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Iron Maiden, that pleasant blend of blood drenched metal spikes in an upright, coffin shaped cell with the tormented screams of its hapless victims set to music, now taken its odyssey of melodic goodness up to the stars yet again. Although not quite the same blend of classic, galloping heavy metal with the once forbidden addition of keyboards that was “Somewhere In Time”, their latest offering in “The Final Frontier” boasts of a renewed spirit towards a brand of metal with some unusually progressive elements, at least insofar as the band’s history go. Perhaps the best way to describe the album is as being out of this world, although that is more a testament to its peculiar makeup than necessarily its overall quality.
It’s usually customary to begin an excursion into the mystique of this longstanding brand name by recapping the sequence of events that led to this point, but given the auspicious nature of the album itself, it is more prudent to simply cut to the chase. This is, without a doubt, the strangest album that has ever been released under the Maiden logo. It bears a very strong resemblance to several older albums at a few key points, and each member of the fold retains the bulk of their signature sound, but when taking everything in as a whole, there is a strong vibe of newness that pervades the entire listen. Part of it might be chalked up to a slightly crunchier guitar character that is a little closer to their 80s character, but the spacey nature of the production of the rest of the arrangement, largely due to a feeling of distance and distinctiveness between each individual part that is far more prominent than any of their other albums after Smith and Dickinson returned to the group.
At times, one would swear he’s listening to the soundtrack of some quirky piece of sci-fi cinema, particularly when considering the rather jarring intro and title song “Satellite 15…The Final Frontier”. Essentially the first half of this song consists of an oddity drenched drone that sounds like it was lifted out of the early stages of thrash metal antiquity and painted with a progressive flavor right out of early progressive USPM pioneers such as Crimson Glory and Queensryche. The atmosphere is so reverb steeped that it almost seems to phase in and out of reality, and Bruce’s vocal character follows suit like a distant voice of some radio transmission fading in and out of some sort of pool of cosmic waves. Things normalize a little bit when the midway point is reached and things settle into an old fashioned rock groove, but in spite of the familiar hooks and utter simplicity, the feeling of being lost in space endures. Part of it could be chalked up to the acoustic guitar accompaniment, which brings a little bit of a “Space Oddity” vibe to what is otherwise a standard piece of rock fanfare.
There is somewhat of an affinity with the previous album “A Matter Of Life And Death” to be found in the sheer scope of the music found on here, but the presentation is very different. Whereas the previous album was almost completely overtaken by progressive rock influences, this one seems to be rediscovering Maiden’s galloping glory days at times. Noteworthy examples of a more driving version of this band can be heard in the adventurous and catchy “El Dorado”, pushing forward like a majestic steed towards a far off destination. Likewise, “The Alchemist” takes things up to speed metal territory in a sort of “Aces High” meets “Man On The Edge” fashion, fully exploiting the 3 guitar format with a brilliant series of melodic lead guitar sections that upstage most of the band’s post 1992 single oriented fan fodder. Amidst it all, lay a set of well crafted, unpretentious guitar solos that complement the songs and do justice to the legacy of the classic era of the late 80s.
Of course, no album out of this veteran fold would be complete without a towering collection of longwinded, labyrinth-like epics that somehow manage to find their way into familiar territory. As the aforementioned 2006 predecessor, over half of the songs on here break the 8 minute barrier. Unlike said album, these songs flow a little less gradually and almost remind of the band’s Bayley era epics, at times shifting abruptly but remaining constant for the most part. The winners in this bunch are “Starblind” and “The Man Who Would be King”, as they tend to mix things up a bit more and hearken a little closer to the space-like nature that the album is going for. Some of the other ones get a tiny bit convoluted, but for the most part the rest of the album is consistent in pursuing new territory while just keeping enough of Maiden’s signature character in place to keep from losing the audience.
They say that long careers are marked by ebbs and flows, and as of the past 10 years, Iron Maiden has been in a pretty steady current with few boulders blocking the path. In light of this, one should approach “The Final Frontier” as a part of the current era of the band, though there is a casual familiarity with the 1986-88 era of the band that doesn’t really come up on the previous albums, save perhaps a few songs on “Brave New World”. It’s only slightly below its predecessor in terms of sheer magnificence, and it is definitely a must have for Maiden fans who aren’t hopelessly longing for a complete return to the pre-1990 sound of the band. It may not be the final frontier in terms of their legacy, but if this band were to bow out at this point, this would be a worthy exit.