It's finally upon us. After months of waiting, colossal heavy metal band Iron Maiden has finally released their 14th album, A Matter of Life and Death
. The latest highly anticipated offering from the band continues the progressive influenced direction that they've been taking over the last few years again, with contributions from all members. Way back when in my Powerslave review, I predicted that the new album would be an excellent one, however, it would not be able to match what I consider Iron Maiden's best two albums, Powerslave and Somewhere in Time. So now that the album has been released, was my prediction right, does A Matter of Life and Death surpass all that the band has done before?
Without giving away the answer to the previous sentence, I can safely say that A Matter of Life and Death is by far the band's best album in years. Iron Maiden's latest offering represents a climax of sorts that is similar to the expression "walk before you run." Yes my friends, the epic trends that began showing up in Iron Maiden's often criticized album, The X Factor, and weaved their way through the next few are present on this album and they are at their very best. So that's fine and dandy, but what do I refer to when I mention that expression? Well, the beginning stages of the sound that the band has been attempting to perfect during the past ten years can be compared to the beginning stages of basic movement. Material like The Edge of Darkness and The Educated Fool showed Maiden fans a lot of promise, yet they didn't showcase the band at its top level. Iron Maiden's musical experimentation began to walk with the return of Bruce and Adrian on 2000's Brave New World album. Finally with Dance of Death, the sound began showing the fruits of its labour, conceiving arguably the band's greatest masterpiece, Paschendale, and successfully transforming that walk to a jog/light run. Finally, in 2006, Iron Maiden takes the momentum drawn from their last couple albums & tours and upgrades their jog to a wild sprint. To summarize, Steve Harris and co. took the highest points of the band's last four albums and welded them into a 71 minute album than cannot be described without the words powerful and epic.
Not since Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, or perhaps even Somewhere in Time, has Iron Maiden come up with an album that utilizes the strengths of the band as well as A Matter of Life and Death. Through 10 songs, the sextet shows off their songwriting chops with epic atmospheres, melodic interludes, several time changes, sing-along choruses, and excellent, heavy (by Maiden's standards) riffs. Right from the get go, the guitarists Adrian, Dave, and Janick show listeners that the band means business with an aggressive riff that starts off the album's opener, Different Worlds. This attitude is picked up by the other members of the band and it is an attitude they do not quickly drop. Of course, there are many impressive solos from the three guitarists, and this is just the icing on the cake. Or perhaps the cake under the icing, since I prefer to icing. For many of the songs, take Brighter than a Thousand Suns or The Pilgrim for example, the soloing does not take the spotlight, but is just as vital to the songs progression as the winding interludes, catchy choruses, or heavy bridges. Think Paschendale, from Dance of Death. In other songs, such as The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg, a very riff based track, the soloing really helps change things up. Yes, Iron Maiden does not flop musically, and well, did you really expect them to? Each song uses the strengths of the band to their fullest advantage, which makes for a very strong album, easily one of the band's strongest.
Frontman Bruce Dickinson has a very strong showing on A Matter of Life and Death. Bruce's wails may not be at the same level as they were 23 years ago, but Bruce can still let it loose with the best of them, as he proves during the chorus of Iron Maiden's latest war epic, The Longest Day. Another instance where he impresses is in the 9:23 epic titled For the Greater Good of God. Not to be outdone by his other metal contemporaries, Bruce also spends a chunk of the album singing in a lower range. The epic build up in, again, The Longest Day, or the quiet intros that start up songs like Brighter than a Thousand Suns and The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg shows off this lower vocal range. One song that uses Bruce's vocals to help carry the song is the semi-ballad Out of the Shadows, which bares resemblance to both Bruce's solo song Tears of the Dragon and Maiden's Wasting Love. Despite being in his late 40's, Bruce Dickinson is very effective on A Matter of Life and Death, and shows no signs of slowing down.
Songwriting wise, the band has mixed things up. In the past, Iron Maiden has written many songs about war including the likes of The Trooper, Aces High, and Paschendale, however, many of these songs were more adrenaline rising, textbook examples about what it was like to be part of a cavalry charge, defending the motherland from an air raid, or trench warfare. On A Matter of Life and Death, the band takes a different direction with their war subjects. Even on the album cover, the war topic takes another approach. Quite similarly to the first lines of Brighter Than a Thousand Suns which are as follows "We are not the sons of God / We are not his people anymore…" the skeleton soldiers represent the human beings who have been dehumanitized into trained killers. This is but one of the subjects that the lyric writers address on the album, with others including the motivation of soldiers in These Colours Don't Run, the ruining of human lives that certain events such as the D-Day Invasion of Normandy inflict upon the world, and living under the threat of annihilation after the creation of the atomic bomb in Brighter Than a Thousand Suns. But the entire album does not just focus on war. Iron Maiden's song writers also comment on subjects such as religion in songs like For the Greater Good of God and Lord of Light. Upon listening to the album, I was pleased to find out that songwriting mainstays of Iron Maiden choose not to alienate fans by picking and choosing sides of a conflict. Rather, the band makes observations of events taking place in the world. For the Greater Good of God for example, sheds light on those who use religion as a tool to destroy, rather than a peaceful way to live life as it was intended. These Colours Don't Run also fits this claim, as it deals with the reason people from both sides of the conflict pick take up arms, rather than the "They hate you and they hate your freedom/religion/ideals etc" propaganda that the world leaders feed their nations. I'm quite satisfied with the lyrical direction the band took with this album, and the choice of song subjects makes A Matter of Life and Death one of, if not my favourite Maiden album of all time in that area, even toping the likes of Somewhere in Time and Brave New World.
So by now you must think the new album is perfect right? Well in a perfect world, yes, it would be perfect. But this is not a perfect world, nothing is perfect. After listening to A Matter of Life and death several times, there is very little to complain about. One flaw, however, is the song lengths. With an average length of 7:11 and ten songs, A Matter of Life and Death might be a tad long for some listeners, especially on their first few spins. Now, I feel the band does a good job with these long tracks and I really enjoy the long interludes, bridges, and melodies that extend the length of the songs. However, I can also see where some listeners are coming from if they were to say they were disappointed by the song lengths. That said, people put off by song lengths should be thankful that there isn't any snooze-fests such as Fortunes of War or The Angel and the Gambler present on the album.
So the question still stands, doesn't it? Is A Matter of Life and Death better than what I consider Iron Maiden's best album, Powerslave? *commence cheesy drum-roll* …No. However, after listening to it virtually all day, I would say it can definitely say it can stand right next to the Powerslaves and Somewhere in Times and not look out of place. A Matter of Life and Death contains everything fans want to hear; be it exciting, Maiden-style story telling; aggressive riffs; impressive solos; or melodic harmonies. A Matter of Life and Death has got to be a strong candidate for album of the year, and I definitely recommend it to everybody.
Honestly, making a list is much too difficult as no song is significantly better than another. But for the sake of having a list:
Brighter Than a Thousand Suns
The Longest Day
For the Greater Good of God