Review Summary: More of a mixed bag than an outright disaster
Perhaps best known as the second of the two albums featuring the oft-maligned Blaze Bayley on vocals, 1998’s Virtual XI saw Iron Maiden at an odd stage in their career. It’s a more upbeat listen compared to the brooding nature of 1995’s The X Factor and seemed to hearken back to the days of Somewhere in Time and Seventh Son with its heightened keyboards and sci-fi aesthetic. The resulting release is almost universally regarded as one of the worst under the Iron Maiden banner, but I would argue that it is more of a mixed bag than an outright disaster.
For what it’s worth, there are some great songs on here. “Futureal” and “The Clansman” in particular have since been deemed good enough to play with Bruce Dickinson singing them but are fantastic staples in themselves, the former predicting “The Wicker Man” with its rapid-fire delivery and the latter delivering a mix of rousing chants, charging gallops, and fluctuating atmospherics in classic Maiden epic fashion. “Lightning Strikes Twice,” “The Educated Fool,” and “Como Estais Amigo” are much more acquired tastes in comparison, but still manage to revisit that X Factor moroseness with an almost hopeful spirit.
But on the flip side, the album is frequently crippled by its compulsive repetition. “The Angel and the Gambler” is the most infamous and egregious instance of this in action, as the inherent cheesiness loses its sense of fun when the chorus is repeated over twenty times in a near ten-minute runtime. Elsewhere, “Don’t Look into the Eyes of a Stranger” plays like an evil twin with its heavy symphonics drawing tension that is ultimately exhausted by the stretched-out structure while “When Two Worlds Collide” has its anthemic quality undermined by its forced climax. The moods never feel too off-brand for Maiden, but the underlying hollowness in these structures is always noticeable.
The musicianship further reflects this sentiment as the signature Maiden tropes are all there but lacking their usual gumption. Steve Harris’s bass is at its usual level of prominence and there are plenty of the expected guitar harmonies, but they come with a sense of fatigue. Blaze ironically seems to be the one putting in the most effort, offering more energy compared to his performance on The X Factor though struggling with the higher range that has come with the adjustment. Thankfully, the solo albums that he’s released in the time since his departure demonstrate a greater mastery of the material of this range and tempo.
In hindsight, Virtual XI feels like a prototype of Brave New World and the other albums of the subsequent reunion era. Its style consists of a similar mix of old and new elements with songs ranging from upbeat anthems to contemplative epics, albeit with underdeveloped writing and a less fitting vocalist. Considering how several of BNW’s songs were allegedly written during these sessions and how the band has performed songs from this era with Bruce at the helm, one wonders how this material would’ve panned out with careful editing and more charismatic vocals behind it.
Virtual XI isn’t a St. Anger-level dumpster fire or an underrated classic, but it may have been the album that the band needed to make to stay afloat. It’s a very flawed album but in the right mood, I think it can be enjoyable.
Originally published at Metalhead World