Review Summary: Virtual XI is like a once muscular man that ate too much and got fat. There's still muscle underneath it all, but the fat (repetition) robs it of much of its power.
Virtual XI is Iron Maiden’s eleventh album, and second album with replacement vocalist Blaze Bayley. Throughout the 90’s, Iron Maiden kept finding themselves in a critical and commercial rut that seemed to get deeper every album, especially in The X Factor, which generated controversy for Blaze Bayley’s lower-range vocals, as well as the softer instrumentation and darker atmosphere. Virtual XI was no different; in fact, it is considered to be an all-time low for Maiden. The X Factor displayed excellent songwriting throughout the whole thing and is a sadly lost gem in Iron Maiden’s discography. The same cannot be said for Virtual XI, whose flaws damage what could have been on par with the rest of the band’s discography.
Much of the criticism of the album is directed at the singer, Blaze Bayley. His vocal range is lower and narrower than Bruce Dickinson’s was, and he can’t do the high-pitched wails that made Iron Maiden famous. Blaze isn’t a bad singer; his tone has improved a little since The X Factor, and he would continue to get better as he progressed through his solo career (which is absolutely worth checking out). That being said, it does feel like he’s going through the motions and not really trying his best. He shines on certain tracks like “The Clansman”, “When Two Worlds Collide”, and “Como Estais Amigos”, but on other songs, he sounds bored and lacks the personality that he had on The X Factor. The lyrics are all right, but not extraordinary overall.
But the real problem with Virtual XI is the over-repetition. The 53-minute album is roughly ten minutes overweight, so to speak. Iron Maiden has started developing a habit of repeating parts of songs more times than needed, particularly the chorus; and this habit is at its worst on Virtual XI. Every song is guilty of this repetition to some degree, even the sub-3-minute opener “Futureal”. The only possible exception is the closer, “Como Estais Amigos”, which is a passionate ballad about war and peace, and is, coincidentally, my favorite song on the album. Other songs, however, have enough repetition to ruin to ruin the whole song. “The Angel and the Gambler” and “Don’t Look to the Eyes of a Stranger” would have been great songs if they weren’t so overstuffed. Instead, they are boring at the best and unlistenable at the worst. The former, in particular, has such an insane amount of repetition that it simply baffles me why they made it that way. In a ten-minute song, the chorus is repeated 22 times in total; the song could have literally been chopped in half and it would have been far better. It’s a debilitating flaw on the record that didn’t even have to happen if Steve Harris had decided when enough was enough.
Despite this flaw, Virtual XI can’t be called a truly bad record, because the songs ARE good. Highlights include the aforementioned closer, the short-and-sweet speed rocker “Futureal”, and “The Clansman”, the album’s best epic. “When Two World Collides” and “Lightning Strikes Twice” have atmospheric intros that lead into powerful rock songs. Structurally, the longer songs fall apart, but musically, they both display some great musical ideas. The backing band itself is not bad at all; this is Iron Maiden we’re talking about. The guitars, drum, and bass are not as complex or daring as they are on other records by the band, but they work well enough and provide some interesting moments. The keyboards play a more prominent role here than most of the band’s other releases, and they are well-played and contribute to the overall feel of the album, which is unique among Maiden’s discography: spacey and modern. Virtual XI seems to have been intended to be a “feel-based” album, rather than a technical one.
So, all in all, Virtual XI is good, but only just. The band and Bayley deliver a solid performance; not exemplary, but passable. There are good moments throughout the album, unfortunately surrounded by filler moments. Virtual XI is an album definitely worth listening to, but it doesn’t begin to have the replay value other Iron Maiden releases do.
Iron Maiden Discography 8/15