Review Summary: Maiden utilising a baritone? In "The X Factor" they sincerely tried...
Let’s pretend you have listened to all Maiden’s releases prior and post The X Factor. For reasons omitting the obviousness of placement the opener stands out. After one hour and eleven minutes have passed you will notice that “Sign of the Cross” is maybe the best song present in this album. Another thing that you'll notice almost instantaneously, is that this is the one opener out of all Maiden’s discography, which will not get into the first verse of the song within its first minute of playback (not taking into account intros like the Ides of March or Satellite 15).
Iron Maiden have always been straight ahead in their approach musically. None of them were virtuosos on their instruments (except Nicko maybe with regard to classic metal), moreover, and similar to the vast majority of rock and metal musicians, they lacked the theoretical aspect of musical composition, yet they managed to elevate their cumulative result through simplicity, achieving legendary status within the genre. That's perhaps because Steve is an inherent workaholic with an ability to focus and along with him, they had two additional non-academic yet talented songwriters in Bruce and Adrian. Catchy twin guitar melodies supplementing the riffs, adding harmonic range with the vocals, the trademark gallop of Steve implementing mobility - the kind of a metalers idea about groove if you may. From their early punkish Di’Anno days to the progier later half of the 80s, Maiden delivered by utilising their strong points. Popping in each of their albums till 1992 you could tell within the first few seconds that the record is a Maiden release. This is the one album that sounds less Maiden than all, including the following Virtual XI and if you are like me, believing that the X-Factor ranks higher than Virtual XI, you may already have given yourself the answer to - is it always a bad thing, not to sound like Maiden?
Blaze Bayley is restricted here and rightfully so. His vocals are pushed back in the mix, the songs were written with him in mind… small range, just use of dynamics, don’t go where you cannot go, let the band do the rest and being shy is not always a bad thing. Additionally, I cannot deny that Harris’ sincere depressive touch back in 1995 pervades the album, and the lyrics are relevant to the sound. The whole album emanates a certain… darkness. Now is Blaze the main reason for this album not being reminiscent of Iron Maiden? Not directly, as he was not the direct reason behind Virtual sounding more maiden-ish than this yet worse.
A way one can realise if someone is a promising singer or not is the following.
Give him lets say eight bars of a verse to sing over. At first, play a riff accentuating-doubling the voice (e.g. “Iron Man”, or “Prowler”). If one cannot sing over that adequately, don’t bother with him anylonger. The second time give him only a chord at on the first bar (e.g. “Heaven and Hell”, which is basically an Ebm chord implied by the bassline, or “Flight of Icarus” if you prefer a Maiden analogy). If he can perform under such context, then you may be on the verge of finding a competent vocalist.
Now if one passes only the first case scenario and fails the latter, it is not necessary for him to be dismissed - even if Iron Maiden could find someone more fitting their musical formulas. So, how can you utilise the interviewee of the first case? Help him with the songwriting, help him with the dynamics and don’t put him front spot - cover up his deficiencies. In The X Factor, Maiden sincerely tried.
Check out “Look for the Truth”. Every single piece of Nicko’s Drums is accentuating Blaze’s dynamics: No more gallop on the bass, root over Blaze’s dynamics, guitars doubling the bass - over Blaze’s dynamics. Plus, a layer of keyboards trying to disguise rhythmic stagnancy. There is no other way to make that work period. Progressive my ass some may think and I would agree, but offer an alternative.
Coming back to the musical simplicity encrypted in Maiden’s DNA strand, you may have noticed the numerous times their song structures, follow a certain code…The guitars offer the exact or approximate vocal melody reproduction before the verse. Actually the song is based and structured around a single melody (Prowler, Running Free, Run to the Hills). That was mostly evident in their early releases and though they abolished it during their prime years, they got back to it in Fear of the Dark (“Afraid to shoot strangers” – btw, the one old Maiden tune Blaze could reproduce live without struggling - and the title track). They also did it in the X-factor. But there were some strand deficiencies that time – DNA holes - which made the simplicity once providing the basis for metal compositions ranging from good to classic, to now border auditory plainness. You see, there is a difference between playing the same notes, and playing the same notes at the same register.
The simple musical framing Adrian and Dave provide to a tenor like Bruce, can work when they mostly play at lower registers than him. That is because usually the higher voice/notes stand out (that’s the way human ears work), being the vanguard of the tune hence disguising/covering what lies underneath. Imagine Bruce hitting an F5 note while the band accompanies him with a lower registered D chord: the song gets a certain range… it opens up. The other way around rarely works - the accompanist playing higher than the melody- especially in rock music. Even Paul’s strong notes were in a tenor range, contrary to Blaze's. Iron Maiden should not have picked Blaze, not because he is a bad singer, but because Maiden don’t possess the tools to optimally utilise him - they don’t know how to do it.
Blaze is a limited baritone and the morphology of guitars or bass, considering that Maiden never used alternate or drop tunings, limits the lowest range they can provide. Furthermore Iron Maiden are strangers to harmonic embellishments, other than basic chords or catchy melodic lines, when accompanying. So, the end result with the above formula and Blaze sounds confined, as Murray, Gers, and Harris move around the same range as he does; the extract sounds limited - suffocative at times. It was a thought in the right direction to try and provide some lengthy instrumental passages throughout the songs, mostly evident in the likes of “Fortunes of War” and “The unbeliever” to break up the monotony of delivery, but still, there is a difference between disguising the problem and it not being there in the first place. I am not contradicting myself; the same formula that made this album mediocre and not poor is also responsible for not allowing it to be any better. Check the live Rock in Rio or Death on the Road with Bruce to witness the vibrancy and the openness permeating tunes from the X-factor such as “Sign of the Cross” and “Lord of the Flies”.
The above approach - All along now! Let's help our vocalist - cannot make an album stand out to my ears, especially when it exceeds the one hour mark. When your vocalist isn’t the best around though, or to cut Blaze a slack - when your vocalist is called to fill the shoes of one named Bruce Dickinson, amidst lack of thorough theoretical and compositional knowledge of how to utilise a baritone - it can make it at least audible.