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Bruce Dickinson returned in 1997 after his failed project "Skunkworks" with an album that was pure heavy metal. Roy Z. is back as producer and guitarist and he has a great guitar tone that is significantly heavier than anything Maiden had done or was doing at the time. Adrian Smith was brought in to do a few solos, but his impact on the album is minimal as he doesn't do much songwriting and Roy Z can out-shred Adrian any day.
The album starts out with "Freak," a song with a good chorus and an insanely head-bangable riff and the solo is short but sweet; great opener. Then there's an oddly placed intro/instrumental with Toltec 7 Arrival which leads into the unremarkable "Starchildren," with that annoying clanging (cowbell?) in the background. "Darkside of Aquarius" has another strong riff and a slightly over-the-top chorus that winds up working out very well. There's some incredible shredding by the Smith/Z combo before going into a quiet, melodic interlude. After this the song goes downhill with the "Gotta move" section; which is not only weak, but it repeats for about two minutes, hurting an otherwise great song. "Man of Sorrows" is one of the greatest ballads ever written. Roy Z has an incredibly emotional solo and Dickinson delivers one of the best vocal performances of his career. The strings and piano only add to the already breathtaking atmospere. This song is worth the price of the disc alone. "Omega" is a semi-ballad that starts out quiet but builds up to a impressive solo section in the middle, another highlight of the album. Normally I'm not a fan of acoustic songs, but "Arc of Space" is so good it is impossible to imagine the album ending in any other way, one of the greatest acoustic songs ever written.
On the other hand, "Taking the Queen" is a fairly unremarkable ballad and "Road to Hell," "Welcome to the Pit," and "The Magician" are throwaway rockers. "The Ghost of Cain" isn't that great either. On the remastered version, "Ghost of Cain" is included on the second disc so that it seems like a bonus track but don't be fooled. The remastered version is a waste of money because the original version sounded so great to begin with. The demos are a waste of time. "Starchildren [demo]" has "Toltec 7" added on to the beginning, but that's the only substantial difference between the originals and the demos.
Still as a whole, the original version is essential metal for anyone. It is nearly as good as "Chemical Wedding" although I still rank this slightly lower, mainly because of the large number of weaker, possibly filler songs. This album owns anything released by Maiden during the Bayley years, and the fact that he was able to top this with Chemical Wedding is a testament to the chemistry that Dickinson, Z, and Smith have together.
[Edit: I've lowered the grade somewhat because even while the good songs still are very enjoyable, the poor songs really hurt the consistency of the album.]