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For anyone who purchases an album for the purpose of listening to it all the way through, the pacing of any opus is an essential element that must be well ordered so that entire experience can maintain a sense of organization. The metal genre is, by nature, systematic and methodical. Even the most avant-garde of acts in the most obscure of sub-genres will rely on an underlying symmetrical structure in order to keep the listener hooked in.
Iron Maiden had always kept a very strict structure to their work from their first album on, until the notable exception of “The X Factor”, which ushered in a potential alternative approach of writing longer songs and modeling entire albums after the longer winded, epic style of 1970s progressive rock for the band. Since that time, Steve Harris and company have tried to marry their older approach of evenly paced songs with the occasional long number with the “4 or more songs timing over 7 minutes” structure.
“Dance of Death” represents the most moderated combination of length and brevity, switching gears every couple tracks to keep the listener guessing, while putting forth the most consistent and quality based songwriting since “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son”. The capabilities of the 3 guitar arrangement are exploited well enough, but for the most part this album listens more like the ones where 2 guitarists were in congress. In fact, apart from Bruce’s vocals, Adrian Smith providing his invaluable input on songwriting, and a slightly more upbeat overall lyrical approach, this album bears the most resemblance to “The X Factor” of anything to date.
Things start out pretty fast and optimistic with “Wildest Dreams”, kicking up the riff and tempo assault a notch from previous album opener “The Wicker Man” and offering something quite similar to Maiden’s faster work in the early 80s. Likewise, “Rainmaker”, “Montsegur” and “Gates of Tomorrow” come in and out of the works, before and after longer winded songs and keep the overall flow of the album constant and driving. Particular mention should be given to “Gates of Tomorrow” for having the most energy I’ve heard out of a fast Maiden song since 1988.
The longer songs on here spare us no amount of enjoyment either, as all the contrasting sections are appropriately spaced out and the over-repetition that haunted much of 1990s Maiden epics has been cut away. The band’s own musical take on the Danse Macabre and the album’s title track throws an intriguing mix of Celtic inspired melodic ideas along side their standard thematic material and succeeds at sounding quite theatrical. Bruce Dickinson would often assume many of the roles depicted in the lyrics while touring on this album, be it the masked dancers or the Grim Reaper, all in one single performance between the many instrumental breaks. Other songs that make exceptional use of atmosphere and thematic contrast include the World War I inspired “Paschendale”, the heavy and socially conscious “Face in the Sand”, and the all acoustic epic tale of self-actualization “The Journeyman”.
From start to finish, everything on here just begs to be listened to, and in the order that it is present in. The same can’t really be said for most of what Maiden had put forward in the 13 years before this came out. It doesn’t quite reach the same magnitude of the early years or their zenith in the mid 80s, but it gets extremely close. If you liked “Brave New World” and “The X Factor”, and if you aren’t dissuaded by a somewhat goofy looking album art, this successfully merges the best elements of both of those albums and injects the resulting hybrid with a needed dose of energy.