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Here comes the Maiden Machine, rolling through the parade with its flags raised high. A new Iron Maiden album is always a cause for celebration, even though their works up until this point since the 80s had been a bit inconsistent and middling in quality, not always hitting the highs we had expected from them before. But still, it was Maiden! One of the most dependable and solid metal bands ever, one of the epochal bands that just about everyone can name a song or two they like from. It didn't matter that the newest albums like Brave New World and Dance of Death had a bit of dragging filler, because the general mood was still a triumphant one that we associated with Iron Maiden at their best. And they have continued this fiery momentum with the newest, entitled A Matter of Life and Death.
So, why is this album so good? Because it takes the classic Maiden sound and boldly steps into new territories, and it does it well. The other two before this one were experimental, but they were experimental in small doses, and they didn't really take an entire album in one focused direction. This album does that, with a whole album full of Iron Maiden at their most mature and gripping, with all the grandeur of the 80s Maiden not attempted to be shamelessly replicated, but rather just done up in the more modern and restrained style that this album pushes forward. There is a subtle prog notion at work here, but the focus is mostly just on huge, rolling soundscapes of riffs and melodies that can sound foreboding or uplifting or even warlike on some tracks, like the commanding and powerful "The Longest Day." THAT'S what this album is good for. I can lose myself in the huge, massive sound of this album. It is completely encompassing, and yet it still sounds like a Maiden album 100%. Here we see a classic band taking on a new sound that is actually challenging and more complex than the older material. That isn't something that happens often.
So let's recap: This is both classic Maiden and not classic Maiden. Confused yet? Good. The emotional quality of the work on here is just astoundingly high. Every band member plays to his full potential. Everything is huge and searing, soulful and poignant, like the soundtrack to some great epic movie or novel, if it was done in metallic form. Bruce Dickinson's voice soars above the clouds, meshing with the massive guitar harmonies and the thundering bass beautifully, and the drum sound is as heavy as a house. This really is just about the heaviest thing Maiden has ever done, and maybe also the most emotive and arresting, too. Just listen to "Out of the Shadows"; good god what a gorgeous song. That isn't usually a word I would use to describe Iron Maiden, but it fits here, as this song is a nicely flowing balladic number with a chorus so heartwarming that you'll never be down again listening to it. One of Maiden's all time best.
Generally I would say the songs on here are good for one of two reasons most of the time, if not both: they are either heavy and galloping and epic, or extremely emotional, as talked about above. I don't think Maiden have ever done a song quite as pugilistic and punishing as "Brighter than a Thousand Suns," for example, with its crushing, soul-searing riff and monstrous chorus. "Lord of Light," likewise, has an angry, borderline Thrashy riff that will break your windows, as well as perhaps the most uncharacteristic mood and tone of any Maiden song, including any of the Blaze-era ones, with its candlelit theatrics making a pretty good picture of the band getting ready for some kind of occult ritual. Not exactly Maidenesque, but the song rules. "Different World" and "The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg" are perhaps the friendliest and most amiable of the songs here and they sound like classic Maiden, and in contrast, "For the Greater Good of God" could almost be on some kind of a film score with its pomposity and grandiose nature.
"The Pilgrim" is one of the more atmospheric numbers here, with its wandering motif and emotional chords conjuring in my mind the image of a sun-drenched plateau of sand and rocks, traveled mercilessly by those searching for a new place to settle and live, and it's a grower, probably the most inaccessible song on here, oddly enough. I didn't like it so much the first few times I heard it. I already mentioned "The Longest Day," but I'm mentioning it again, because it's the most well balanced on here; the best example of being both poignant and heavily epic and masterful. I'd say this is the best one on here, too, but that wouldn't be true; there are too many good songs on this album to choose just one. Whatever the case, "The Longest Day" is extremely captivating, with Bruce's wailing on the chorus combining with the somber and yet also triumphant guitar attack to create a real knockout of a song.
The nine minute "The Legacy" closes off the album with a narrative tale that sums up the album: this is the Maiden legacy, without a doubt. These guys are not slowing down, they are not pandering to burnt out husks who expect them to rerecord "The Trooper" and "2 Minutes to Midnight," and they are doing exactly what they want to do. For a band this old and influential to still be knocking heads against trends and remaining (highly) relevant is very cool and hopeful. I have nothing to say to the people who don't think this album is good, so I'll end my review by saying that Iron Maiden are truly a landmark, truly inimitable. May they live long and produce more great music and enjoy themselves wholeheartedly. Up the Irons!