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When I first saw the track list for the latest Maiden album and noticed the length of most of the songs, I could hardly believe my eyes. What the hell, an album full of nine-minute epics, with only four out of ten songs shorter than seven minutes (well, more like three, since These Colours Don’t Run just barely misses that mark)?! These guys must be out of their minds!
This didn’t bode well at all, especially considering the last time Maiden treated us to an album comprised almost entirely of long-winded epics, it ended up as quite a disaster. Fortunately, while comparable in mood and atmosphere, A Matter of Life and Death avoids the mistakes that dogged The X-Factor and also eliminates many of the glitches found on the first two albums since the band reunited with singer Bruce Dickinson.
A Matter of Life and Death achieves a quite remarkable feat: Despite being ridiculously long, it never gets boring, and despite its somber mood and thoughtful lyrics, it never gets wimpy. On the contrary, this is the heaviest album Maiden have done since Bruce came back, easily topping both Brave New World and Dance of Death in that department. This can mainly be attributed to two factors: great riffing and much better production values.
Maiden’s latest offering has in abundance what previous albums often lacked, namely distinct guitar riffs that define and carry the individual songs. Tracks like Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, The Pilgrim, The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg or Lord of Light (reminiscent of Bruce’s solo career, this is one of the heaviest songs Maiden have ever done, with a monstrous main riff almost bordering on thrash) are all driven by heavy riffs that immediately get stuck in the listener’s head, something that can’t be said about very many songs on other recent Maiden albums.
Another strength of A Matter of Life and Death is the very decent production, marking the first time Kevin Shirley has delivered the goods on a Maiden studio album. The triple axe attack truly shines and makes its presence felt throughout the album rather than only during some scattered passages, as was the case on Brave New World and Dance of Death. However, that doesn’t mean the other instruments take a backseat to the guitars. Nicko’s drums and Steve’s bass are given plenty of room as well, with Bruce’s vocals once again being the icing on the cake. It’s nice to hear his voice is still in great shape after all these years – actually, it sounds much better than it did in the early nineties, when Bruce came up with lackluster performances on No Prayer for the Dying and Fear of the Dark.
As far as songwriting is concerned, Maiden have done an admirable job this time around. These songs may be somewhat extended, but they never make you long for the fast forward button. Whereas the problem with many epics on Maiden’s recent albums was their rather predictable structure – long acoustic intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, guitar solos traded off for several minutes, chorus repeated several times, acoustic outro –, A Matter of Life and Death isn’t predictable at all, keeping things fresh with plenty of tempo changes and lots of unexpected twists and turns. Good examples are the amazing Brighter than a Thousand Suns with that formidable up-tempo part seemingly coming out of nowhere and giving the listener a thorough kick in the behind, Lord of Light with that gloomy mid-section emanating a deeply sinister atmosphere and providing a great build-up to the song’s grand finale, and The Legacy, which doesn’t even have a traditional chorus at all. Speaking of choruses, Maiden have apparently realized that repeating them ad nauseam in almost every song isn’t a very good idea, since this issue has largely been fixed this time around. On the whole, the songwriting is very consistent, as all songs maintain a very high level and there are no fillers to be found. (No, not even the opener Different World, which may be a bit of a run-of-the-mill rocker, but still works very well in the context of the more intricate compositions on this record.)
In the end, I really can’t find much that’s not to like about this album. Maiden have made a significant step forward in almost every way, making this a better effort than both Brave New World and Dance of Death. Those were excellent as well, but they also had some obvious flaws. For the most part, these flaws have been eliminated on A Matter of Life and Death, so I can’t see why I shouldn’t give this a very high rating. Maiden haven’t been this good in almost twenty years, and if they can keep it up, I’m definitely looking forward to their future work!
Choicest cuts: Brighter than a Thousand Suns, The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg, For the Greater Good of God, Lord of Light