Review Summary: The X Factor is a small, secret triumph.
In the 90s, Steve Harris' two lives hit rock bottom: his personal life, and Iron Maiden. He got himself caught in a nasty divorce situation and custody battle over his children that messed him up for good, and the air raid siren, Bruce Dickinson
, left the band due to creative differences and a desire to start work on a solo career. Yet like a real trooper (pun intended), Steve carried on Iron Maiden. No matter the glut that heavy metal suffered due to grunge and rap, Iron Maiden was far from being over.
After listening to hours of audition tapes, Steve Harris and Dave Murray settled on only one singer: Bayley Cooke. Better known by his stage name as "Blaze Bayley", Cooke's vocals were noticeably different from that of Dickinson's soaring air raid siren vocals. Whereas Bruce was higher pitched and operatic, Blaze's voice was deep and unique, with an air of goth to it that suited the dark music that would follow. As expected, people were so used to Dickinson's voice, that accepting that a singer with a far deeper and lower voice was now the singer of one of the best known Heavy Metal bands was a stretch, and Blaze wasn't well received by many. But for those of us who are able to overlook the absence of Bruce Dickinson, and focus on the music, lyrics and overall feel, this album is a masterpiece that deserves better thannit got.
Does Blaze sound as good as Bruce? Getting the obvious out of the way: no. I'm sure even Blaze himself would admit that Bruce is a much better singer. And in concert, he got a lot of flak for being unable to sing Bruce's songs (mostly because of Steve's stubbornness to keep the songs in their original key), but he's a good singer overall. In fact, his voice suits the dark tone of the album. At times his voice does really fail on pitch and can grate if you're in the wrong mood, but he served his purpose: to sing for Maiden. He didn't try to sound like Bruce, but he gave his own approach to Maiden, and it works. In addition, this is musically some of their best work, and lyrically the album continues to showcase the boys' great songwriting skills, with the obvious songs based off of fictional works, and even a song or two based around the Divorce and Steve's feelings t the time.
If you only know one or two tracks off the album, chances are they're "Man on the Edge", and "Lord of the Flies". "Man on the Edge" is catchy, upbeat and with the lyrics based off Joel Schumacher's 1993 dark comedic thriller Falling Down
. In fact, in traditional Maiden fashion, the chorus goes, "Falling down, falling down, falling down...
". You can tell Steve really understands D-FENS' character, and it shows in the lyrics: "Once he built missiles for nations' defense/now he can't even give birthday presents/across the city relieves in his wake/a glimpse of the future, a cannibal state...
". The latter song begins with a catchy riff that wouldn't be out of place on one of AC/DC's finer efforts, and eventually segues into a bluesy rock n' roll tune. Predictably, it's also based off a fictional work with the same name, and focuses more on the poetic side lyrically. But even better is the live version on "Death on the Road." The song's key is lowered to suit Bruce's higher vocal range and has a more metal edge to it.
Other highlights include "The Aftermath", which is arguably the best track from this era. Pep ing with a soft guitar intro that lasts a few bars before transitioning into a groovy beat, the lyrics are another one of Maiden's war tunes, and Blaze's vocals fit the dark mood of the tune, but easily the second half outweighs the first half, especially as the ending draws near, the song sifts tempo just a bit and the best lines of the song, with the best vocal deliveries. "What is a war when the battles are done/After the war when there's no one has won/I'm just a soldier...
" Right then, the song explodes into an uptempo with one of Janick Gers' best solos, and meaty drumming from Nicko. "Blood on the World's Hands[" is one of the only tracks you'll hear Steve perform a bass solo, before the dark tone of the song is set and Blaze angrily shout-sings about how messed up the world is. But it's not just a typical "the world is a horrible place" tune. The lyrics spare no detail of everyday life: "Another assassination, the same day a new creation/What are we getting into?/Security of a world that brings/One day, another killing/Somewhere else, someone's starving/Another a savage raping/Meanwhile, there's someone laughing at us.
" And the official "tearjerker" tune of the album, a power ballad named "2 A.M.", written about how Steve felt like his life was pointless and meaningless when the divorce hit. The melancholy tone of the song and the mid-tempo beat truly will get the waterworks going.
Is The X-Factor
one of the great Maiden albums? Most likely not. Did Blaze Bayley have any business fronting Maiden? Maybe not. But does that mean it's not worth a listen? Absolutely not! The key is to go into this album with an open mind, and to keep in mind that this is still Maiden. Musically it still has Maiden's sound, albeit with a darker side, and even though there may not be any immediate classics, the album will grow on you with time. It's definitely better than the albums that preceded, and you do need to bear in mind that Bruce was in a totally different place whole the album was in production. At the time, Bruce didn't want to be a part of anything that is a product, and we all know that a Maiden album usually ends up being a product. But even still, if you can get over the fact that Bruce isn't on the album, you'll likely end up putting this album high in your Maiden rankings. Recommended for sure.