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It is very rare that a prominent old band releases a good record. It is even rarer that such a record matches the classics that made them famous in the first place. As for such a record being a nearly complete departure from their '80s classic sound, and being even better than almost all of the classic '80s material, Iron Maiden's A Matter of Life and Death may be a first. This is not your father's Iron Maiden. You will not find the likes of "The Trooper" on the record. Imagine 1995's The X Factor, only infinitely better. Instead of being galloping and triumphant, A Matter of Life and Death is dark, grim, epic as all hell, and more complex than anything they have ever created before. This record could almost qualify for the prog metal genre. And Blaze Bayley is nowhere to be found.
There is only one song (the opener "Different World") which is under five minutes, and two songs ("For The Greater Good of God" and "The Legacy") that exceed nine minutes. "For The Greater Good of God" is only nine seconds shorter than Dream Theater's prog-metal anthem "Metropolis Pt. 1". However, you can rest assured that all of this time is put to good use, with the one exception of the filler "Lord of Light" (a Janick Gers track, of course). Iron Maiden have long since moved beyond the Opeth-esque bloat of '90s stinkers like "The Angel and the Gambler".
The songs are intricately structured, with seamless time and tempo changes. For once, the soft intros that have become a New Maiden trademark feel fully integrated, rather than tacked on (the opening of "The Legacy" is particularly effective, with the acoustic guitars and Bruce Dickinson's creepy lullaby-esque vocal passage telling the story of chemical warfare victims producing one of the most unsettling atmospheres ever to grace a Maiden song).
For once, Kevin Shirley actually got the production right. The snare doesn't have the hollow metallic sound that it had in the last two albums, and the guitar tone is rich and natural-sounding. Steve Harris's bass is perhaps a touch too dark, sometimes turning to mud underneath the guitars. The most striking thing about the production is the excellent dynamics. This isn't the crude soft/quiet dichotomy of emo bands; Iron Maiden recognize the idea of there being an actual continuum of loudness, and use dynamics to subtly or not so subtly control the tension or flow of the song. The most dramatic example is "The Longest Day", which has a goosebump-inducing buildup that makes it perhaps the best Maiden song ever (yes, better than "Hallowed Be Thy Name").
Bruce Dickinson's vocal performance is quite amazing for a 48-year-old man, and though his high range is eroded a bit from the early '80s (you can hear him straining to reach the high notes in "These Colours Don't Run"), he has all the power and drama of his glory days. However, some of his true knockout performances come in the softer sections, where he displays a versatility honed by years of experimentation in his solo work. From the bone-chilling, downright scary narrative in "The Longest Day"'s opening, to the aforementioned sinister crooning of "The Legacy", Bruce has a lot more up his sleeve than the "air raid siren" wailing of the '80s (contrast this with his attempts at softer singing on the '80s records, which often sounded forced at best and comical at worst, especially the cringe-worthy verse of "The Evil That Men Do").
The excellent cover artwork indicates that war, and the most common cause of war in modern times, religion, are the lyrical focus of "A Matter of Life and Death". The lyrics are mostly excellent (a couple of songs suffer from Repetitive Chorus Syndrome, especially "The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg" and "For The Greater Good of God"), in stark contrast to the juvenile irrelevancy of arch-rivals Judas Priest or the blind hatred of America and anything associated with it exhibited by idiots like Dave Mustaine of Megadeth.
"Different World" is the only classically Maiden song offered, a fast-paced rocker with some sincere if rather un-metal lyrics about the dull reality of getting old (all right, lyricist Adrian Smith probably is not at all strapped for material wealth, but money doesn't buy happiness. Just ask Kurt Cobain.). The vocals on the chorus, unusually for Maiden, are subdued compared to the high-flying verse (a tribute to Thin Lizzy, the band says). it's an interesting reversal of the norm, and the song is better for it.
"These Colours Don't Run" is about patriotism, duty, and the bonds that form between soldiers (all of which are very real, whatever pacifists might say). The song is bookended by bittersweet, soulful guitar harmonies, contrasted by the bravado-laden chorus and truly thrilling bridge unison. Could be a little faster, but it's otherwise good.
"Brighter Than A Thousand Suns" sweeps away anything that's left of the classic Maiden "happy" sound with a mercilessly heavy, brooding 7/4 riff and a more malevolent vocal treatment from Dickinson. As opposed to the traditional melodic soundscape, this is positively crushing--all the more fitting for a song about the atom bomb.
