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It's hard being a relative newbie on a review site.
One typically has the inclination to begin with reviews of one's favorite bands, which naturally leads to gratuitous overratings which are not always justified by the material under consideration. This usually rouses the ire of older, more experienced reviewers, which is never a pleasant experience for the new reviewer just beginning to toe the water.
A more strategic method would be to begin one's career by reviewing what are typically considered 'classics', thus winning the appreciation of the older members while artificially inflating one's own status and knowledge. This has its uses in moderation, but is a fairly shallow ploy and one quite obvious to the discriminating observer.
So a compromise must be struck, and I've settled, for the time being, on reviewing records by classic bands which are nevertheless controversial amongst fan circles. And A Matter of Life and Death is just such a record.
The decade which we are just now starting to usher out has been a triumphant one for the Irons, to say the least. Hot on the heels of the return of lead vocalist Bruce Dickinson and showman guitarist Adrian Smith, the group released a pair of records which, though generally considered by everyone to be at least 'very good', are often regarded as striking land somewhere beneath 'great'. This is a very valid opinion, of course, but it seems to me that a lot of it has to do with fan disillusionment and resentment, as well as a little one-upsmanship amongst a fanbase notorious for its elitism; in effect, the musicological equivalent of Comic Book Guy-ism.
But Lucas didn't rape your childhood, and Maiden hasn't raped your ears. The last two Maiden albums rocked.
As does this one. In fact, A Matter of Life and Death rocks considerably harder than its immediate predecessor, Dance of Death, which, although bearing a good number of excellent songs on it, seemed to be thematically and musically inconsistent, interspersed with both short 'rockers' and longer 'epics' with no discernible rhyme or reason to their ordering. Not so with AMOLAD: aside from opener "Different World", virtually every song on this disc is cut from the same epic vein. This helps the album maintain a steady flow throughout its duration, making it undoubtedly the most consistent - if not the greatest - record in Maiden's discography. Listening can prove a chore for the impatient fan, but the attentive listener will feel the brooding atmosphere seep into their skull by the third song.
Track by track:
The opener, "Different World", is the only rockish song on the record, and by far the most upbeat, and is among the strongest of Maiden's punchier efforts on their last three records. Beginning the album with a bit of sorely needed humor courtesy of group stalwart and drum meistro Nicko McBrain, this catchy number was a good choice for a single.
Track two is the second single from the record, These Colours Don't Run, and is probably the most well-known. A semi-patriotic dirge for the dead, the tune nevertheless manages to remain essentially apolitical by accepting the seedier aspects innate to war - "For the passion/For the glory/For the memories/For the money/You're a soldier/For you're country/What's the difference/All the same". A tremendously moving number even for an anti-nationalist such as myself, this ranks among my favorites from the album, and even the relatively overused "woah-oh-oh" section towards the end doesn't detract from this. The solo blazes, too.
The third song, "Brighter Than a Thousand Suns" is among the darkest of the cuts on A Matter of Life and Death, opening with a slow and moody riff over Dickinson's spoken words before expanding into a mightily mid-paced version of the same. With a swaggering chorus line and a beautiful 'lull' in the storm at the 2:34 mark, this is not to be missed.
"The Pilgrim" is far and away my favorite cut on here, opening with a strangely funky drum beat before ripping into a wonderful riff which dominates the song. The chorus swells to incredible proportions, and the overall life-affirming feel to the track helps enormously to cauterize the emotional wounds of the rest of the album.
Next is "The Lesser Day", and it's one of the lesser selections. By no means unlistenable, it simply doesn't connect with me in the same way that the previous track did. It is very good nevertheless, with what is probably the best guitar solo on the record about five and a half minutes in.
"Out of the Shadows" opens with a militaristic series of drum rolls before descending into a spectacularly calming acoustic piece accompanying Bruce's intelligently-penned and well-sung vocals. Most remarkable are the lyrics, which rank among the best I've heard in this or any other genre.
"The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg" begins with another slow acoustic melody which doesn't explode until two minutes into the song, but as soon as it does it erupts into one of the most massive riffs ever penned by the band. The solo, which picks up at the 4:48 mark, is equally lovely.
"For the Greater Good of God" follows the established pattern in beginning with a morose acoustic introduction, but quickly flows into one of the best sing-along choruses that the band has ever written, another intelligent chant which one can be proud to sing along with Dickinson.
"Lord of Light" is by far the gloomiest song on the record, and again opens with a subdued acoustic bit (this is typical of the record, but each are sufficiently good so as not to become tiring). Bruce sounds generally tortured in the opening, and a slightly processed sound to his vox actually seems to improve upon the general mood of the piece. Harris' galloping bass is here as ever, and lends a deftness to the track absent from a few of the other songs.
Closing up shop on the latest Maiden release is "The Legacy", a chilling reminder of the horrors of nerve gas and the legacy of World War I in the same manner as "Passchendale" from Dance of Death. The riff here is absolutely brutal, with an epic feel I've heard before only on film soundtracks. Oddly enough, after a series of ripping guitar solos starting around six minutes into the thing, the song seems to recover much of the light-hearted feel of "Different World", closing out on a gloriously powerful note before fading into acoustic and into black. Bruce's vox on the last few lines is especially wonderful, a genuinely Dionysian experience.
In summa, this is, while not their best outing, one exceedingly worthy of the band's name. The naysayers are, of course, entitled to their opinions, but they'll remain always and only that -- opinions.
Up the Irons. Again. And again. And again.