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Old 11-23-2021, 08:02 PM   #21 (permalink)
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Chapter VI: Not Quite a Blaze of Glory: No-one at the Bridge

It’s been very well documented how Iron Maiden’s sound changed significantly following the departure of Bruce Dickinson, the second main member to leave the band after Adrian Smith’s exit a year and an album previous. The first thing the remaining members had to do of course was replace their singer, and after auditioning hundreds of applicants (or at least listening to hundreds of tapes) they settled on Blaze Bayley, vocalist with Wolfsbane. The band was unable to weather the departure of Bayley and so split up. For about four years then, over two albums and two tours, Bayley would become the new voice of Iron Maiden. However it would be completely unfair and indeed untrue to blame the band’s sudden - and thankfully, only temporary - fall from grace on the singer.

The fact is, Maiden had been hit with a couple of bombshells. Two of their longtime and most important members leaving within a year of each other, coupled with the hanging up of his headphones of producer Martin Birch, who had helmed every album since Killers surely must have shown the guys there was trouble ahead, and when you add in Steve Harris’s divorce, which led to the album having a more depressing, darker tone, well, it wasn’t hard to see this was going to be a hard slog. And it was. This, and the next album, charted the lowest of any in Maiden’s career, and received mostly negative reviews from critics as well as the thumbs-down from the majority of the fans. Perhaps naively, new producer Nigel Green gushed excitedly "We all felt that the way things were progressing – the songs, Blaze's new involvement, the sound, the commitment – the new album really would have that extra quality, that bit of magic, that 'X Factor'. This became the working title for the album and we liked it, so we kept it. It is also very apt as this is our tenth studio album and "X" can bring up many images.”

It certainly can, including eXcruciatingly bad, eXtremely poor and even eXcrement. It would, as I intimate above, be easy to blame the lack of interest on the new singer; people had certainly grown up on Bruce, listening to him, going to see him, considering him the face of Maiden, and not having him there was going to be a tough sell. But Bayley performed admirably well, I believe, during his tenure with them, and can’t really be blamed for the rot that set in. That was, probably, mostly down to Harris, who wasn’t exactly in a mood to write punchy rock songs, and opted instead for long-drawn-out, over-complicated, dense and often hard to understand epic tracks, this being the first album since 1986’s Somewhere in Time to feature three tracks over seven minutes, and one of those was eleven! Although he only writes three songs solo he’s involved in the writing of all but one, and the opener is that big eleven-minute borefest, one of his solo efforts, so it’s hard not to lump much of the blame for this on his shoulders.

Even had he not written all the songs bar one, Harris has always been the creative and driving force behind Maiden, and you’d have to assume that he has final say on what goes on the album, so the responsibility would still really be his. The addition of keyboards and, um, Gregorian chants surely only serves to show how this album was headed for trouble. Maiden had always been a guitar band, had little or no use for keys, but now they were slowly beginning to play a part, until by the next album they would be front and centre, perhaps serving as evidence of a betrayal by the band of their core principles and their promise never to use synthesisers, proudly displayed on the back of 1982’s classic The Number of the Beast.

I feel personally that the first order of business should have been to reassure the fans. Here we are, Maiden should have been saying: Bruce is gone, but we’re still the same band. We’re not going to insult you, and his memory by saying “Bruce who?” but we want you to know we can continue on without him. Had they launched into a fast, short rocker in the vein of “Aces High”, “Run to the Hills” or “Flash of the Blade” even, I think nerves might have been settled. Instead, they seem to have chosen to try to reinvent themselves, or maybe that’s just how it appeared to me.

Either way, intentional or not, it didn’t work.

The X Factor (1995)

In the interests of clarity, it should be understood that this album was released long before Cowell’s show was even dreamed of, so they were not taking his copyright or allying themselves in any way with the music so-called talent show. That came much later; but the phrase “the X factor” has been in the English language for a long time, perhaps best expressed by, of all people, the French, when they say someone has a “je ne sais quoi” - literally, I don’t know what - to indicate there is something special, different, even unique about them. I guess the band could also have been using it to represent the unknown, a new and perhaps (sorry) brave new world into which they were going, or it could even have referred to Harris’s divorce, I don’t know. All I do know is that from then on the majority of Iron Maiden fans would equate it with a rubbish album which preceded another one, and a desperate holding pattern until Dickinson returned in triumph as the twenty-first century began.

Incidentally, I’ve used the “further away” cover, not because the original is more graphic, but simply because that’s the one I have on my copy, and so it’s more familiar to me. It does the job, certainly - Eddie being torn apart as a metaphor for Harris’s world being ripped asunder by his divorce. I don’t know the details, how acrimonious or vicious the separation was, but I guess we can assume it was not an amicable split, given the tone of the album. I suppose divorce is never easy, and Phil Collins went the same path when he recorded his debut solo album Face Value. Can’t imagine anyone is too happy about splitting up from the person with whom they have spent some of their life, and possible expected to spend all of it.

