September 6, 2021

If you’re a fan of the big, proggy, epic Iron Maiden of recent vintage, then you’ll enjoy this album as sure as night follows day, that’s for sure. Will you also feel you would have liked just a little bit more? Well, the proof is in the listening. Go to it!

So here we are once more, to paraphrase another band of a similar vintage to Iron Maiden. Another Maiden album – when many swore that there would never be another – and once again, following 2015’s The Book Of Souls, a double album. That previous outing met with some criticism, some of it justified to be fair, with the astonishing Empire Of The Clouds (along with, perhaps, Tears Of A Clown) the only really lasting standout. This time out there is nothing of quite the epic duration and scope as Empire – and nothing really to match that incredible work for me – but there is much more of an epic, proggy feel to the album as a whole. Because make no mistake, this is ‘prog Maiden’ writ large. The ten songs here add up to around 82 minutes, making that over eight minutes per track on average, which is very telling. However, with that ambition come some pitfalls, despite the quality of much of the record. Let’s start from the beginning though, and see where it takes us in terms of a final verdict, shall we?

The album opens with the title track, which right out of the box is somewhat disorienting. Anyone expecting or hoping for an old school Maiden opener such as Where Eagles Dare, Aces High, The Wicker Man or Different World is likely to be thrown by this, as the track is a slow-burner over its eight minutes, full of tribal drumming from the ageless Nicko McBrain, impenetrable historical-warriorlike lyrics from Steve Harris and some dramatic and very very effective guitar outbursts. It’s a tremendous piece in itself, with a proper grandstanding feel to it, but if I’m honest, it sits awkwardly as opener. Certainly, Maiden have put longer, less direct songs in pole position on albums in the past, from If Eternity Should Fall all the way back to Sigh Of The Cross – but never with more of a feeling of loss of dynamics than this. No complaints about the song for sure, but it would have worked far better midway through the disc.

Following on from this comes what to these ears is the weakest run on the record, with the next three tracks failing to impress for different reasons. The short, five minute Stratego really should be crying out to be the opener, but in actual fact it is somewhat underwhelming, lacking either the fire in its playing or the big, epic feel in the chorus that it needs. It goes by pleasantly, but it never takes flight. This is a similar issue with the following Writing On The Wall, a song which has a strong Dickinson lyric but once again fails to deliver in the chorus department, and the band are slightly worryingly showing signs of settling into a comfortable canter rather than the old ‘gallop’, more Horlicks and comfy slippers than running to the hills. Finally, in this trio of disappointment, comes the first Harris solo writing credit with Lost In A Lost World. Even the title conjures up Stranger In A Strange Land, and the music is very much ‘epic Maiden by numbers’, with its nine minutes taken up with a quiet opening and closing section (we will see a lot of them!), along with a couple of heavier sections which politely introduce themselves rather than taking the listener by the scruff of the neck. It’s as if Harris has written this sort of thing so many times before, and he’s practically doing it in his sleep. By this point the band are in territory so safe that they may as well have built a Panic Room in the studio and recorded in there. The album needs a kick up the ‘Arris at this point, and it needs it badly. Thankfully, it gets it – as things take a huge leap for the better at this juncture.

The Smith/Dickinson penned Days Of Future Past is everything that the previous three songs wanted to be but weren’t – it’s tight and disciplined in the songwriting department, the band sound more energised and punchy, and most of all there is a proper huge Maiden chorus for Bruce Dickinson to get his substantial metaphorical teeth into! With lyrics based on the film Constantine (itself based on the brilliant comic book series Hellblazer), at a compact four minutes this has the ‘tight but big’ quality of something like Brave New World, and for me, really should have been the album opener. Senjutsu coming up second after this would have worked wonders. Still, it is where it is, and thankfully the quality is maintained with the first disc’s closing song The Time Machine, courtesy of Harris and Janick Gers. The chorus here is even better, and Bruce rides it like a surfer catching a massive wave and bringing it ashore hanging ten. There’s even a sighting of the old ‘gallop’ in marvellously heroic fashion. This is the Maiden I’d been waiting for, and it felt good to head to the second disc on a roll.

Things continue in a quite strong vein with the second disc opener Darkest Hour, which Dickinson explains is all written about what he calls the flawed yet inspirational figure of Winston Churchill, mining a favourite, and very fertile, lyrical seam for him. It’s almost balladic, in a very loose sense, compared to the bigger riffing elsewhere, but it’s a big powerful ballad if so (let’s not use the term ‘power ballad’, we’re not exactly in Foreigner territory here, that much is certain!) and it opens the disc strongly. At just under seven and a half minutes it’s the ‘baby’ of the disc however, as Harris takes over from this point with three songs penned by him alone, which add up to almost 35 minutes between them. This is where things are going to get either ‘epic’ or ‘ponderous’, depending on your love of prog-Maiden with all of the safety nets removed. Jim Steinman might have called some of this stuff ‘a bit on the overblown side’, although I have to say that as a lover of the big Maiden tradition of things like Blood Brothers and Paschendale, all the way back to Ancient Mariner, this stuff generally pushes all of my buttons. First up is ‘Death Of The Celts’, and it’s pretty clear that lyrically we’re not going to be a million miles from The Clansman here – and in fact, there are touches evoking that classic musically as well. However, perhaps an even stronger musical touchstone as far as the sprightly Celtic-influenced parts of the track are concerned would be Dance Of Death (although this time out thankfully avoiding the use of the word ‘pranced’ anywhere in the lyric!). It starts off with a quiet part before the main body of the song, and – yes – it reprises that bit at the end.

