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On the one hand, Iron Maiden’s latest studio album, ominously titled “The Final Frontier”, is a tough nut to crack. On the other hand, it is exactly what most of us should have expected all along – the logical continuation of the artistic path the band has taken since 1995’s “The X-Factor”. How I hated that particular album upon its release, and how I prayed to the metal gods that it would prove to be nothing but an aberration, that the band would soon return to the sound of their revered classics from the 1980s or even that of lesser albums like “Fear of the Dark” or “No Prayer for the Dying”. That never came to pass, of course, but a strange thing has happened since then: over time, I have grown accustomed to and come to appreciate Maiden’s “new” musical direction, which is characterized not so much by the instantly recognizable, swift galloping headbangers of old but by slower, longer, epic songs that are broad in scope as well as bold and almost progressive in their approach.
It may have taken the band a little while to master that new style, but I feel that with their last two albums, the brilliant “A Matter of Life and Death” and “The Final Frontier”, they have finally arrived. It’s not like “The Final Frontier”, just like its predecessors, doesn’t come with some excess fat that could have been trimmed. It’s true that many of Maiden’s more recent tracks tend to be a little long-winded, what with all the two-minute long intros and outros. At nearly 80 minutes (!) in length, “The Final Frontier” can be a bit hard to stomach, so one or two fewer tracks or a slightly more streamlined songwriting approach may have helped.
Alas, since this issue is unlikely to go away anytime soon, we might as well stop complaining about it, especially because Maiden haven’t forgotten to treat us to some shorter, more concise tracks as well. The galloping “El Dorado” and the fast-paced “The Alchemist” are two obvious examples, and both would have held their own on Maiden’s classic records from the 1980s. For some reason, “El Dorado” in particular has been heavily criticized, which I find peculiar as it would have fit perfectly on, say, “Powerslave”. The ensuing “Mother of Mercy”, a rather straightforward track, has caught some grief for Bruce Dickinson’s supposedly strained vocals. While it’s true that he doesn’t always hit the high notes quite as cleanly as he did some 25 years ago, it doesn’t detract from the fact that he’s still a phenomenal singer, which he also proves in the immensely catchy power ballad (is that term still in use?) “Coming Home”.
But it’s really the long tracks that have become Maiden’s bread and butter, and for the most part, they do not disappoint. The only exception is the 11-minute long “When the Wild Wind Blows”, which has its moments but ultimately doesn’t have enough interesting parts going for it. Moreover, the initial five or six minutes are just not metal enough, owing to the weak main riff and flowery, annoying, almost pop-like melody. The song isn’t a complete dud, but I feel like the album would be better off without it (a trait it has in common with the rather bland title track). Another track that seems quite inconspicuous at first but grows immensely the more you listen to it is “Starblind”. Dickinson’s vocal lines really make this song, which is both progressive and catchy at the same time. “Isle of Avalon” is very good as well, building up nicely from the solemn intro all the way to the soaring chorus. However, the best song on the album and, in my humble opinion, possibly Maiden’s best tune since the glory days of “Seventh Son” is the breathtaking seafaring epic “The Talisman” – yes, it really is that good! This song is, in a word, perfect, from the poetic intro over the ripping riffs and trademark twin guitar harmonies to the amazing chorus. The second-to-last track “The Man Who Would Be King” is no slouch either, although it doesn’t quite fulfill its potential. By the way, has anyone else noticed that the melody at the end bears a striking resemblance to “The Prophecy” from “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son”?
One thing in general Maiden have done noticeably better on “The Final Frontier” than at any point since Dickinson’s return to the band is to avoid the overly simple, repetitive choruses that reared their ugly head on all the more recent albums. One thing that hasn’t changed (and likely never will change), however, is the barely adequate production or mixing job courtesy of one Mr. Kevin Shirley. Then again, it is probably Mr. Steve Harris himself telling the poor sap precisely which buttons to push and which knobs to turn in the studio. In other words: what we hear is very likely the exact sound Mr. Harris deems appropriate for Iron Maiden, so Shirley shouldn’t have to shoulder all of the blame.
Oh well, as long as the boys give us a couple more good albums before they call it quits, I won’t complain about such trifles. Aside from some minor flaws, “The Final Frontier” is another excellent effort proving once again that Maiden have accomplished the remarkable feat of staying artistically relevant after all these years instead of turning into a sorry self-parody endlessly rehashing some 25-year old classics everyone has already heard a million times. In the end, isn’t that all we can realistically ask for? I certainly wouldn’t be averse to getting treated to the second coming of “Piece of Mind”, but in the meantime, this latest incarnation of Iron Maiden will do just fine for me.
Choicest cuts: “El Dorado” (witness the trademark Maiden gallop in full swing), “Coming Home” (a very pleasant surprise), “Starblind” (see “Coming Home”), “The Talisman” (arr mateys, ‘tis the real deal!)