Review Summary: A Matter of Life and Death is an album that is an example of a band maturing while still staying close to their roots, resulting in a beautiful, artsy materpiece that feels like a journey.
A Matter of Life and Death is one of those rare albums that I'd call "art". Alright, so I'm guessing most have probably already read my review of Maiden Heaven and noticed that I have a raging hard-on for everything Maiden, however A Matter of Life and Death is one of the most musically complex, and just plain gorgeous albums I've ever heard. It's also worth noting that it holds a special place in my heart because it's the first Maiden album I've ever physically owned a copy of. Having a copy of Powerslave borrowed from the library ripped to my computer, my mom got the album for me for Christmas 2006. And I remember the first time I listened to it front to back- I was just in pure awe from beginning to end. Hell, I think I was even shocked by it- not in a bad way, but because I was unsure initially if a band who had been around as long as they have could still nail it.
So I'll admit, maybe the reason I'm a huge defender of post-1992 Maiden is because I got into their new stuff first, despite having heard Powerslave initially. Thing is, Powerslave never really grew on me until at least a year later, when I started buying their back catalogue. I immediately seeked out Dance of Death and Brave New World soon after hearing AMOLAD, ¬*then proceeded to get into the older stuff. So in a way, you could say I worked backwards. Either way, A Matter of Life and Death is clear evidence that Maiden still have it after all these years, and at their 14th album, writing more serious and thoughtful tunes is never a bad idea, as their progression continues to take them in the direction that they can still sound like themselves, even if they choose to write slower and more melancholic material.
Starting out the album with a catchy and upbeat opener is Different World, which begins with Nicko McBrain giving his trademark "ARYEEE!!!". Form there on in, a catchy opener unfolds, and it's probably the only sing in the album that sounds close to the good old Maiden. It does a good job t opening the album and has a great solo by Adrian Smith. The chorus is very catchy as well and overall it's a great fun track. Next is "These Colours Don't Arun", where the album's more progressive, slower style kicks in. The opening is pretty slow, but sets the tone greatly with the song's main riff. The sing then kicks in to a pretty catchy tune with great lyrics about how important it is to show pride in your country, especially overseas. The best part is the instrumental section in the middle, and great solos combined with the final part where Bruce and the band "ooohs" along to the riff.
Possibly my favourite song on the album, "Brighter Than A Thousand Suns" begins with some great tension building with the main riff being played, Kenney's synths and Bruce's intense vocals. "We are not the sons of god, we are not his chosen people now...". The song is about Robert Oppenheimer, the creator of the Manhattan Project. Throughout the song there's a steady tension building, and the part where Bruce sings "Out of the darkness, brighter than a thousand suns" a few times in the lower register and then suddenly kicks into the high register is just ***ing BEAUTIFUL. The intensely heavy part in the middle is especially just fantastic, and the songs explosion of an ending is too intense for words to describe, with the horrifying outro that features Bruce singing, "holy father, we have sinned...". This song is 8 minutes of pure perfection, folks.
Next is a short, catchy and upbeat tune reminiscent of the nineties with a touch of Powerslave, entitled "The Pilgrim". The song has a very adventurous feel, and describes the journeys of the ancient pilgrims of the east. The sing even boasts some eastern tinged riffs and a very eastern sounding solo from Janick Gers. Then it's followed by what may be the scariest song about war ever: "The Longest Day". If this song doesn't scare you, I don't know what will. The riff in the verses¬*that sounds like a boat motor, Bruce's intense singing and the lyrics capturing the horror of the D-Day landings... Maiden know how to tell stories visually with their lyrics, and as Bruce sings "Oh, the water is red with the blood of the dead, but I'm still alive where the good have survived.." you can't help but feel nervous for the song's protagonist. The instrumental section in the middle is fantastic with doomy guitar and bass riffs that help heighten the horror further.
The next song is a relaxing and beautiful ballad named "Out of the Shadows", about birth, life, the roads life takes us on and how they may be adverse at times but we need to face the rough times to get to the moments of beauty. Normally a band like Maiden doing a song like this would be cheesy and laughable, but Bruce puts so much emotion into his vocals and there are some seriously beautiful melodies- like the one section that mixes the acoustic and electric guitars. The next song is without a doubt the creepiest song Makden has ever done: The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg. The music is unnerving and unsettling right off the bat and the lyrics sound like a sad clown lament. "I'm able to see things, things I don't wanna see, the lives of a thousand souls, weighing down on me..." sweet dreams! The solos are fantastic as per usual and the song's dark sounding tune manages to create a nightmarish yet beautiful mood.
If not for the horrifyingly depressing "The Man Who Would Be King" on the next album, "For the Greater Good of God" would be first in line for that honour of the saddest song Maiden ever wrote. The song is about the current war on terror and religion over in the middle east, and makes us question why we constantly prejudice each other over religion. "And all because of it, you think that we would learn, but still the body count and city fires burn. Somewhere, there's someone¬*dying in a foreign land, meanwhile the world is crying 'stupidity of men'." The musicianship is stellar and Nicko's drum performance especially is worth noting, as he puts full intensity into his drumming and helps the intense feel of the music greatly. The next song, "Lord of Light" borders between rocking as hell and dreamy and surreal, as Bruce's soft singing over the nightmarish guitar intro is almost dreamlike. The song's focus of Lucifer as a tragic figure is inters tin as well, as itsuggests that Lucifer didn't want to be evil but was rather shotgunned into it by Satan.¬*
The last tune is one epic rocker, "The Legacy". The opening sounds like a nightmarish lullaby, with the creepy acoustic and Bruce's singing the ambiguous lyrics about "Tale of men, all dressed in black, that most of them not coming back". After some acoustic rifting and a few teases of Electric guitar, the song kicks in and moves at a mostly mid tempo pace, and Bruce hits some EPIC high notes! Then the song breaks down into an epic section that extends near the end and the brilliant ensemble playing of Jan, H and Dave, with a great solo from Dave are just plain brilliant. The outro lyrics with the great harmonies are fantastic as well, and the songs message about how war has utterly wrecked our world and scraped our last shreds of dignity is loud and clear. And as soon as the acoustic outro comes, there's me, sad that the album is over.
There aren't enough synonyms in the English langauge to describe how amazing this album is- it's epic, it's melancholy, it's sad, scary at times, and there are several moments where you can't help but be intoxicated by the music. As I type this, I'm listening to "For the Greater Good of God" and am just lost in the beauty of the music. I've listened to this album many times over the years and it'll forever have a special and important place in my heart.
If you want to hear an example of how a band that has been around for nearly 40 years can still put out amazingly consistent music as they get older, this album is a must. It's for the patient listener for sure, those who like to sit down and immerse themselves in the music, and for those expecing 4 minute songs like "Run to the Hills", stick to the 80s albums. I love the 80s albums but I've always preferred Maiden's newer, more progressive stuff.
So without any reservations or doubts, I can for sure say that this is an album you must hear, Maiden fan or not.