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Iron Maiden returns this year with their first full length album in 4 years. After 2006's heavily progressive A Matter of Life and Death, an album divided the fan base and opinions about Bruce Dickinson's return to the band, everyone wondered how much further can Maiden take their new sound to.
The revealing of mascot Eddie's new look further alienated the fan base as longtime fans of Maiden could no longer recognise the prominent "face" of Maiden. The fire was further fueled with the release of El Dorado, the first single off The Final Frontier weeks before the actual release of the album, displaying their new "direction". 2009's release of Flight 666 had heightened my hopes for the album, hearing the band in top form once again and it certainly made me look forward to what 2010 brings to Iron Maiden fans.
On first listen, it was understandable why so many fans were alienated after the release of El Dorado. The introduction to the first track, Satellite 15... The Final Frontier was just basically 4 minutes of "spaceship" atmospheric-inducing noise with some "spacey" guitar lines and Bruce's faint singing in the background. Halfway through the song, the album starts off proper, and fans are greeted with a somewhat weaker sounding Bruce Dickinson, totally not what was expected especially after stellar performances on the recent Flight 666.
El Dorado further proves this point, with Bruce Dickinson sounding as if unmotivated or as if the sound engineer had intentionally mixed his vocals lower than the other instruments. (More about this track can be read in my review when the single was released.) Songs like Mother of Mercy make the band sound whiney, especially Bruce's vocals. On other tracks such as Isle of Avalon Bruce sounds as if he were struggling to hit the high notes. And no, not even a nice introductory song to the album like AMOLAD such as Different World was present to at least give a ray of hope.
Songs that run on average 8 minutes meant that listeners with short attention span (such as myself) tend to stop listening and paying attention within the first half of the album. Note that this album is perhaps the longest full length studio release by the band, clocking at approximately 1 hour and 16 minutes. By the time When the Wild Wind Blows ends, I was heaving a sigh of relief, glad that the long boring ride was over. One good thing that I took away from this first listen though: on the whole, The Final Frontier is definitely more easy listening compared to 2006's AMOLAD, which had a dark overtone throughout the entire album.
However, I was not satisfied condemning the latest album from my all-time favourite band after just one listen and decided to have a few more spins, to see if it will grow on me just as AMOLAD eventually had. And was I glad I did.
I have to admit that even after numerous listens I still find the first half of Satellite 15... redundant, and the MV, well... Can't say I liked it either. However, what follows that is just 1 hour and 12 minutes (minus the 4 minutes of the introduction) of genius. Realising that I totally neglected the instrumental section of the album on my first listen, I made conscious effort to take note of the instruments on subsequent listens and it certainly provided me with a different experience.
While the number of ballads on the album are not typical of an Iron Maiden album, songs such as Coming Home, Starblind and When the Wild Wind Blows certainly displayed each of the guitarists' ability to convey emotions and feelings on top of their technical prowess, something that so many bands neglect nowadays in the quest for speed.
And Bruce's vocals? I hate to admit it but this is no longer the air-raid siren that we are familiar with. However, he does handle songs well and like the guitar trio of Maiden, his vocals reek with emotions and certainly shine on softer parts of the album. Faster numbers such as The Alchemist are sufficiently Maiden-ish and are certainly fun listens as well. Songs like Isle of Avalon have such feel-good and memorable riffs that it is almost impossible to not have them imprinted in your mind after a few listens.
If you are expecting "classic" Maiden in the veins of The Number of the Beast, Powerslave and Piece of Mind, and you don't like "new" Maiden (i.e. Brave New World onwards), then forget about this album. But if you are looking for some good progressive-influenced heavy metal, then put this album into your record player, play it loud and play it proud. Give it a few tries though, and it shouldn't take longer than how long it took to get you into AMOLAD to start enjoying the album.