The most common misconception about X-Factor is that it was a record more suited for Bruce Dickinson to sing. It wasn’t, neither was any of the previous two. Being forced to (or having chosen to) distance himself from his classic operatic style, Dickinson was less than spectacular in both No Prayer for the Dying and Fear of the Dark. In a way, Dickinson’s departure in 1993, couldn’t have been a surprise to anyone who followed the band closely, it only confirmed that he didn’t feel comfortable singing for Iron Maiden anymore. It probably wasn’t his fault either. Steve Harris was heading for a record like X-Factor since 1990, when he decided that it was time for Iron Maiden to go “back to basics” and rediscover the joy of writing rawer material, with references that went as far as Guns’n’Roses (yes, that’s what From Here to Eternity, Weekend Warrior and Chains of Misery sound like and so does Wasting Love). In an environment like that, Bruce Bruce, who needed the high speed, the galloping rhythms, the huge choruses, the constant tension and the equally challenging instrumental interplay between two extremely gifted guitar players, was a total stranger.
X-Factor retains many of the elements of Maiden’s new found sound. But Harris, who is a true artist, remains ambitious and brave. He found out that with Bailey, Maiden didn’t only have a more effective hard rock side, but also a more evil and atmospheric heavy metal one. As a result, X-Factor, without ever bringing to mind anything from the classic Iron Maiden, is an expansion on the band’s then recent sound (without the dreadful Guns’n’Roses influence) through punchy and, for the most part, mid-tempo, archetypical heavy metal that develops into long, dark songs. Diversity is probably not one of X-Factor’s strengths, but Maiden manage to remain interesting during the whole 70+minutes of this record’s music.
There is some kind of a pattern in X-Factor indeed. Most songs start off with Bailey singing softly over moody acoustic guitars; then Maiden get heavier, often with an impressively tight groove, and when the second (or third as is the case in Look for the Truth) chorus is sang, they often speed up during Gers’ and Murray’s leads, before returning to a last chorus and usually to the acoustic melody that started off the song. That way most tracks end up being relatively long without necessarily being complex. Fortunes of War and Aftermath are two examples of this pattern failing, where Maiden seem stale and repetitive, with a slowness that doesn’t derive from the music itself but from the strong sense that these songs drag for too long on purpose. And when you are about to give up on them, there come songs that use pretty much the same structure, like Judgement of Heaven, Edge of Darkness and 2 a.m. where in spite of the lack of a second guitar that would harmonize the first, the melodic leads are once again incredible; the galloping riffs are absent (well, to be honest Edge of Darkness has something of a gallop) but the pace does get faster at some point in every one of these songs and it is -surprisingly- equally effective; and with Bailey Maiden might sound like a different group, but at least he does justice to that rawer version of what used to be the world’s primal metal force.
As said before, X-Factor is ambitious in its own way. “Unbeliever” is incoherent, but it is something of a prog experiment, which at the time was quite unexpected from Maiden, while in Blood on the World’s Hands they sound restless, playing technically demanding stuff that would clearly be difficult to perform live. However X-Factor’s special moments are its most famous ones; Lord of the Flies is direct, flows nicely and is actually very memorable. Man on the Edge is X-Factor’s only truly fast track (with a somewhat NWOBHM quality), from start to finish, and it proves that speedy material suits Iron Maiden best. Finally, The Sign of the Cross is an absolute Maiden classic, 11 of the best minutes Maiden have composed since Seventh Son, a dark epic that can transform you into a Maiden maniac immediately.
Fans tend to relate periods of time, years of success or decline, to certain people. To any fan, Maiden’s heavenly godliness of years past just isn’t compatible with Bailey’s down to earth vocals- but X-Factor needed a voice with a natural strength and a lower register. Murray’s and Smith’s chemistry is irreplaceable- but the amazing melodic parts in this record are rarely harmonized, which is evidence that all X-Factor needed was a reliable guitar duet. Steve Harris can’t be consistent when he composes a whole record all alone - then again this album was the embodiment of what he had in mind since 1990 (the back to basics approach) and this is actually the key to understanding it. X-Factor is a glance towards everything that inspired and motivated Harris when he was a kid; a certain respect for early prog rock and Thin Lizzy, an admiration for raw hard rock in the process of becoming heavy metal, and a passion to discover/create the most beautiful melodies even in the dirtiest kinds of music. In this inconsistent and slightly repetitive record, Maiden’s primary elements are still dominant, not in the form of a masterpiece such as Powerslave or Seventh Son, but in the form of a record that is definitely worth your time.