Review Summary: Virtual XI is by no means a perfect album, but it sounds like Maiden and has some stellar material that should statisfy people still discovering Maiden's discography.
The nineties were, by and large, a weird time for heavy metal; its popularity had diminished and a lot of metal bands (namely, Metallica) had gone "pop" just to stay relevant. Bands who stuck to what they do best, namely Maiden, had suffered the wrath of the mainstream, and were playing to aging audiences in tiny venues. People were into grunge, and beginning in the mid-nineties, nu-metal, which would thankfully die the death it deserved in the early 2000s when traditional heavy metal came back. And why would Steve Harris care? Well, he didn't. He didn't give a flying rat's ass what people thought of Maiden in the nineties, let alone metal as a whole. And why should he?
The second and final album with Bayley Cook (known as "Blaze"), Virtual XI
was released in 1998, and is considered by many to be Iron Maiden's "worst" album. But don't let that deter you from giving it a try, at least once. As someone who always had an easy-going attitude with regards to my idols, I've always given albums a chance in spite of whatever people credited for its supposed "shortcomings", and maybe I guess I was pre-determined to like the album, as I was taken aback by how much I really liked The X Factor
, but even that aside, there are numerous songs on here that really do leave a lasting impression. If you didn't like Blaze's voice on The X Factor
, this album won't do much to change your mind, but those of you willing to overlook Blaze's voice will find something to like in the album.
The song that gets the album its most flak is "The Angel and The Gambler", known by some as "The Angel and the Never-Ending Chorus". The song is indeed as repetitive as people say, but it isn't THAT bad. It's a pretty simple song instrumentation-wise, but it does have some ripping solos from Dave Murray and Janick Gers, and some meaty drum work from Nicko McBrain. Ultimately, it does get ruined by the rather repetitive chants of "Dont you think I'm a saviour? Don't you think I can save you? Don't you think I can save your life?
", which at which one point, the song becomes theee entire minutes
of that line. The radio version of the song does shorten it to half the song's length, which would have been a welcome replacement. The album does also suffer from a few too many "Whoooooaaaaah, ooooooooh" moments from Blaze, (but thankfully no lame "Yeah YEAH!!!!" moments like on "Judgment of Heaven" from The X-Factor
"). They are a bit too frequent and can be found in at least half the tracks. Furthermore, the production is seriously awful; Steve Harris gave us a result that sounds like it was mixed in a coffee can; the drums sound like plastic cups at times and the guitars sound so synth-like (the middle of "Don't Look", for instance), and furthermore, it sounds like it's coming out of a computer speaker.
Now, that all aside, what really matters is the songs, and there's lots of good songs here. The song that will win everyone over is "The Clansman", which is one of Maiden's best epics to date, and a song that sums up what Maiden is all about. It begins peacefully with some soft acoustic bass, excellent vocals from Blaze and muted guitar-picking from Janick Gers, before exploding into a metal assault with the power of a bunch of Scottish knights marching into battle. The song feels very adventurous and is exciting from the first minute to last, even if it doesn't reach the nights of previous Maiden epics like "Alexander the Great". "Lightning Strikes Twice" is heavy, hard-hitting and powerful, with seemingly metaphorical lyrics about a storm and a sense of suspense and unease throughout, mostly thanks to Blaze's delivery of certain lines. "When Two Worlds Collide" is the "catchy" song on the album and has an excellent chorus, with even a "storm"-like feeling similar to that of "Lightning Strikes Twice". And face it, only Maiden can get away with a song as ridiculously bombastic as "Don't Look to the Eyes of a Stranger", which mixes synth strings and Maiden's usual metal gusto perfectly and lyrics about a stalker. There's even one moment of genius where Blaze whispers, "Don't look to, don't look to, don't look to the eyes of a stranger", and the second time he repeats it, if you listen closely, the sound of a floorboard creaking can be heard. And the album finishes with arguably Maiden's most depressing song yet: "Como Estais Amigos", a song about British soldiers feeling the shame and guilt for the crimes against the Argentines in the Falklands war. A sad, yet beautiful and gripping song with some emotional vocals from Blaze Bayley, once again showing what he's capable of.
Fortunately for most Maiden fans, Blaze's tenure would come to an end the following year, and Bruce and Adrian would rejoin the band. And who should we thank for it? Blaze, the man who kept Maiden going through the 90s. And though Maiden's material in the 90s has received a mixed reception at best, one thing that is certain is that no matter what your verdict on the Blaze era is, ther are some real gems in there. Virtual XI definitely has lots of flaws, but ultimately, those who listen to it and keep doing so will find something to love in it. While it obviously wouldn't make a good starting point, it still remains a satisfying end to a unique era in the band's history. I'd definitely recommend it, but at the same time, I also recommend you give yourself time to really grow to it. It does take more than a few listens to get into, but it's worth the effort in the long run.