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Almost too weird to be true: there's actually people who claim they like Metal, but don't like Iron Maiden. To me, that sounds like being into swimming, but not liking water. If you are a Metal fan and don't like Maiden - I'm sorry to say so - I think you'd be better off not breathing. However, if your only referential point is this album's direct predecessor, the horribly bland and uninspired 'A Matter Of Life And Death', I can understand a certain aversion to the British Metal legend. There was only one song I could thoroughly enjoy on that album (closing track 'The Legacy'), so my hopes for 'The Final Frontier' weren't all that high.
Luckily, the first thing released off of this album was the awesome track 'El Dorado', a song in typical Maiden fashion. That means that the gallop that 'A Matter Of Life And Death' was so obviously lacking is back in full strength, Bruce Dickinson is blazing (no pun intended) vocally and the song is energetic, lively and vibrant. Something which goes for all of 'The Final Frontier' actually.
Musically, the album follows the same quasi-progressive route that Maiden has followed since reuniting with Dickinson and Adrian Smith. So that means that there are many long songs, a couple of shorter, catchier ones to round the album out. The biggest difference with the previous album, however, is that many of the long songs actually make sense. 'The Talisman', with its nine minutes of length, is one of the longest songs on the album, but isn't a second too long. It starts out with two minutes of celtic influenced acoustic guitars (obviously Janick Gers' input, who might be my least favorite guitarist in the band, but I'm still glad he's in the band, as he brings a lot of brilliant ideas to the table), after which it turns into a brilliant, galloping, melodic Metal tune like only Iron Maiden can do them. That little melodic lead after every chorus sent chills down my spine I haven't felt with any new material since 'Rainmaker' and 'Journeyman' seven years ago.
Okay, so this album is not perfect. But then again... Is there really anyone who expected the veterans to go back to the glory days of 'Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son' or 'Piece Of Mind'? Some songs lack the memorability almost any older Maiden song has. 'Coming Home', 'Isle Of Avalon' and 'Starblind' don't stick to my mind as easily as most of the classic stuff, although the latter has a brilliant riff that carries the song and all three songs are quite good. In fact, the only song I can hardly listen to is the 11 minute closing track 'When The Wild Wind Blows', which to these ears is only saved from the scrap heap by a number of killer guitar solos.
'Satellite 15... The Final Frontier' is a great way to start the album. It's actually two separate songs, with 'Satellite 15' being a pleasantly surprising dramatic intro - sounding relatively futuristic, compositionally as well as sonically - and the title track being your typical catchy Iron Maiden single. And I mean that as positive as it can get. The song really wets your appetite for the rest of the album.
Something I immediately noticed about the album is that its general tempo is remarkably higher than on 'A Matter Of Life And Death'. There's more variation in the tempos as well. And isn't that what made songs like 'Infinite Dreams' so irresistable in the first place? But even when the band slows down a bit, they've given their songs a more colorful finish than on the last album. 'Mother Of Mercy', for instance, doesn't exceed the midtempo range, but its brooding structure, atmospheric riffs and powerful chorus make it a delight for any fan of old school Heavy Metal. In deed, Black Sabbath came to mind, although it doesn't directly sound like them.
Other highlights include the uptempo stomper 'The Alchemist', which shows that Iron Maiden still reigns supreme over any Power Metal band attempting to do the same thing, and Dave Murray's 'The Man Who Would Be King', which sounds more like a multi-part suite than anything else really. The latter contains a couple of brilliant twin guitar melodies and a truly beautiful chorus. The aforementioned 'El Dorado' is a fantastic treat as well, but 'The Talisman' really takes the cake. That is the one song that sums up what makes this band so great in the first place.
As for the individual performances, some of them are nothing short of spectacular. Bruce Dickinson's vocals sound much more motivated and convincing than on 'A Matter Of Life And Death' and all of the instrumentalists still seem to be evolving, although being well in their fifties. Nicko McBrain's drumming never ceases to amaze me with little subtleties and all of the three guitarists are stellar in both the riff and solo department. On 'The Final Frontier', Maiden utilized the luxury of having three axemen better than ever and that brings out brilliant harmonies as well as impressive personal achievements. 'Starblind' contains a little semi-clean guitar fill which I would have sworn was Dave Murray's, but it's coming from the speaker where most of Janick Gers' stuff comes from.
It's truly a blessing that bands like Iron Maiden can still come up with an album this good so far into their carreers. Sure, it's not perfect, but 'The Final Frontier' shows that Iron Maiden still has the right to be alive in 2010. Purchase if you like... Metal in general actually!