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Iron Maiden's career is a perfect example of one that managed to not only achieve greatness, but maintain it with a relative consistency. Sure, there are a handful of albums from the nineties that are generally considered 'weaker' than the others, but when some fans of the band- myself included- regard a lot of their new stuff to be on par with the classic material, that's damned near unheard of. Upon the release of "The Final Frontier" (Maiden's fifteenth studio release to date), the band had been together for the better part of 35 years in one shape or another. Admittedly, their style has not changed much this time around, although given that their sound has earned them a cross-generational legion of fans, this isn't such a bad thing. "The Final Frontier" is an epic quest of heavy metal, and it's home to some of the best tracks the band has ever done.
Iron Maiden may have generally stuck to a signature sound throughout their career, yet especially since 2000's "Brave New World", they have been going down a more progressive path with their music. Maiden already had plenty of experience with the proggy, epic form of metal throughout the eighties; "Phantom of the Opera", "Alexander the Great", and "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" all come to mind. With "Brave New World" however, the progressive direction they had always acknowledged began to take a greater step forward. Of the three new millennium albums that came before this, "The Final Frontier" rests at a general par. It may be a tit less consistent than "Brave New World" or even "A Matter of Life and Death", yet it makes up for it with its highlights. As "Dance of Death" impressed me most with "Paschendale" and its haunting title track, "The Final Frontier"s greatest contribution to Maiden's discography is through a few of its best moments.
Among these 'highlights' are the eerie opener "Satellite 15... The Final Frontier", an intensely atmospheric introduction recalling Dickinson's work with Ayreon, building up gradually and making way for a rock-oriented latter half. "The Man Who Would Be King" is a progressive powerhouse with some of the album's best guitar work. Above all else however, is the epic "When the Wild Wind Blows". Based on a similarly titled animated film, it's a sombre piece of music that tackles the topic of nuclear war from the everyman's perspective. Unlike a million thrash metal bands who may fetishize nuclear war as something 'epic' or extreme, "The Final Frontier"s highlight focuses on the feelings of confusion and helplessness that arise from the catastrophe. Within ten minutes, "When the Wild Wind Blows" enjoys an impressive emotional arc, ranging from the intimate to the balls-out epic. It was a real joy to hear something like this on one of the band's latest releases- one of my now-favourite Maiden tracks, and on I would rank up there with the band's longstanding epics.
The instrumentation is a little more laid back on "The Final Frontier" than they have been in the past. The guitar solos are still as fiery as ever, but Iron Maiden put less of an emphasis on speed here than they did on "A Matter of Life and Death" and prior. In its place, Maiden's proggy undertones have taken a step up. In the end however, these changes are minute in the overall scope. Iron Maiden are largely up to their old tricks once again, and though some fans will be disappointed to hear the development (or lack thereof) in the band's sound, their style still sounds fresh and vital.