In 1993, Iron Maiden and their popular vocalist, Bruce Dickinson, parted ways. Not going to be stopped by the loss of their 11 year singer, the band began the search for their new front man. They auditioned hundreds of vocalists including Doogie White, who at the time was in Rainbow, and even James LaBrie, of Dream Theater fame. Finally, in 1994, Iron Maiden decided that Wolfsbane singer, Blaze Bailey would be their next vocalist.
After Blaze was brought on board, the band began writing new material for their next album, and in 1995, they released The X Factor. The album was met with a mixed reaction from fans, but the band soldiered on and entered the studio in 1998 to record their eleventh album, Virtual XI
Virtual XI met the same fate as The X Factor. It was even more unpopular among fans than its predecessor, and it suffered in sales, and is to this very day, the only Maiden album to not hit the 1 million mark. Despite this, the band still plays two songs off Virtual XI in their shows, Futureal
and the 9 minute epic, The Clansmen
Opening the album is one of the band’s shortest songs, Futureal
. The opener is very energetic, fast, and upbeat. Blaze’s voice works very well with this song, and the chorus is very catchy. The guitars are very melodic and stick out among the rest of the album. Dave has a great solo half way through the song to keep the listener interested. The lyrics describe a character who feels drawn into a virtual world, to the point where he cannot tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t. Futureal could be considered the title track, as the lyrical themes match the cover art, which depicts the same thing. Overall, Futureal is one of the bright spots on Virtual XI.
Up next is the 10 minute epic, The Angel and the Gambler
. This is another upbeat, happy sounding song, and quite frankly, it doesn’t deliver. Steve Harris must have hit a mental block while writing the song, as he repeats the chorus a total of 22 times, and 12 times before Janick and Dave play each of their solos which are both pretty bland and uninteresting. The music is quite boring, with none of the musicians really sticking out. Keyboards can be heard on the track, but they do not make the song any better than it would be without them. The lone highlight of The Angel and the Gambler is Blaze’s singing, which is top notch, even after 22 choruses.
Now that we’ve made it past the monstrosity of a song that was Angel and The Gambler, we come up to the albums third song, Lightning Strikes Twice
. This song starts off slow, yet promising, with a melodic riff from the guitarists. Steve plays a slow, soft riff on his bass which is combined with synths to foreshadow a storm, as the song’s title implies. Blaze’s vocals are once again great, and while they don’t carry the same melody as his Bruce, they do an amazing job to keep the listener interested. As we reach the fourth verse, the song gets faster and heavier. The chorus is very repetitive, as it is throughout most of the album. Dave Murray’s solo is interesting and well done, but Janick’s sounds pretty sloppy, and isn’t his best. Lightning Strikes Twice isn’t Maiden’s best song, but it’s certainly a step up from the previous one.
Continuing the album is another Steve Harris epic, this one based off of the 1995 movie, Braveheart. Going by the title of The Clansman
, its lyrics describe the need for freedom, and the fight against an oppressor. The opening riff is reminiscent to the one in Infinite Dreams off of the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son album and has a Celtic flavour to it. Blaze’s singing fits the song perfectly, and in my opinion, he does a much better job than Bruce does. The chorus is very powerful vocally, with Blaze crying out “Freeeeedom!” The song features a nice instrumental with great harmonies played by Dave and Janick. Both solos are melodic and very Celtic sounding, with Janick’s solo being the better one. The Clansman is easily the highlight of Virtual XI, and is one of the best songs that Maiden has written in the 90’s.
After The Clansman comes When Two Worlds Collide
. This song progresses at an enjoyable pace, with Blaze’s vocals stealing the spotlight from the rest of the band up until the instrumental, where Dave and Janick’s talents shine through with a great harmony section. The song has one of the most memorable choruses of the album, and is one of the catchiest songs off Virtual XI. The only fault this song has is its repetitiveness, which is a problem every song on the album except Futureal and maybe The Clansman have.
The next song is The Educated Fool
. About now, it becomes clear that while Virtual XI is a great album, the songs are really beginning to sound similar to each other. The Educated Fool, while an enjoyable song, is not very different from what the band’s been playing for the last 30 some minutes. Despite the irritatingly similar structure to the past four songs, The Educated Fool is still a good song, with Blaze’s vocals as strong as ever.
By time the next song, Don’t Look to the Eyes of a Stranger
rolls around, the album is stagnating. Don’t Look to the Eyes of a Stranger is incredibly repetitive, and at 8:11, it drags on. A lot. While it the chorus doesn’t repeat as much as it does in The Angel and the Gambler, the way Blaze sings it combined with how many times he sings it will make you want to gouge your ears out. Fortunately, the song is pretty good musically, with a fast pace riff that leads the listener through the instrumental, and a shredded solo Dave Murray also makes things somewhat interesting. Don’t Look to the Eyes of a Stranger is a song you can listen to every once and a while, but it gets old quite fast if you listen to it non-stop.
The album’s final song, Como Estais Amigos
(roughly, “how are you my friends”), starts with Blaze singing the first verse at an incredibly low volume though his voice gradually gets louder as the song progresses. Como Estais Amigos has an emotional feeling about it and Blaze sings with his heart on his sleeve. This is one of the few moments on Virtual XI where the musical aspect carries the song. The musical aspect is lighter than the rest of the album, with synths being used in the background for effect. Como Estais Amigos is a very moving song, and is an excellent way to end the album.
Virtual XI was the end of another era for Iron Maiden. Following the Virtual XI World Tour, Blaze Bailey left Iron Maiden and two former members, Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith returned. Overall, Virtual XI is a very long album to listen to, despite being only 53 minutes long. The album is very repetitive, and listening to it takes a lot of patience. However, Virtual XI has a few gems, such as Futureal, The Clansman, and Como Estais Amigos. With a little more variety, it could have been something special, but as it is, Iron Maiden’s eleventh offering will likely be found on your shelf more often than in your CD player.