Sign of the Cross (11:16)

As I said above, kicking off this album with a short, snappy tune from the golden age would have been my preference. Get the fans on side with a singalong headbanger before, if you must, you hit them with the slow, doomy, crunching epics. But no: Harris decided (I assume it was him, unless we can blame the running order on the label) to open with their longest song since “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, one that in my opinion is not fit to lick the bare, sun-scorched toes of that song, and right away we’re bogged down in over eleven minutes of claustrophobic, crushing, indulgent self-pity. I think it’s the first Maiden album to open so darkly, slowly, morosely and take a fuck of a long time to get going. Gregorian chants? Do me a favour! I think Eddie would rather take vivisection!

It’s almost a minute before we hear Harris’s bass, and our first introduction to Blaze Bayley’s voice is a low, muttered mumble that can hardly be distinguished, while Harris slowly goes about his business, surely making a new listener wonder if he or she has put on the right album? There are a few flashes of guitar around the edges but it’s not until the fucking THIRD MINUTE that the song gets going in any sort of appreciable way and becomes something vaguely resembling an Iron Maiden one. Even then, it’s more in the slower vein of songs like - well, I don’t know to be honest: it’s almost unlike any Maiden song I’ve ever heard. And not in a good way, of course. We’re five minutes in and still no solo you could talk about, the drumming is slow and pedestrian, the bass thick and moody, the whole mood a downer, man. This ain’t the Iron Maiden I’ve known and tried to continue to love!

Now it all stops as Harris executes a moody bass solo, similar to and yet nothing like the one in the midsection of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, while what sounds like strings and may in fact be a synthesiser come into the - still plodding - melody. It’s kind of like listening to some old Biblical movie soundtrack or something. The words GET THE FUCK ON WITH IT! Are leaping from my angry lips, and finally - finally - at the seventh minute there’s a solo, but it’s a poor, weak, almost apologetic one. At last the tempo picks up and the guitars seem to gain a little confidence and break out almost as we expect them to. Getting better, but we’ve had to wait over three-quarters of the length of the song for this to happen?

At one point - with about a minute to go - you can hear the melody develop to the point where you can anticipate the “Woh-oh-oh!”’s, but they never materialise, instead the guitar takes the tune just about to the end, with one more chorus, bringing to an end a very unsatisfactory opening to what will prove to be far less than a satisfactory album. Harris can’t even resist twiddling a bit of dark bass at the end, as if the song wasn’t already bad enough. Luckily - or not, depending on which way you look at it I guess - there’s a serious upswing for the next song, but to my mind it is the only decent song on the album, something that might not have been out of place on Somewhere in Time or even Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, and you certainly could not say that about the rest of the tracks!

Lord of the Flies (5:02)

The thing that sets “Lord of the Flies” apart from the rest of the dros - sorry, tracks on this album is something Maiden have built a career on: the hook. There’s not a single song here - “Sign of the Cross” very definitely included - that I could even envision singing or hell, even remembering after the album ends. Most, I will be thankful to forget, and that is primarily because they are all shit but also because not one of them has a decent hook. The reason you remember a song, the reason it sticks in your head is the hook, be it in the chorus, bridge or even verses. It taps out its rhythm, melody or lyric - a really good song will impress you with all three - onto your synapses and you sing it to yourself, or hum it, or tap the rhythm with your fingers or toes. Look at songs like “The Trooper”: from the galloping drumbeat to the stop/start verse and the whoa-oh-ohs, everyone remembers that song. And it didn’t really even have a chorus! Or how about “Two Minutes to Midnight”? Or “Fear of the Dark” even. Songs you can sing in your head.

“Lord of the Flies” isn’t one of those, but the chorus does stick in the brain and it has at least a rocky opening on choppy guitar and thumping percussion, gets right to the point, no faffing around and definitely no fucking Gregorian chants! Based on the book by William Golding, it shows Harris’s love of both literature and somewhat of the macabre, and it’s a song you can nod your head to, if not actually bang it. I can’t say Blaze is as good as Bruce - his voice is more restrained - but he does a decent job on it. I’d be interested to see how Bruce handled this on stage, though I believe they perform few if any songs from this era these days, both they and the fans preferring to draw a discreet curtain over this period in Maiden history.

There’s a decent solo, but I mean let’s be honest here, it’s basically using the melody of the chorus, but there are at least “Woh-oh-oh”s so it seems much more a Maiden song than the previous one was. It’s also very simple, which is something you kind of expect from Iron Maiden, or did, up to this. Nowadays they’ve gone all prog and it’s hard to get a decent straight forward rocker out of them. Ah, salad days!

