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Having listened to “Dance of Death” numerous times over the last couple of years, I thought I might enhance my original review by chiming in with a few general remarks as to whether the album has ultimately stood the test of time. For the most part, my previous conclusion still holds true: after two rather mediocre albums with Bruce Dickinson at the mic and two largely forgettable efforts with vocalist Blaze Baley, Maiden came back in 2000 with a strong release in “Brave New World” and then topped it off with the even better “Dance of Death”. As far as songwriting is concerned, Steve Harris and company mostly deliver on this 2003 output, the way they unfortunately didn’t on the two albums with Baley in the lineup. Let’s face it: “The X-Factor” and “Virtual XI” weren’t bad primarily because of Blaze’s vocals. It’s true that he doesn’t hold a candle to the mighty Air Raid Siren, but then again, what singer does? No, what those two albums lacked in the first place was consistently good, sound songwriting, and sound songwriting is exactly the reason why “Dance of Death” is indeed a very good record.
It doesn't take long to realize that “Dance of Death” is an even stronger album than “Brave New World”, mainly because Maiden succeed in avoiding the same mistakes that detracted somewhat from the overall very positive impression left by its predecessor: the choruses are a bit less repetitive (there are some glaring exceptions, unfortunately), there is more heaviness and speed and the trademark guitar harmonies, which were not used nearly enough on “Brave New World”, make a triumphant comeback.
However, there are also a couple of downsides to this otherwise excellent record. First of all, the production once again is nowhere near as good as it should be. By now we all know that Kevin Shirley is no Martin Birch – sadly, he does not even come close. In comparison with the great production Roy Z put together for Bruce’s brilliant solo efforts “Accident of Birth” and “The Chemical Wedding”, the sound on “Dance of Death” is anemic and weak, even more so than on “Brave New World”. It would be really nice, at some point in the future, to see Steve Harris either work with Roy Z (or another top-notch metal producer) or at least give Shirley a little more leeway instead of constantly meddling with his settings during the recording process (at least that's how I'm imagining it), but that will probably never happen. Maiden are and always have been Harris’ baby and he is not exactly known for being open to any outside advice telling him how to handle his business.
Another downside to “Dance of Death” is that it is again a bit overlong – the final two songs are just not on the same level as the rest of them, as “Age of Innocence”, while otherwise passing as a pretty solid headbanger, has a weak and awkward chorus and rather strange lyrics, and “Journeyman” is just a more or less forgettable ballad. (Note that other reviewers see that particular song as one of the highlights of the album, but I still believe it's rather bland and uneventful.) Luckily, as they did on “Brave New World”, Maiden were smart enough to put the weakest tracks at the very end of the album so as not to make us use the skip button. Anyway, I really believe they would do better to only put eight or nine songs on a record, like they did in the eighties, and save the weaker ones for EPs or single B-sides. After all, a good metal album doesn’t have to run for over an hour – 45 minutes are easily enough, as long as there are no fillers to be found.
The album starts off with a song called “Wildest Dreams”, which may not be very spectacular or inventive but passes as a solid speedy opener – much in the vein of “Be Quick or Be Dead” and others – contrasting nicely with some of the more progressive cuts coming later on. The subsequent “Rainmaker”, “No More Lies” (despite its repetitive three-word chorus) and “Montségur” kick off the finest and most consistent part of the album. Particularly the latter is the best song on here and might as well be a leftover from the “Powerslave” recording sessions: it is crushingly heavy and has guitar harmonies galore that almost bring tears of sheer enthusiasm to my eyes every time I hear them, reminding me why Maiden are still one of the most revered bands in the entire metal genre. “Dance of Death” and “Paschendale” are the two most complex and progressive songs the album has to offer, and they are both top-notch, even though I think they would have been even better with the keyboards a little lower in the mix and the guitars a little more to the forefront, but that’s probably just me. “New Frontier”, surprisingly written by drummer Nicko McBrain, is one of those gritty speed metal tunes (think “Back in the Village”) that were largely missing on “Brave New World”, although it doesn't feature much variation and feels somewhat underdeveloped. The hard-rocking “Gates of Tomorrow” is another ho-hum affair that feels way too predictable and gets old fast, while “Face in the Sand” is a pounding if largely unspectacular mid-tempo banger featuring some of the best drum work on the entire record.
Overall, while being far from perfect and leaving plenty of room for improvement (which promptly came in the form of “A Matter of Life and Death”), “Dance of Death” is a strong release that should please most metalheads and proved once and for all that the reunion with Dickinson was more than just a short-lived cash grab. It is marred by some filler material and the production as well as the artwork (the front cover must be one of the most poorly done Photoshop jobs ever) are definitely sub-standard, but it's also more adventurous and has more truly fulfilling moments than the somewhat tame “Brave New World”. While it's not as good as the two albums that came after it, it serves as further evidence that after so many years in the business, Maiden are still on top of their game and deliver where many of the once-great bands from the eighties simply fall short nowadays.
Choicest cuts: “No More Lies”, “Montségur”, “Dance of Death”, “Paschendale”