Synth figures prominently in "The Pilgrim", which features some tricky, lurching proggy rhythms from McBrain and background string patches providing an almost Eastern sound. The song is otherwise rather unremarkable, and seems like it could've been a good single.
"The Longest Day" is the most majestic song ever written by Iron Maiden. Ever. This, almost three decades after their debut, is their new masterpiece. The steady, inexorable escalation of the first couple of verses is breathtaking, its grim tone echoing the horrific slaughter of Allied troops on the beaches of Normandy in World War II, and then the song explodes into an anthemic chorus expressing a forlorn hope in the face of the Axis onslaught. The song is not relentlessly desolate like the World War I epic "Paschendale" from the previous album Dance of Death, as that would be inappropriate. The battle of Passchendaele was a senseless waste of human life in the name of realpolitik, while the battle of Normandy was a struggle to dislodge the appalling Third Reich tyranny from France--one of the closest equivalents to a "good versus evil" battle that history has ever borne witness to. The ludicrously technical 15/8 instrumental section takes the song to a climax, and then the song winds back down to the solemn bass gallop that began it. This is one of those songs that just transcends mere music and becomes an experience. It's just that awesome.
Haunting half-acoustic piece "Out of the Shadows" settles down a bit from the epic overload of "The Longest Day". dealing with the cruel reality of being born into a third world country where life is cheap, death is early, and pain is omnipresent. Those born in America, Europe, or Japan are lucky. This song gives us an emotional reminder of the lot of people who didn't share our luck.
"The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg" was the album's first single and preceded by a bunch of teasers and mind games put out by the band. I didn't follow the press campaign, so I can only gather that the song appears to be about a man who has returned from the dead into a cursed half-life. The song continues the mellower mood of "Out of the Shadows", with haunting bell-like bass lines that take advantage of Steve Harris's "clanky" style and an a sad, desperate vocal delivery from Bruce., before abruptly exploding into a heavy riff. The song grinds away with a mood of near panic as the titular character is beset by all manner of nightmares and curses. The bridge speeds things up a bit with an extra-heavy, almost thrash-like rendition of the traditional Maiden gallop and menacing palm-muted riffs. The ending is a bit of a let-down as it crashes abruptly into an abbreviated version of the opening bass line rather than winding down naturally.
"For the Greater Good of God" probes the motivations of the "Islamist" Muslim fundamentalists who strive to their dying breath to destroy Western civilization. The tone of the lyrics is rather unorthodox, appearing to ask God himself if he supports the slaughter carried out in his name ("Are you a man of peace or a man of holy war? / Too many sides to you, don't know which anymore..."). The song is relentlessly technical, with convoluted bass lines, some of the highest vocal lines since the early '80s (Bruce seems to struggle with the chorus), and an insane Dream Theater-like instrumental section packed with wild off-time riffs and furious shredding. While previous songs flirted with progressive metal, this is the real deal, expansive, demanding, and thought-provoking, the way "thinking man's metal" is supposed to be.
"Lord of Light" is just plain dull, a plodder that could've been pulled from the Blaze Bayley era. The chorus riff is truly annoying, a lame groove figure that sounds like it was taken from a Pantera song. Every gem must have a flaw, I guess...
"The Legacy" continues the prog rock mood of "For The Greater Good of God", with Bruce Dickinson sounding like Peter Gabriel of Genesis in places, a linear progression through sections that are not repeated, and the total lack of a chorus of any kind. The song is almost like a recap of the entire album, swinging between soft and heavy, fast and slow, and Bruce displaying several different vocal styles. The lyrics, too, offer a sort of summary of the album's themes, describing the horrors of war, the cruel and hard world we live in, and the grim fate that often awaits tyrants. Towards the end, the song takes another turn, becoming more hopeful and suggesting that the world is slowly becoming a better place, year by year, before gently petering out with a soft acoustic denouement.
A Matter of Life and Death is a truly essential Maiden record, the best since Seventh Son at the very least, and, I think, the starting point for where they should go with their sound. Even if the melodic proto-power-pop-metal of the '80s made their name, there's a limit to how long you can keep doing one thing. Besides, do you really want them to put out yet another clone of "The Trooper"?