Man on the Edge (4:10)

Another decent song, and unsurprisingly selected as the lead single from the album, this has the chugging guitar, galloping percussion and sense of exuberance we’ve come to expect from this band. Another simple chorus, a half reasonable hook, but it’s not a song I ever remember, or probably ever will. At least the boys get to cut loose on the guitars here, and the song does suit Bayley’s voice a little better. Building up to a solo? Yes. Finally, the kind of fret-burning we want to hear from Dave and, to a lesser extent, Janick. Sails a little close to “Gangland” for my tastes, but the only one in which Harris has no input, so maybe it’s just coincidence, as it’s written by Gers and Bayley, the latter of whom does, to be fair, make a respectable contribution to the songwriting here, collaborating on five of the eleven tracks.

Fortunes of War (7:25)

We’re back to the long epic plodders though, as Harris takes sole writing credit for this one, another muttered vocal to start off with, then Nicko McBrain’s drums punch in hard, but then drop back out of the mix before the guitars whine in, and to be fair they’re not bad but this is still way way below standard for a Maiden album. Bayley’s voice is strained here; I can’t help thinking that Dickinson would have taken this in his stride, but I guess we’ll never know. Now it begins to pick up speed, thank fuck, and some energy is injected into the song. Can’t argue with the solos here, pretty special, though lyrically there’s virtually nothing here. Come on Steve: you can do better than this.

Look for the Truth (5:10)

Now the opening of this one has “Children of the Damned” stamped all over it, with its introspective guitar and soft bass, and once again we have a barely-audible vocal from Blaze, like he’s whispering or something. Come on guys! Where’s the punch in the face? Where’s the kick in the balls? Musically speaking, I mean, of course. Where’s the guitar riffs and thundering drums that set your teeth shaking in your head? It’s come to life now, but again it’s a slowburner, something we haven’t up to now been used to with Maiden, though they will continue to follow this practice on later albums. This song gives me the impression it’s just waiting to burst into life, but sadly it never gets the chance.

The Aftermath (6:20)

And another long introduction, though it does at least have a little punch to it. There’s certainly a theme of war going through this album, which I suppose Harris sees as a metaphor for his struggle with his marriage, and a theme which will surface again on later albums, particularly 2008’s A Matter of Life and Death. The imagery here is pretty visceral, and seems to reference World War I, and when Blaze sings “What are we fighting for? Is it worth the pain?” you have to nod and think these thoughts must be going through Harris’s head as he reads letter after letter from his and his wife’s lawyers, and wonders what it’s all about? Again, it sounds like the boys are trying to let loose on the frets but are held back till almost the end of the song when they do get to go into action, and it’s pretty good, but a little too late I fear.
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Old 11-23-2021, 08:10 PM   #22 (permalink)
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Judgement of Heaven (5:10)

Two more solo Harris compositions coming up, with - for this period anyway - typically morose subject matter. Once again the vocal is low and indistinct, the guitars almost rock and roll in a way, then they punch through and the vocal comes up, but my question is why does it take so long? Why can’t these songs start off going for the throat, instead of creeping up on you and sussing you out first? We want the mad killer from 1981 who stalked the streets spreading terror, not some fucker cowering on the ground, raising his fist to the sky and cursing god. Fuck that. Having said that, once this song gets going it’s not without its charm, but still not a patch on even anything from Fear of the Dark. At least though there is some life in it and we hear the familiar twin guitar attack, which does help.

Blood On the World’s Hands (6:00)

And here’s his other one. Another bloody epic - well, six minutes plus at this stage of their career would have been considered an epic for Maiden. Opening on an almost jazzy bass line which makes you wonder if a piano is about to join in, it’s almost a bass solo, which, to be fair, Harris has never to my knowledge attempt - oh wait. Isn’t there “Losfer Words”? Is that a bass solo? Can’t remember. Anyway, the song does eventually get its shit together, but it hasn’t in any way been worth waiting for, slouching along with its hands in its pockets and head down, one of Maiden’s politically-themed songs, in case you hadn’t guessed. It retains a very proggy/jazzy feel in the melody, and I can’t see too many people headbanging to this. Well maybe: there are people who, if drunk or out of it enough, would probably headbang to “Fur Elise”. But it doesn’t elicit that kind of reaction in me.

The solo is a bit confused, as if Dave or Janick aren’t quite sure what they’re supposed to be doing, or what’s expected of or to be tolerated from them, and the song proceeds along without any real direction that I can see, with a fairly obvious chorus, but at least a good performance from Bayley. Sounds very progressive metal to me. Hell, at least there’s some aggression here, something that has been mostly missing from the album.

