Review Summary: With their fifteenth studio release, Iron Maiden have produced their most melodic and complex body of work ever; yet The Final Frontier is replete with progressive riffs and grooves to interest most - if not all.
It will always be difficult to come up with a full album’s worth of new material – especially when you’ve been around as long as Iron Maiden have (well over thirty-five years). However, the iron-clad truth is that virtually anything that the six-piece produce – bar a complete production disaster – is bound to be lapped up and adored by all but their most puristic of followers (those who are still lying in wait for another Seventh Son of a Seventh Son or a new Powerslave).
It is this intrinsic law that usually ends up making the objective judging of a new Maiden release a deceptively complex undertaking, for it is hard to not feel a little bit partial towards the band which was almost single-handedly responsible for the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and blessed with enough longevity and energy to make them the envy of musicians half their age. It also does get more challenging over the years to peel away the veneer of their well-built reputation and look beyond their superbly polished riffs and hooks – which the band are by now instinctively honed to produce due to decades of musicianship – to ask the real question: is their music truly still relevant for the masses and the casual listener?
Indeed it is quite refreshing to learn that despite all that they have achieved, the band still takes itself very seriously – in an interview with Sam Dunn for the “Mission De-Brief” exclusive for the Mission Edition of The Final Frontier, bassist Steve Harris admitted that “personally, I always feel a lot of pressure when we go in to make a new album, and I can’t quite work out whether I need to have that pressure…it’s just the way it is, there is a black cloud (gestures towards the top of his head) that sits here for three or four weeks.”
On The Final Frontier – Iron Maiden’s fifteenth studio album – the pressure to stay relevant is quite evident, particularly as the band does not take all of the steps necessary to completely remove all traces of their epic struggle against staleness; nor do they ever completely leave their comfort zone and experiment more than is absolutely necessary. The album starts convincingly enough though, with the thudding and futuristic-sounding atmospheric opening jam of "Satellite 15…The Final Frontier" that seems to recall scenes from science fiction epics and modern space operas all at once. Here, vocalist Bruce Dickinson opens the album by singing a pleading call to Earth’s Command and for a “signal back from Satellite”, ably setting the tone for what will come after. Just after the four and a half minute-mark however, the band kill the drums and – with a massive lurch – roar forward into the second half of their opening number, which turns out to be a straight-up rocker that works in similar vein to other post-Y2K opening numbers like "Different World", "Wildest Dreams", and "The Wicker Man", but it comes off sounding much more self-assured.
Choosing to tour with only the lead single aboard their recently concluded The Final Frontier World Tour was a pretty dubious decision and a strange call on the part of Iron Maiden, but "El Dorado" worked like a gem live, and is no less effective here as a studio recording. With clever – even cynical – lyrics that allude to the very recent economic depression that swept across the Americas (“The eternal lie I’ve told about the pyramids of gold/I’ve got you hooked at every turn your money’s left to burn”), this one is perfectly fine, and it sits comfortably in the band’s pantheon of singles, feeling particularly at home alongside more recent efforts like "Rainmaker" and "The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg".
However it is when the album movies into its third song that the the band’s grip on the proceedings begins to slip, and their slow dearth of fresh ideas after years of musicianship starts to become evident. "Mother of Mercy" is about the brute senselessness of war and the horrors of dying alone on the battlefield – basically what Iron Maiden has been singing about since 1983′s Piece Of Mind…if not sooner. With lines like “I’m just a lonely soldier fighting in a bloody hopeless war” and “I sit waiting for my darkest hour to come” the feeling is that the band has definitely been on this well-flogged chariot before. So although Bruce Dickinson and the rest of the band are in fine technical form here, this one comes off feeling mediocre and sadly quite tired.
The next two numbers – "Coming Home" and "The Alchemist" – are much, much better. The latter is vintage Iron Maiden, and probably the most accessible track on the album. It wastes no time at all in getting down to the business end of things, jumping onto Steve Harris’ throbbing bass-line at the start before simply hurtling its four and a half minute frame along at a breakneck pace – it should be a great hit live. "Coming Home" is contrastingly a bit more pensive – almost ballad-like – and deals with the scale of insignificance that a single soul faces in the vast expanses of the cosmos. The rich textures of the background mix, along with Dickinson’s soaring vocals and cleverly-arranged riffs from Smith and Harris keep this one strong and engaging throughout.
