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This one really shocked me. I was skeptical, as was everyone and I downplayed it every chance I had - now the band's back to slap me in the face for my sins. It was an exercise in futility - after all, this is Maiden, the most consistent and highly regarded band in all of metal. It's definetly a grower as well - one doesn't grasp the beauty and the atmosphere of this masterpiece in just one listen. All I can say is, the band's aged really well - unlike mentors Judas Priest and Deep Purple. One might label the the album as being on 'overdrive' by merely looking at the length of the songs but fortunately this isn't the case.You will notice that the longest songs themselves do not feature any sort of extended soloing, the album keeps the Maiden tradition of keeping riffs and rhythm high on the charts. This isn't Dream Theater or Opeth, this is Iron Maiden - what they do, they do with conviction.
The band's gone way way down the progressive and epic route. This is Maiden undoubtedly, but Maiden at their most progressive and atmospheric. It is rather dangerous for a classic metal band to go to such extreme progressive leanings - but one can't help but like this. The atmosphere really seeps in, you can almost smell the gun powder and see barren wastelands around you as you listen. Maiden have always had this unique, wonderful ability in being able to conjure images of the lyrics in the listener - the bridge of "Ghost Of The Navigator" resembles a ship sinking desperately in wrathful waters, "The Nomad" brings to mind a suny desert with a desolate man walking about it, "Hallowed Be Thy Name" (Best song ever, easily) expertly brings to mind a prisoners insecurities before he is lead to the gallows and his remorseless reconcilation later to his fate. Here too, the listener feels himself being transported back to the war laden 40's. Once the album is complete - he is abruptly thrown off back to the present, to find that it isn't much different. That's basically the message Maiden are trying to send through to the listener here, and they do it damn well!
All instruments play an equal role in the albums success. Nicko drumming resembles the death march of a batallion of soldiers as they march into the unknown and then he shifts breathtakingly to a more relaxed drum style and then he breaks into some really insane, refreshing creative stuff. Nicko has always been in the shadow of Clive Burr's superior drumming skills but he gets better as he grows older and now he's in Clive Burr territory following Burr's principle of being 'Catchy, fast, furious and creative at the same time'. Despite the albums immense atmospheric leanings, it strangely has Maiden's heaviest guitar tone. Adrian, Dave and Janick all do an absolutely awesome job on guitars. The soloing here is perfect and the riffing remains heavy but lapses into these amazing 'atmospheric bridges' that all the songs contain. Steve is as usual excellent on bass although his bass guitar isn't as pronounced in the mix as it was in Maiden's earlier stuff. Everyone accepts that Bruce's vocals have sharply reduced in quality since the early days, but one cannot deny he does an excellent job here - he merely does what is needed to be done with perfection and emotion intact and doesn't lapse into the excesses one sees in so many Modern Metal bands these days. There are lots of surprises here as well, and they all work - for example, the riff of Lord Of The Light which is rather atypical for how the song actually began. "The Legacy" has the great acoustic intro and follows with a riff ripped off directly from "Gutter Ballet" (Savatage - title track for Gutter Ballet. Amazing song, one of metal's best ballads) which itself stole a song from Maiden's "Hallowed Be Thy Name".
I feel I don't need to divulge into the detailed explanations of the songs by doing a track-by-track review as it would only spoil the grandeur of the album for a listener. I re-instate that the album must NOT be dismissed on first listen, it takes some time to really seep into the listener. This certainly is Maiden's best since Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son (In my opinion the best metal album ever ;)). It takes the best parts of The X Factor ("The Sign Of The Cross" especially, the band certainly re-listened to it and took cues from it) and combines it with the vintage Maiden sound to create what Brave New World and Dance Of Death could have been. This may very well be the last Maiden album in a long time, but they certainly faded away with a blast of the amazing.
Conclusion - Amazing album, best Maiden album since 7th Son. Very atmospheric and epic. Must be listened to rigorously till it clicks.
Choice picks of the lot - Brighter Than A Thousand Suns, The Longest Day, Out Of The Shadows, The Reincarnation Of Benjamin Breeg, Lord Of Light, The Legacy.