That was only just over ten minutes, but its big brother is coming up now in the form of the near-thirteen-minutes of The Parchment. Coming in for criticism in some reviews for its overlong nature and lack of strong melodic content, this conversely ticks all of the boxes for me. It’s huge, Egyptian/Arabic sounding and unashamedly so far over the top that it’s already deployed its parachute on the other side. The recipe for this is essentially: take a generous portion of Nomad from Brave New World, stir in a cupful of ‘essence of Stargazer’ and then add a tablespoon of Kashmir. If that tantalises your tastebuds then you’ll be in Masterchef heaven. True, the vocal melodies aren’t the most memorable or the strongest on the album, but when that huge instrumental section comes in, taking up around two thirds of the song, you won’t care. It’s inexorable, like a division of Panzer tanks effortlessly crushing all before them. After a rather nondescript vocal section again a few minutes from the end, all is saved once again with the pace being kicked up a substantial notch as we hurtle to the finish triumphantly. Okay, the quiet bit at the end – again – isn’t necessary, and is becoming a bit distracting by now, but for all that, The Parchment is my pick of the album.

IRON MAIDEN- 2021. Photo by JOHN McMURTRIE

One more to go, however, and we hover around the eleven minute mark again for Hell On Earth. This time the opening quiet section (no vocals this time) trundles along for around two and a half minutes, before the band finally kick in to rouse anyone in danger of drifting off. It’s more than a little reminiscent of When The Wild Wind Blows from The Final Frontier, to these ears. Overall the song is something of a partial success to me as a closing track – it certainly shows the band sounding as powerful and lively – and downright heavy – as anywhere on the album, but in terms of composition it just rather drifts along, full of nice bits shoehorned together and mercilessly over-extended to breaking point. When it is allowed to come to an end, in comes the reprise of that acoustic opening once again in a way which is veering close to Spinal Tap territory if I’m brutally honest.

So, there we have the whole thing. Plenty of real plus points – a good epic feel for those who love their proggy side to Maiden, Dickinson still sounding impressive especially considering the health issues he had around the last album, and more great guitar work than you can shake a Stratocaster at. Overall, it’s a better album than Book Of Souls, and probably better than A Matter Of Life And Death in a closely matched contest. But it could have been better still. For a start, why it was made a double album is baffling, as it’s only a couple of minutes over the 80-minute limit for a single CD, and if there’s one thing this album could have used it is some editing. It’s as if, having pushed the envelope to a double album last time out, it has to be just as ‘big’ this time, when in fact it really isn’t a competition in that way. If a little fat had been trimmed off the Harris trilogy on the second disc, and a couple of the weaker tracks on the first disc dropped, this would have been a much leaner, meaner 60-65 minute album. The other problem is that it is just a little bit derivative of the band’s own past blueprint – as if it is taking shiny things, magpie-esque, to line its nest. Of course, it’s hard to plagiarise yourself, but at times there is a trail of breadcrumbs leading back to past glories which is a little too obvious. Finally, the production by Kevin Shirley – not for the first time – could be better. It cries out at times for a little more ‘presence’ to make it jump from the speakers and slap you around the face with a meaty riff, and that just doesn’t happen enough.

Sometimes there are albums which end up as greater than the sum of their parts, whereby individual tracks might not be that great on their own, but work so much better as a unified whole (Exile On Main Street, Sgt Pepper and, maybe The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and The Wall for example). This is a little bit of the opposite, in the sense that most of the tracks here, heard in isolation, would be tremendous. But when the familiar tropes begin getting over-used, and the template becomes a little well-trodden, to mix a metaphor, the impact is actually blunted over a full listen.

This isn’t a bad album, that much must be said. In fact, much of it is absolutely first class. But it isn’t the finest Iron Maiden record. Maiden have never made a really poor album – although the ’90s came close a couple of times – and they still haven’t. They have, however, made a number of genuinely great ones, and this time they have come close, but not quite a cigar. But then again, in what is now their sixth decade of existence, is it really fair to expect them to strike out into a ‘brave new world’ each time they enter the studio? At the end of the day, Steve Harris and the rest of the guys have earned the right to make the album they want to make – and if it’s in a formula that pleases the majority of the fans, well, that’s fine enough I guess.

If you’re a fan of the big, proggy, epic Iron Maiden of recent vintage, then you’ll enjoy this album as sure as night follows day, that’s for sure. Will you also feel you would have liked just a little bit more? Well, the proof is in the listening. Go to it!