It could actually be a matter of choice for the band; Mid-tempo songs, filled with epic melodies and strong riffs add a certain grandeur to the record. Given that most songs evolve around the theme of war, it could be possible that the band aimed for this epic-ness on purpose.
Among those aforementioned seven songs there is one that I cannot stand. “Legacy” sounds as if the band wrote it in 1976, much before their first album. Just like a bunch of kids that get together, start writing their own stuff, and have good ideas that they cannot transform into an actual song, “Legacy” has good riffs, nice melodies, a certain folk touch, but no coherence whatsoever, as if it was written by amateurs. And Iron Maiden were never amateurs.
The other 3 songs are actually significantly shorter but again, with the exception of the typical (yet rather enjoyable) opener “Different World” they are mid-tempo, one of them being a nice ballad (“Out of the Shadows”)
Overall this is not a bad album. I must insist that it contains some very, very good ideas. It is very far from being a classic or from meeting the standards this band set in the 80’s however. “A Matter Of Life and Death” is much better than their previous effort, “Dance of Death”, but to me it just proves that several superb songs don’t necessarily make a good album.