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Following up a masterpiece like Dance of Death was always going to be difficult even for a band like Maiden but as always they’ve had a right go at it. They’ve done it in the only way they could have and that is by doing it differently.
This album is both a step forward and a step back musically. It’s a lot more technically developed than Dance of Death and the guitar trio really come into their own here. However this album also represents a musical paradigm shift back to the X Factor days. Gone are the catchy melodies of Dance of Death which are replaced by a broody and dark atmosphere.
One thing one must not do with “A Matter of Life and Death” is judge it on the first listen. It’s taken me a good three months and at least 40-50 listens to really get into and understand it (which is why the late review).
As I said it’s nowhere near as catchy as Dance of Death and on the first listen no songs really stick out. The album does seem to follow one musical theme (though not reflected in the lyrics which are pretty similar to those on Dance of Death) but ends up getting a bit tedious after a while. And at this stage it’s just the typically brilliant solos that prevent me from skipping most of the songs. This is especially evident on songs like the weak opener “Different Worlds” (which has to be their weakest opener ever) and the overlong “The Longest Day”. Maiden solos however, have always been superb and this album is no exception.
The first part of the album features the nadir of musicality that any album can suffer from – filler. The opener, “These Colors Don’t Run”, “The Pilgrim” and “The Longest Day” may not have been on the album and it wouldn’t have made any difference. The only song of the first five that’s worth much is “Brighter than a Thousand Suns” specifically for containing one of the two moments on the album that screams HEAVY FUCKING METAL and makes you throw the horns and BANG YOUR HEAD in the form of the riff that supports the first solo section (the other such moment being during the solo section of “Lord of Light”).
These songs do have some good points though and the individual riffs may just have worked if they had better usage and while they’ve lost some of their previous charm thankfully they’re no less ingenious. Just when you get tired of listening to one riff/triplet they’ll switch to the next (except on “These Colors don’t Run” which suffers from overuse of one mildly interesting riff-set). And while the intro-riff-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo-new riff-solo-old riff-chorus pattern may get a bit repetitive after a while (especially by the time you get to the musical quagmire that is “The Longest Day”) they end with five top songs that essentially save the album.
And HELL do they save the album. We start with the short and sweet ballad “Out of the Shadows” that precedes the onslaught of brilliance. This in itself isn’t all that special but here is the cue for a refreshing shift in mood and musical emphasis from the moody darkness of songs like “Brighter than a Thousand Suns” to the cheerful goofy smile inducing brilliance that we’ve come to expect of Maiden over the years. They’re right up there with the best of the glory days. First up is the strange choice of single “The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg” which may be mid-paced but certainly doesn’t bore. The riff is fun while it lasts and the instrumentation is superb (strangely reminiscent at times of Metallica during the good times). This one also contains Bruce’s best performance on this album (his voice’s age is showing now).
“For the Greater Good of God” showcases all of their talent and rushes past despite the fact that it’s all of 9 minutes long and the slightly repetitious chorus. It features the best guitar work (compositionally) on the album. “Lord of Light” is a slightly unusual track considering the standard Maiden style. The first triplet’s a good 5 and a half minutes into the song and until then both the tone and the style of riffing remind me more of Painkiller era Judas Priest rather than anything Maiden’s done before. This is however the most technical track on the album and if not for the one to come would have been the best one.
The last song though is the real masterpiece of this album. “The Legacy” is probably the best they’ve written since…hell I don’t think they’ve every done anything quite like this. The way it starts off probably makes you think “They’ve gone and done Journeyman all over again” however when it picks up pace it rocks. Not only does it rock but it does so without ever losing focus. It’s by no means their heaviest song but that hardly matters.
It’s hard to pick out why this song is just as good as it is. Maybe it’s because of the lyrics that perfectly sum up all the shit in the world right now. Maybe it’s because of how Maiden in their usual impeccable manner, perfectly use the melancholy melody to convey their message. I remember using the word cheerful however this is anything but. The opening acoustic meandering may sound simple but it’s effective and haunting nonetheless. It sets you up perfectly for to aural onslaught to come. To use an analogy Steve Harris would like it’s like a good football (soccer) team passing the ball around in the defense and midfield before playing the killer pass forward for the goal. The heavier portions are slightly symphonic but this time they’ve got it right (unlike Dance of Death where they overdid it). I started off the review hoping not to give any one song too much attention but if any song deserves it, it is The Legacy. This is by far their best work since anything off Fear of the Dark and this album is worth it just for that.
Technically there are very few complaints I have with this album. Bruce’s age is showing but the rest of the band’s performance covers for that. I like the integration of synth and symphonic elements which works a lot better on here than on Dance of Death. The production is different from earlier but that’s merely to accentuate the atmosphere that they obviously wanted. The only things I can think of is that perhaps Janick’s guitar could have been a little louder and a little more double bass would have been good. But these are minor details and take little away from the album.
This is a good album. It’s not better than Dance of Death but can hold its own against it any day. It’s got its fair share of brilliant songs but also unlike Dance of Death has some filler (which is what prevented a 90+ rating). When you buy it don’t expect anything like Dance of Death. You won’t get it. What you will get is Maiden kicking your ass with the album that The X Factor wishes it was. This Maiden is different. It’s a mature Maiden and it may be very different from the old one but it’s not any worse for it.