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2006 has proven to be a truly amazing year for metal, seeing the consistently solid releases of many metal acts in its various sub-genres. Staying true to what they’ve always been about, Iron Maiden has succeeded once again in standing out amongst a stiff set of competitors and has created a magnum opus that carries many of the elements of their glory days. A Matter of Life and Death can be summed up as a great album both in terms of quality and quantity. Whereas on previous efforts Maiden had a small collection of grand epics, on this album they completely dominate the overall flow of things.
In my opinion, this is the first album where Maiden has successfully exploited the larger instrumentation that they gained in late 1999 to its fullest potential. All of the songs contain a variety of contrasting parts, particularly in the guitars, that almost give it an orchestral quality. Steve Harris’ bass parts are consistently heavy in the same vain that first began on “Fear of the Dark”, and his keyboard work is tasteful and provides a great atmospheric effect to serve as a counterpoint to the hard edged guitar and bass lines. Nicko’s drumming is on point, as it consistently has been through Maiden’s ups and downs since he first joined the band.
However, the person who really shines on this album more than anyone else is Bruce Dickinson. After rejoining Maiden his vocal work has consistently been on an uptrend back towards the original power that they possessed on “Somewhere in Time”. Considering that there is a lack of vocal overdubs, also that many of these vocal tracks were done in one take, and that the melodies are extremely exposed Bruce’s performance on here can be summed up as spellbinding.
The songs on here are all enormous undertakings as 7 out of 10 break the 6 minute mark. All of these songs contain a host of intricate changes in texture, feel, and intensity. “Brighter than a Thousand Suns” has several amazing transitions from quiet atmospheric sections to triumphant speed sections, spearheaded by Bruce’s highly animated vocal presence. “The Longest Day” begins ominously, as Bruce explores his lower range and the primary instrumental theme is quite haunting. Much like a classical symphony, this song has a very gradual yet highly dramatic build up from it’s intro to its first anthem-like chorus. “The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg” reminds me heavily of the beginning of Dave Murray’s compositional effort on “Déjà vu” on the “Somewhere in Time” album at times, although it is not a speed metal song.
“For the Greater Good of God” is heavily bass driven and reminds me of the better songs off “The X Factor”. Although it is the longest track on here, it is one of the more catchy tracks on here, rivaling “Heaven Can Wait” in terms of sing along value live, particularly at the chorus. “The Legacy” has a lot of intricate acoustic guitar devices and more of the atmospheric elements that dominates the longer tracks on here, and lyrically is probably among the more riveting tracks on here. “Lord of Light” is another incredibly haunting track, be it the gloomy intro with the somber vocals, or the hard edged body of the song which contains an equally ominous vocal performance. “These Colors Don’t Run” is a typical Maiden take on patriotism lyrically, although musically it carries many of the more progressive elements that define all the other epics on here.
The shorter tracks are equally as powerful, though likely more accessible as they don’t contain nearly as many musical twists and turns. “Different World” is a solid speed anthem that follows suit from such recent Maiden tracks as “The Wicker Man” and “The Rainmaker”. “The Pilgrim” is a straight forward up tempo rocker, although the primary theme occurs over a rather interesting dance-like feel. “Out of the Shadows” is a bit more of a progressive rock sounding track with an acoustic guitar line that reminds me of their older material with Paul Di’anno at the helm.
In conclusion, this is the most powerful release that Maiden has put out in quite a while. If there is any flaw in it, it is that the individual songs tend to be so long and complex that there may be some accessibility issues. “Somewhere in Time” and “Killers” were both masterpieces primarily because they had the right balance of shorter and longer songs, whereas this album is almost completely devoid of tracks under the 5 minute mark. Most of the Maiden faithful will like this album, as will fans of Power/Progressive Metal.