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I’ve been a fan since I first heard Wasted Years somewhere in ’86 and keeping track of the band ever since. There are albums I still play monthly and some albums collecting dust (mostly the 1992-1998 era). I have been playing this album now every few months since it came out about two years ago and I must conclude this is the worst Maiden album since the reunion with Smith and Dickinson. Is it bad? No, it is pretty enjoyable but somehow it just doesn’t grab my attention the whole time and the previous two studio albums just made more sense.
Biggest problem really is the laid back atmosphere surrounding “A Matter of Life and Death ”. Of course there are some sparse up tempo moments but as a whole the album just wanders along in a slow pace. Even the fastest and shortest song (“Different World”) is a bit too tame when listening to it and keeping songs like Moonchild or Aces High in mind. What makes this more obvious is the way Dickinson sings his way through the song. I’m missing some aggression, some rawness. It’s just too nice. I’m really missing that raging heavy metal feeling.
Another annoying aspect is the fact that there are many long songs here and the efficiency is lacking at some important moments. The album could have done with some shorter and simpler (heavier) songs to keep the balance. Whereas the old Maiden released albums with 70-80 percent short(er) songs and one or two epic ones, it is the other way around these days since the reunion.
Now this wouldn’t have been a problem if all the long songs would’ve had the same quality as, let’s say, “Rime Of The Ancient Mariner”, “Afraid To Shoot Strangers”, “Blood Brothers” or even “The Clansman”. However most of the longer songs on this album aren’t really all that epic. Some of them are actually sounding like overlong singles with stretched verses and (more obvious) stretched middle sections with numerous solos, breaks and melodies after which the band repeats a chorus once or twice again. It is starting to sound like stretching for the sake of stretching. I can’t really think of any reason why they should do this, but they did. A song like “These Colours Don't Run” simply would have been better about two minutes shorter at least. The chorus is a typical rock chorus that doesn’t fit into a lengthy 7 minute epic.
The only lengthy song here that really has an epic feeling, is “For the Greater Good of God” which stays interesting the full 9:24 minutes. Following closely is “The Longest Day” which also is very entertaining. The song “The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg” is the only song on which one can find anything resembling a classic metal riff (the rest of the album is more about chords and melodies) and therefore sounds refreshing in the “Stranger In A Strange Land” kind of way. The song however is – once again – overlong! Talking about the Somewhere in Time era, the chorus of “Lord Of light” could have come straight from that period.
The point is that Harris, Smith and Dickinson used to write effective songs in the early days and this album sounds as if they went into a rehearsal room with just a few ideas and the whole band started jamming. I can imagine it being far more fun for the band doing it this way but a lot of the songs on this album could have been (and should have been) more to the point.
What makes the compositional sloppiness more obvious is the production. Three guitarists is much but they pulled it off on Brave New World earlier. This time the guitar sound is a mess. It is foggy, messy and even extremely blurry at times. Some songs here could have done better with a more Piece Of Mind-Powerslave era crunchy dry sound or even the simplistic No Prayer For The Dying approach. The drums have never sounded good since the early nineties and they are flat once again. The vocals are too up front in the mix and sound too dry and un-produced. The balance is really missing, making the album sound like a live demo at times.
Also I really do dislike the cheesy chorus of “Out of the Shadows”. The song feels like a lesser annoying version of the hideous “Wasting Love” (Fear Of The Dark, 1992) and I skip it each time. Maiden just shouldn’t write these awful ballads anymore. The lyrics are okay though.
Now I know it sounds as if I’m totally bashing the album. But in the end it really is just a typical Maiden album and one would immediately recognise them. However it is one of their most dull and laid back ones and it cannot compete with the earlier Brave New World yet it is more consistent than Dance Of Death. The presence of “The Longest Days”, “Benjamin Breeg” and “For the Greater Good of God” however makes the album worth owning if you’re a die-hard Maiden supporter. But please, put the balls back into Maiden next time!