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By now any experienced Iron Maiden listener should know roughly what they're going to get with a new CD. There's no way they'll ever release another in the style of 'Powerslave' or 'Seventh son of a seventh son'. They've come a long way since the undisputed glory days of the 80s, and everyone should be well familiar by now with the style they have established since their reunion with Adrian Smith and Bruce Dickinson at the turn of the century. In other words, anyone who didn't like 'A matter of life and death' should have known after only a cursory glance at the lengths of the songs in the tracklist that this CD wouldn't be for them.
Iron Maiden now find themselves in an enviable but well-earned position where they are guaranteed sales based on brand recognition alone, and are under no pressure to write for anyone other than themselves. There are no forced attempts at reverting to successful styles of days gone by, and 'The final frontier', for better and for worse, simply is what it is.
Though had it not been for the advance release of "El Dorado" - more on that later - a couple of months before the release of the CD itself, it's safe to say the opening segment of "Satellite 15... The final frontier" would have had me worried that the boys had completely lost their minds. The dissonant drum and guitar bashing of course serves only as an (extremely) extended intro to the title track, and would probably work ok were it only a minute or so in length, but as it stands it is far, far too long and contributes much to what is a stop-start opening half to the CD.
"The final frontier" itself continues the recent Maiden tradition of opening the CD (and also serving as lead single) with its least demanding song, though it is still an enjoyable romp - far better than 2003's uninspiring "Wildest dreams" - that survives a repetitive chorus and is lit up by surprisingly long solo section. One of Maiden's more breezy, rock-based songs, it nevertheless serves as an energetic starting point and reminds anyone simple enough to forget just how great the guitar talent in this band is.
Now, "El Dorado" is a slightly different prospect. Despite the soaring chorus, it didn't convince me much at all on the first few listens, and despite being a definite grower is one of the CD's weaker moments. There just isn't enough energy in the verses, with the grooving riffs not powerful enough to sustain nearly 7 minutes of song, and Dickinson's singing doesn't really inspire until he reaches the pre-chorus.
"Mother of mercy" is maybe the inverse of this, as while the moody verses gradually build and build and promise much, the chorus is rather weak and it feels like a lot of foreplay with no payoff. To make matters worse for the chorus, Dickinson is really not at this best, and his voice sounds uncharacteristically strained and out of sorts.
He sounds far more inspired on the following song though, and his passion can be heard soaring (no pun intended) through the chorus of "Coming home" - as well it should do, as it is another recounting of his well documented love of flying and the freedom and togetherness that he at least seems to feel that it brings. This sort of thing is the real heart of what Iron Maiden are all about these days - we've heard it on songs like "Blood brothers" and ""The thin line between love and hate", and we here it on this one too; honest, heartfelt emotion. Fantastical lyrics still appear of course, but rather than channelling themselves through aggression or speed, Maiden often choose to lead their listeners on with songs of sweeping romance and plaintive beauty.
It is from this point on that 'The final frontier' at last finds its feet, as "The alchemist" (no relation to the Dickinson song, by the way) provides an injection of energy, with the Maiden stallion finally accelerating to its trademark gallop. It is the only song on the CD to consistently go down this road, and to be honest I doubt I'm the only one who thinks it could do with a bit more of it throughout, but the quality of the rest of the songs from this point on speaks for itself.
The remaining 5 songs uniformly fit the 'controversial' style that has been a hallmark of Maiden's later career, and has been gradually on the increase in recent years (possibly excluding the more exuberant 'Dance of death') - not one is less than 7 1/2 minutes in length, and yes, all include a soft intro of either unsupported bass or clean/acoustic picking before the song properly kicks in.
The thing is, they're all good; they're all really good. And while, yes, Maiden may to some extend be writing to formula these days, when the results end up as captivating as this, who really cares? Of the 5, it could only really be argued that the intro to "Starblind" is especially gratuitous, and in fact had the song just started cold with the skittish riff that kicks things off properly it may have been an improvement. A minor complaint though, as the song is another triumph, laced with excellent lead playing and weaving effortlessly through a variety of tempos. It also dispels those early worries about the man with the mic, as the chorus here is as challenging as any on the CD and Dickinson sails through it.
"Isle of Avalon" precedes it in the tracklist and the 2 fit well together, each wandering into progressive rock territory with extended instrumental sections and lengthy solos that give all 3 guitarists plenty of room to breathe comfortably. The cymbal work backing the bass in the portentous intro to "Isle of Avalon" also serves to remind that Nicko McBrain has lost none of his flair or indeed stamina, and keeps an edge on things until the song explodes fantastically to life.
Not to make too much of these intros, but "The talisman" keeps it going with a long, crystalline acoustic section - there's always something special in store when Maiden unplug, from "The prophecy" right the way through to "Journeyman" and this song is no different. Janick Gers has more than his fair share of detractors as a player, but I doubt many people could question his ability as a songwriter these days when he is involved with tracks like this one. This is maybe the band at their most cinematic, the stirring melodies, urgent riffs and of course a meticulous chorus fully encapsulating the spirit of doomed adventure that the lyrics detail.
Like Gers on the previous song, Dave Murray has only one writing credit on the whole CD, which isn't unusual for him of late. But while he may be slowing down as a writer, he usually pulls out all the stops on the limited contributions he does make. "The man who would be king" is typical of his style in recent years, the soothing atmosphere of the intro, outro and interludes something of a trademark to him lately, and perfectly suited to his off-the-cuff style of playing. This is another song in the same vein as "Coming home" where, without going into ballad territory, the band show they aren't afraid of a little reflection and at least partially ditch the heaviness in favour of contemplative serenity.
As if just to embody how 'The final fronteir' is an exercise in patience and appreciating a gradual build-up to something wonderful, the best is undoubtedly saved for last. The only song penned entirely by Steve Harris this time round (he of course co-wrote everything else), "When the wild wind blows" is nothing short of a masterpiece, a breathtaking bit of work that can comfortably stand shoulder to shoulder with any other song of his long career.
Anyone receptive to the style the band have taken recently will know how special a song they're in for when the main, achingly beautiful melody begins in earnest at around the 40 second mark, and the song as a whole does not fail to deliver as it carries the listener on a journey through a varied landscape of searing beauty and tender despair.
This is the song Harris has been trying to write for about 15 years now - several of the last CDs have featured tracks of interminable length written in a similar layout to this one, and he finally seems to have cracked it as despite being a second short of 11 minutes in length it feels like not a breath has been wasted in its execution, the guitarists running the show in the various solo breaks and Dickinson on top form as he delivers the tragic lyrics with a burning passion.
I can't help but feel the rating I've assigned might seem a little low in light of the praise I've lavished upon most of the songs, and objectively speaking I've definitely given lesser CDs higher ratings, but with the weight of the band's previous catalogue on it, 'The final frontier' is easy to see as being far from perfect. Rather, it is an honest display of British heavy metal edging towards a healthy and natural conclusion after 35 years in the business. Iron Maiden have nothing to prove to anyone, but it is credit to a legacy of defiance and integrity that they continue to write the songs they want to write. Anyone of a like mind is welcome to join the party, and who gives a damn about anyone else?
(Originally written for http://www.metalcdratings.com/)