In a sense, The Final Frontier album is ostensibly divided into two rather distinct parts: the first half of the album represents a more “immediate” and “direct” section that is mainly occupied by shorter, front-loaded heavy rockers. However, in the latter five songs of the album the mood effectively segues into a more progressive section, where complex arrangements and different sonic arrangements are more dominant, with a greater emphasis on creating long sprawling epics with constant changes in tempo and dynamics. The song "Isle of Avalon" is a good example of this, taking form as a solemn, almost spiritual call to the heralded destruction of Planet Earth and the mystic powers of the isle of Arthurian legend. The sombre mood is well-sustained by the constant flicking and clever interplay of the band’s triumvirate of electric guitars, with a synthesized wind constantly “blowing” in the background. As an arranged piece it is probably second to none on this record.
The seventh song – "Starblind" – begins with some simple strumming that suddenly explodes into a cacophony of harsh-sounding riffs and a pounding bassline. It begins promisingly, but soon starts to get a bit repetitive, especially towards the middle section and the final third, despite the band’s best efforts to keep the listener interested through tempo-switching and several reprises of the main riff. Ultimately however, "Starblind" does end up plodding along quite a bit as it rather aimlessly careens to an end at 7 minutes and 48 seconds. Song number eight, "The Talisman" suffers from the exact same problems that plagued Mother of Mercy about half an hour earlier – it has lyrics that are completely similar in vein and form to previous Iron Maiden classics like "Ghost of the Navigator" and "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (“The spirits of the sunken crews/Their phantoms follow us/Spirits sail they drive us on/Through the all-consuming waves”).
As a result, it lyrically ends up coming off as a more polished and slicker rehash of an older and much-used fable…in a very uncanny Nickelback-like manner. It feels like the band stops short of venturing outside their comfort zone when the going gets tricky, preferring instead to stick to a true tried-and-tested formula. This is a bit of a shame, for "The Talisman" is at heart a rip-roaring piece that has a lot going for it in pace and structure; it definitely deserves better service than the one afforded by the hand-me-down, worn lyrics ultimately attached to it.
However, it is notable that both of "Starblind" and "The Talisman" probably have the best bits of singing that Bruce Dickinson does on this album. Somewhat unusually, on The Final Frontier there is very minimal double-tracking and hardly any backing or accompanying vocals, with only Dickinson’s quasi-operatic tenor being used to carry the songs from point-to-point.
"The Man Who Would Be King" is a mid-tempo track that takes a while (about two and a half minutes) to get going. Once it does though, it fits comfortably into the overall feel of the album which has been remarkably consistent up to this point. With darker lyrical themes and a long, sprawling “epic” nature, "The Man Who Would Be King" feels like it would not be out of place on A Matter of Life and Death, Iron Maiden’s 14th studio effort.
The Final Frontier is book-ended by the eleven minute-long "When The Wild Wind Blows", the third-longest song that Iron Maiden have ever recorded. Written entirely by Steve Harris, this very melodic song is a fitting and strangely beautiful end to an album that spans over 76 minutes in length, creating a strong sense of foreboding as it gradually builds into its own crescendo. The lyrics are among the most ironic and cynical to ever appear on an Iron Maiden song: “When they found them had their arms wrapped around each other/Their tins of poison laying nearby their clothes/The day they both mistook an earthquake for the fall out/Just another when the wild wind blows.” Despite its lack of true fist-pumping moments, the track is Iron Maiden at their new, progressive best and works as a fantastic closing number.
Overall, The Final Frontier comes off as a satisfying – if at times very safe – record from one of modern heavy metal’s biggest acts. The production is crisp, tight, and does not suffer from needless compression or clipping. As a coherent body of work the album continues to progress along the path that first began with 2006′s A Matter of Life and Death and captures Iron Maiden at their level-best and continuing to produce extremely lengthy but well-crafted songs that almost seem to serve as an elaborate epitaph to the high-tempo days of yore. The casual Maiden fan will definitely love it, whereas the Powerslave-demanding purist may need to wait for it to grow on him or her. But it should eventually.
Author's Note: This review may also be found on my personal blog (at the address http://snuffleupagush.wordpress.com/2010/09/06/the-final-frontier-the-final-frontier/).