The Edge of Darkness (6:39)

Whatever about the wisdom, or not, of including two tracks with the word “edge” in them, this is another slow starter, very moody, very sombre - reminds me a little of Bon Jovi’s “While My Guitar Lies Bleeding in My Arms” from These Days - and again we have a barely-heard vocal from Blaze, a slow introspective guitar and bass opening, though Bayley’s vocal does start to come into its own here once the song gets going. For a short time, yeah, you could convince yourself this is Bruce. Not for long, but for a while. It’s a very familiar Maiden riff once it gets going, though I can’t quite place my finger on it. Sort of an almost Celtic feel to it maybe.

I do like the solos, though they kind of remind me of first Big Country and then Thin Lizzy, not something I’ve ever said about Maiden to this point anyway. I still hear no hook, and in fact to be perfectly honest I don’t even hear a chorus or any real kind of song structure, which is fine: plenty of artists throw the rules out the window. But Maiden are not known for doing this, and while I don’t insist they stick to verse-verse-chorus-verse, their songs, even “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, do tend to observe some sort of rules, and this doesn’t. Makes it very hard to follow it.

2 AM (5:37)

Has anyone else noticed that since “Man on the Edge” every song has been at least over five minutes, many over six? That’s not the norm for a Maiden album, though as I think I said earlier it does point the way towards how their work would develop over the next decade. Another low vocal which thankfully explodes fairly quickly, but this is pretty much a self-indulgent song as Blaze sings “Here I am again on my own”. Yeah we get it Steve: you’re hurting, and we sympathise, but you have a job to do here, and it’s somewhat unprofessional and not very fair to use the album that was supposed to confirm Iron Maiden as still being a force in heavy metal to pour out your troubles to us and cry into your beer. Do that on your own time, guy, yeah?

In terms of tempo, it’s a slow, marching sort of thing, with heavy drums and grinding guitars, which makes an attempt to kick itself up the arse late on, some all right guitar solos spilling out into the tune, but they’re almost incidental, and gone as soon as they begin. Even an extended instrumental section just more or less marks time till Blaze comes back in to whine again in Harris’s words about how cruel and miserable life is. Heavy metal Morrissey? Not far from it.

The Unbeliever (8:05)

Sigh. Yes indeed. An eight minute closer. But wait! What’s this? A lively, sprightly guitar riff to open the song? Could it be… surely not. Now that sounds like keyboards there though they’re gone as quickly as they come in. Oh dear. The rhythm is poor with a hurried vocal. Oh no wait. That dramatic bridge is not at all bad. But then we’re back to bouncing along and then back to drama. Where in the name of Bruce Dickinson is this going? Little riff there almost reminiscent of the debut album, then it turns into something from Seventh Son with a little “Two Minutes to Midnight” thrown in. A pastiche? Perhaps. A mess? Possibly.

If this is building to a big solo then maybe there’s hope. But no. It stops and goes to a bass part, with a sort of apology for a solo - more a rhythm part really in the background, bass definitely taking the lead. Oh and now there is a solo, and hey it’s really not too bad. Is it too little too late? Maybe not. Where do we go from here? If it ends well then it might not be the worst closer. Okay, back to the bouncing rhythm of the verse, dramatic bridge, and still basically no chorus. I suppose I could be generous and say the bridge is the hook, and it kind of is, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. Bridge to nowhere? Sorry. But it should have led to a big chorus or something and it doesn’t, so I’m left waiting. And it ends on some sort of mad “chopsticks” thing. Oh dear.

I didn’t have preconceptions originally when I came to listen to this album. Like most Maiden fans, I expected and hoped to like it. But as I slogged through it - and it’s the only description that fits really - I began to realise something was very rotten in the state of Maiden. You might be surprised to hear that I was not testing Blaze Bayley, ready to light up the fire and pile up the wood (or is that the other way around?) as soon as I could declare “he’s no Bruce!” No. I didn’t expect him to be as good, but I wasn’t too bothered. What was done was done, and as long as he didn’t sound like, I don’t know, George Michael or yer man from Air Supply or someone, I would have been happy.

What I did feel crushed about was the poor quality of the songs, the overlong running times, the dark, pessimistic, self-pitying atmosphere emanating from the music, and the fact that only about two tracks - if that - impressed me sufficiently that I could remember them when the album was finished. I laid the blame for this, as I saw it, gross failure directly at the feet of Harris, McBrain, Murray and Gers. They were the ones who should have known better. Bayley was the new guy: what did he know? Of course, he ended up taking much of the flak for the album’s dip in quality from previous releases, but that was I think projection. People were unwilling to blame the boys, and didn’t have far to look for a scapegoat.

What The X Factor proved to me was that Iron Maiden actually could not continue without Bruce Dickinson, and their next offering only served to confirm this. It was going to be a long five years.
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