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Yes you read my title correctly. This is the greatest Iron Maiden album ever.
I am a huge Iron Maiden fan. I've scrutinized every album, heard every song, seen their live show on more than one occasion, watched their DVDs, and learned their catalog on both guitar and bass. When this album came out, I was a little nervous that it wouldn't be good. Dance of Death was good, though had some bad flaws. When I first listened to A Matter of Life and Death, I thought to myself, "well this is pretty good". Yet over 9 months later, this album has slowly creeped into my favorite metal albums list (which includes mostly black metal and doom metal). Don't think you can listen to this album once and understand it - in order to appreciate it, you need to listen to it at least 10-15 times.
Why is this album so good? It excels on every level on which Iron Maiden is expected. I analyzed it in terms of production, vocals, drums, bass, guitars, and songwriting.
First of all, the production is stellar. Every instrument is given its chance to shine. Yet the music has a dark and brooding tone, in part because of the way each piece was written, and in part because of the tone that the engineer/musician employed. I think I am most pleased with the drum sound, which is both heavy and crystal clear at the same time. Older Iron Maiden releases did not have both the necessary wallop and the gossamer hi-range that is needed for drums on a good metal release.
The vocals are superb, and is one of Bruce's best performances ever. Witness the lines about halfway through The Legacy, when he sings " Left to all our golden sons; all to pick up on the peace / You could have all to them - a little chance... at least. " I can't think of a better example of the sheer power and strength of Bruce's high-pitched voice.
Nicko's drums give this album the driving force that it needs to be their best album. Nicko is not the fastest or more technically skilled drummer in metal, but he doesn't need to be. Just listen to the beat he creates with the China cymbal in "The Pilgrim" at about 1:37. It's absolutely brilliant, something that will stick out to you even after the album is over.
Steve's bass is standout as usual. Memorable moments include the intro to "For the Greater Good of God" and the thumping rhythm to the end of "The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg".
Guitarwork, both lead and rhythm is also great. Iron Maiden's riffs are some of the most influential in all of metal, and yet they come up with great new ones here. Listen to the simple, yet exceedingly heavy introduction to "Brighter Than A Thousand Suns", the lead line behind the chorus in "For the Greater Glory of God", or the classical piece at the beginning of "The Legacy". Adrian's solo in "Lord of Light" is one of his best and is a highlight of the album.
Finally, the songwriting - the aspect that will make or break an album. Iron Maiden are pros at songwriting, and it shows in this album. The album has a distinctly epic feel, something that should not be unfamiliar to Iron Maiden fans. The lyrics are all profound and serious, dealing with war, darkness, life struggles, conspiracy, religion, and patriotism. Yes the album is long, and yet some reviewers complained about that! I want to say thank you, Iron Maiden, for fitting so much good music on this disc. Iron Maiden did not create this to be their next "Number of the Beast" or "Piece of Mind", consisting of a combination of epics and short and easily-identifiable anthems like "The Trooper" and "Run to the Hills". Those are all great pieces, yet with A Matter of Life and Death, Maiden has done something more. They've been together for over 30 years, and they've showcased a mature and profound piece of music as a fruit of their work. Thanks Bruce, Dave, Steve, Adrian, Janick, and Nicko.
I made the controversial statement that this is Maiden's best. Go out and buy it and give it a few months of listening. Maybe you'll agree. It's hard to deny, though, that this is an excellent heavy metal release.
Best songs: For the Greater Good of God, The Legacy, The Longest Day