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Blaze Bayley's tenure in Iron Maiden is often seen as something of a low point for the band, both vocally and compositionally. Although the two albums he recorded with the band were undeniably flawed, they did have a few moments of excellence and these innovations were not discarded with the return of Bruce Dickinson to the fold. With Brave New World, the band make no attempt to reset their sound to the hook-driven immediacy of the early '80s, or worse, the directionless rock pandering of No Prayer For The Dying and (most of) Fear of the Dark). Instead, the reunited writing team of Dickinson, Harris, Murray and Smith, now aided by Janick Gers, staged a triumphant expansion of the progression hinted at on The X Factor and Virtual XI, with flavours of Somewhere In Time and Seventh Son.
The result is probably my third favourite Maiden album (after the last two I mentioned), as well as the pinnacle of Maiden's 21st century renaissance. The album constantly returns to the themes of travel and creating/ finding new identities, but occasionally becomes more specific in its references to the Aldous Huxley novel it takes its name from - aside from the title track, 'Dream Of Mirrors' seems to be a critique of the concept of sleep-learning. 'Blood Brothers' meanwhile is more than a romantic paean to universal brotherhood, and could easily be a glance at Emile Zola's Etienne Lantier, who 'laughed at his earlier idealism, his schoolboy vision of a brave new world in which justice would reign and men would be brothers.' With that quote in mind, the song's lyrics take on a distinctly more serious tone, though not entirely despairing.
While I usually ignore lyrical content in my reviews, the above is key to the album; Dickinson was putting more thought into his lyrics than ever before, and the stories told are one element of a more considered and cohesive approach to writing an album. The album is lovingly crafted, based around melodies that favour atmosphere and a grandiose pomp over the straight for the throat catchy riffs and leads of old. Even the swift opener 'The Wicker Man' with its exultant guitar curls and empowering chorus chant is hardly humming material, with more focus on technicality and scale. Its evil brother, 'The Mercenary' is an instant Maiden classic with a gritty do-or-die message, an anthemic chorus and a mean attitude. It would have made a good opener to the album, but also serves well as a shot of adrenalin to the heart amidst the beauteous extravagance of 'Blood Brothers' and 'Dream Of Mirrors.'
The album is also a lot heavier than the two previous ones, in part due to Janick Gers having stayed on with the return of Adrian Smith. Together with Dave Murray they provide an exceedingly tasty platter of urgent riffs that rock harder and heavier than 'Futureal' and such, crunching power chords during the choruses and heroic leads that sail over Nicko's characteristic gallops and tumbling fills. Not to mention a wealth of solos that range from Smith's carefully designed classical pieces to Gers' more forceful, freeform bursts.
The early part of the album is mostly comprised of three semi-epic songs that build from clean, melodic guitar sections into heavier riffing and anthemic vocal lines that return to the opening melodies. 'Ghost Of The Navigator', the title track, and 'Blood Brothers' vary in pacing and scale but are all very beautiful in their own way, setting dark and heavy sections against anthemic bridges and emotional performances from The Air Raid Siren, who still lives up to that moniker despite often using a softer and more regulated style. 'Brave New World' is among my favourites on this album, often making me a little emotional although I'm not quite sure why. There's no denying however that the chorus, simply repeating the title, is a moment of chest-beating exuberance and emotion for both the singer and the listener. Classic stuff, this.
If this is to be called a progressive metal album, and to me it does not pretend to any genre but is rather a natural growth of Maiden's natural leanings toward the grand and evocative, but if it is then a song like 'Out Of The Silent Planet' is an example of how progressive should be done. It is very simply constructed and revolves around the repeated lines 'out of the silent planet, out of the silent planet we are' and 'out of the silent planet, dreams of devastation, out of the silent planet, come the demons of creation.' Even at over six minutes it seems one of the catchiest and easiest songs on here, and is a good argument for simplicity over pointless progressive widdling. 'The Thin Line Between Love And Hate' is a funny way to end the album, shedding the contemplative nature of the bulk of Brave New World for an upbeat and power metal inspired charge to the finish. By funny, I don't mean to complain - its movement into a tranquil and smooth outro, almost reminiscent of Anathema's Eternity album, is sublime, and it is always healthy for an album to end with something unexpected rather than have all cannons fired before the grand finale.
With Virtual XI, Iron Maiden had moved away from the flamboyantly progressive and unpredictable compositional diversity of epics like 'Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son' and 'Sign Of The Cross' (which were built on the freeform climbing structure of 'Hallowed Be Thy Name') toward the era of repetitive Iron Maiden epics. Much like 'The Clansman' and 'The Angel And The Gambler', 'Dream Of Mirrors' and 'The Nomad' are more slowed down, expanded and enriched than other songs on the album, while being characterized by central motifs that are returned to instead of discarded for other things. Choruses and other repeated vocal parts are a focus, but with plenty of allowance made for instrumental rambling and building atmospheres. The reason these pieces are so successfully enthralling is the fact that each makes itself known for its content rather than its length, never feeling as if they are eight or nine minutes for the sake of being epic and progressive.
Although Blaze's career in Iron Maiden was ultimately ill-fated, it gave Dickinson the time to explore a few other musical territories, to eventually fall back in love with metal, and to return to an Iron Maiden rejuvenated with more passion and creativity than it had benefited from for twelve years. The meanderings of '90s Maiden had also set the foundations for a new and more matured sound, exhibited with surpassing excellence on this album. There is not a single track on here I feel could have been left off, or abridged or changed in any way. The brilliance of the album is that ideas are allowed to run their full course no matter how long it takes, and it is a richer and better experience for it.
As for Bruce, in the words of Nicko as the album fades, 'Aah, I fuckin' missed 'im!'