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Iron Maiden is the greatest heavy metal band to ever live. Thirty years after the release of their self-titled album, they are arguably just as relevant as they ever have been—not resting on their laurels and imitating a hits jukebox, but instead touring the world playing their new material to the joy of fans everywhere. After what was a rousing success with their most recent record, the 2006 release of A Matter of Life and Death, there is actually maybe a bit more pressure on the band to produce something that is quality, memorable and, frankly, classic. Especially with the rumors floating around that this is Maiden's final album, spurred even further on by the fact that Steve Harris helped write every song on the record, the pressure cooker of fan scrutiny is reaching fever pitch. And so it falls to this Angry Metal Guy to try to put all of this into some sort of context; to try to listen to my favorite band with fresh ears—and I've come to some realizations about the band in the process.
The Final Frontier has promised to be a controversial record since the cover art was unveiled, actually. This new, comic booky Eddie in space stirred up a strange sense of dread among fans, not offset by the fact that "El Dorado", the first track released, was a bit of a grower to the say the least. And that's a good analogy for how the record begins—"Satelite 15..." is without a doubt the weirdest thing that Iron Maiden has ever included on a record, complete with distorted bass and a drum machine that lead right into what is probably the most straight forward rock song Maiden has ever written in their career—"The Final Frontier". However, the track flows right into an in context "El Dorado" and suddenly the record is flying. And, really, it stays in air for the next 42 minutes.
Starting with "Mother of Mercy", The Final Frontier really starts to kick some ass. With the reintroduction of the gallop and some of the darker lyrics that the band has written, going right in hand with A Matter of Life and Death and themes from Dance of Death as well. "Coming Home", a track about Dickinson's flying, is actually a surprising stand out. While the song itself is pretty simple and practically a power ballad, it sports one of the catchiest choruses that the band have ever written and has an anthemic quality that will serve the live show very well. "Isle of Avalon", "Starblind" and "The Talisman" are all songs that sport classic late-Maiden riffs and choruses and are great ("Isle of Avalon" especially so), but the standout track from the middle of the record for me is easily "The Alchemist", written by the ever-maligned Janick Gers with Harris and Dickinson. This track is the best song on the album—it's got classic Maiden quality, speed, melodies and some fantastic lyrics. Therefore: I fully expect the band to not play it live and for the fans to piss on it publicly (see: "Montségur" and "The Pilgrim", two ridiculously underrated tracks from the last couple records).
However, after an hour of awesome, The Final Frontier grinds to what is an unpleasant halt for me. While the album flows expertly through a variety of styles that really exemplifies Iron Maiden's long and storied career, the Murray and Harris penned "The Man Who Would Be King", and Harris' solo piece "When the Wild Wind Blows" really just drag down the end of the record. Two major problems stand out with them. Firstly, both of them share some of the most rambling and, I'm going to be frank, bad lyrics that Harris has ever penned, and secondly, the song writing is really just ... subpar; slow, dragging and puzzled together without any comprehensible segues or thoughts for structure. While "The Man Who Would Be King" has some great parts in it, it is just too long. The lyrics, as well, are contradictory, poorly conceived and the only song that I can think of that has worse lyrics in the history of Iron Maiden is Steve's screed about how shitty the world is and about how he's old and bitter in "Age of Innocence" from Dance of Death. And while conceptually "When the Wild Wind Blows" is an awesome song, again, it's just too long, too drawn out and lyrically poorly executed. Really, it's reminiscent of the stuff Harris has been penning since X Factor, but without the emotional poignancy that was so strong on that album. This leaves an unfortunately poor aftertaste to what is otherwise a shining example of Iron Maiden's relevance in 2010.
So let me put it like this: if this record were 55 minutes long it would be a tremendous piece of genius. Rod used to brag about how Maiden always delivered 45 minutes of music when they released a new record in the 1980s. Now, with the advent of CD, there seem to be expectations that they produce 80 minutes of music instead. While there are many other factors, I do think it's interesting that this band never produced a poor record until the advent of the CD (well, OK, No Prayer for the Dying is pretty stinky, but musically it's still pretty awesome even if Bruce singing directly from his crotch puts a pall over otherwise good songwriting). It leaves me to question how this record would have sounded if the band had been forced to edit it down for LP length... I have a feeling I'd be talking about how this was Iron Maiden's best record since Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. Instead, I'm having kind of the opposite reaction I had to A Matter of Life and Death, where the beginning of the record always left me a little cold, but the end always blows me away. This record just sorta fizzles out after "The Talisman".
However, 15 albums later for a lot of bands, there's no point in telling you to buy their records (hahaha, new Kiss?? Yeah, right.). Not so with Iron Maiden: The Final Frontier is still a kick ass group of songs which showcases that the band is still one of the best heavy metal bands in the world. From this album it is already clear to me that "Isle of Avalon", "Mother of Mercy" and "The Alchemist" will live on as testaments to the band and their later material and the whole record is layered enough that you'll be hearing new things when you pop it into your CD player or iPod in months and maybe years. This is Iron Maiden in its some of its finest post-Brave New World form and definitely competing for the best of the four. So, Up the fucking Irons! (And buy the fucking record!)
Originally posted at AngryMetalGuy.com.