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Iron Maiden’s newest release, A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, continues in the vein of progressive material that began with Seventh Son, evolved in Brave New World and Dance of Death, and finally culminates in their newest album. Gone are almost all concessions to brevity such as The Wickerman, The Fallen Angel, or Wildest Dreams. This latest outing emphasizes meandering structures, time signature changes, and Maiden’s fondest lyrical tropes: war and social commentary.
The songs are at a much more serene pace than on most previous albums, with the fastest pieces being the shortest: Different World and The Pilgrim. Although each is competently executed in traditional Maiden style, there is little depth to them, either lyrically or musically. The bulk of this album lies in the extended epics like For the Greater Good of God, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, and The Legacy. Some may complain that the songs are too long for their own good, with far too much time spent on undistorted introes and outroes. However, at least most of the songs do not succumb to Maiden’s classic Achille’s Heel of having far too much chorus repetition. In fact, The Legacy (surely Gers’s finest composition) is written without any chorus at all; its narrative format works fantastically for its exploration of truth and promises.
As is expected in any Maiden album, stunning guitar work abounds. The solos in The Longest Day evoke the roiling seas and the ebb and flow of battle; For the Greater Good of God contains guitar work that is simply sublime; and Lord of Light features what is possibly Maiden’s thrashiest riffing. The bass forms an extremely solid underpinning for the Three Amigos as Steve plays brilliant melodic lines.
On most songs, Bruce sings fantastically; particularly the acoustic-tinged mellow song about birth Out of the Shadows, where he finally sounds completely relaxed with the softer segments and the verses in The Longest Day, in which he builds up an incredible sense of foreboding along with the chugging guitars and thudding drums. Unfortunately, he sounds somewhat out of place and strained on These Colours Don’t Run and Lord of Light, but it’s generally passable and no degradation to his reputation.
The album is not perfect, however, and suffers from several flaws. The most painful is The Longest Day’s chorus: after the incredibly potent imagery conjured up by the verse (“all summers long, the drills to build the machine/to turn man from flesh and blood to steel”), Bruce erupts into a painfully silly and out-of-place chorus, nearly destroying the value of the song and creating what is possibly Iron Maiden’s single most anti-climactic moment. These Colours Don’t Run is utterly bland, and it takes several listens just to discover that some of the solos are tolerable. And, of course, the songs are longer than average and slower-paced than average, and the listener who wants a concise, rapid-fire album is better off listening to Number of the Beast or Killers.
Overall, this outing is one of Iron Maiden’s absolute best. The progressive elements of their style are in full force, resulting in one of their most unique albums and most powerful. The lyrics are almost universally well-written, the songs have depth in their structure and riffing, and as a whole the album represents a simultaneous return to Maiden’s traditional sound and a shocking evolution of it.