Review Summary: Iron Maiden's Dark Masterpiece
Ah, the Nineties. While I personally only remember watching Disney movies, Star Wars and Power Rangers all the time, these were seemingly dark times for the metal world. British heavy metal was all but dead in the United States, thanks to the grunge scene, and all three of the British metal titans had lost their singers: Black Sabbath’s Ronnie James Dio, Judas Priest’s Rob Halford and Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson.
In particular, Iron Maiden seemed to be at death’s door. Not only had Dickinson left the band, but longtime producer for the band Martin Birch had decided to retire from producing. On top of this, band leader Steve Harris had to deal with the death of his father and was going through a divorce with his wife of sixteen years at the same time.
With Dickinson’s departure, fans speculated a great deal as to who would replace the Air Raid Siren at the microphone on stage, with Helloween’s recently former singer Michael Kiske being the most common guess among the fanbase. While many singers had indeed auditioned for the gig, Harris only ever seriously considered and seriously auditioned with two singers in particular; Rainbow’s Doogie White and Wolfsbane’s Blaze Bayley. The latter greatly impressed the band at his audition and was awarded the position of being Iron Maiden’s new singer in 1994. The band spent the following year writing and recording Bayley’s debut album with the Beast at the Barnyard Studio with Harris and engineer Nigel Green producing the album together.
What was the result? The X Factor.
It is important to note here the difference between Blaze Bayley and Bruce Dickinson. Bayley is a baritone, while Dickinson is a tenor (the common vocal range for traditional heavy metal vocalists). Instead of Dickinson’s soaring and theatrical voice, The X Factor features Bayley’s haunting and powerful voice. Where Dickinson can scream and hit wonderful high notes like the Air Raid Siren that he is, Bayley utilizes his lower and mid-range with the power of a massive cannon. Bayley also pours his heart out in his voice, offering a more flawed and human approach to the Iron Maiden sound, in comparison to Dickinson’s more theatrical story-telling approach. Both are incredible singers that are insanely talented at their strengths.
With Hugh Syme’s macabre album cover featuring Eddie being tortured, The X Factor marks the return of the darker and more progressive side of Iron Maiden that had last been seen on Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, and can also be seen as a sign of the direction the band would take several years later with the return of Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith. However, in comparison to Seventh Son, The X Factor does not sound dated at all. Admittedly, the production done by Harris and Green is unusual. The guitars don’t necessarily sound all that heavy most of the time and it is a rather quiet album. However, this unusual production works in the album’s favor: the bass and drums are heard very easily with the lighter guitar sound, and when the guitar solos kick in, they often sound like a musical explosion with the sudden “oomph!” added into the guitar sound. The quiet sound can also be remedied by simply turning the volume up higher.
The album opens up with the sound of a dark and atmospheric synthesizer that is soon accompanied by Gregorian chanting that becomes progressively louder and louder until it fades away. With that, the band kicks in with an eerie riff as Bayley sings his first lines as Iron Maiden’s vocalist: “Eleven saintly shrouded men…” The band continues on with their foreboding music for a few more moments before they turn it up a notch. Iron Maiden plays this opening epic (Sign of the Cross) with an intensity not seen in the band since 1988. Bayley sings the lyrics with a conviction that Dickinson was unable to achieve when he sang the song later in 2000 on the Brave New World tour. Not long after this, the rest of the band proceed into one of their greatest instrumental segments ever, with the guitar duo of Janick Gers and Dave Murray playing an assortment of dark riffs that weave along with the ever-present synthesizers. Eventually, the instrumental builds its way up into a climax, signaling Gers and Murray to launch off their fiery solos in that previously mentioned explosive manner. Afterwards, much like Hallowed Be Thy Name, the band rides out the climax of the instrumental before ushering Bayley back into to sing the chorus once more. The song then ends as it began with the eerie acoustics as Bayley repeats the opening lines one last time.
The following two songs, Lord of the Flies and Man on the Edge, are perhaps the two songs most similar to that of the classic Iron Maiden songs. They are both relatively fast paced rockers and rather melodic. While they aren’t my personal favorites off the album, fans of the classic material might want to listen to these songs first to ease their way into The X Factor and Bayley’s voice. Harris, Gers and Bayley all contributed a great deal to the songwriting on the album, and it seems as if Gers and Bayley especially had a chemistry similar to what Smith and Dickinson have in their classic and reunion material.
Much like the band’s more recent albums, The X Factor contains multiple epics beside the opening Sign of the Cross; Fortunes of War, The Aftermath, The Edge of Darkness and The Unbeliever. The first two both explore the common situations of returning soldiers that are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, with The Aftermath focusing in on the soldiers of World War I in particular.
The Edge of Darkness is based on the classic film Apocalypse Now, which in turn is based on the novel Heart of Darkness. Bayley gives a particularly impressive vocal performance on this song, switching his voice from a quiet and haunted whisper to a massive roar of a soldier with a snap. The most impressive moment is right after the instrumental section as he sings “Here the knife in my hand, AND NOW I UNDERSTAND WHY THE GENIUS MUST DIIIEEE!”
Following The Edge of Darkness is the introspective and slow 2 a.m. While it isn’t necessarily sweeping or epic, this song holds a lot of power in it for me. The song explores a young man’s thoughts in the middle of the night as he wonders what his purpose in life is. After spending some time in the real world and seeing childhood dreams and expectations quickly wither away, 2 a.m. showcases those moments we often have and wonder what the point is to it all. This song is something that I cannot see Dickinson being able to sing properly. Bayley pours so much emotion into this song that Dickinson would struggle to recreate with his wonderful taste for the vocal theatrics.
While Bruce Dickinson is one of my all-time favorite singers ever, and he is most certainly a part of the classic Iron Maiden sound, I must confess that I feel that Blaze Bayley gave the single best vocal performance on any Iron Maiden album with The X Factor. His voice matches so perfectly with the introspective and gothic sound that permeates throughout the album, and while both he and Dickinson have done superior vocal performances on their solo albums, Bayley is the key to what makes The X Factor work.
In conclusion, The X Factor is quite possibly Iron Maiden’s greatest album. There is some competition from one or two albums with Dickinson on vocals, but The X Factor stands out for its uniqueness from both Bayley’s vocals and the emotional state that the band was in at the time they wrote the album. While it may not have sold well in the States, The X Factor is the album that revitalized the band in the long run.