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Of all the albums in Iron Maiden's catalogue, this is probably the one that frequently gets the most flak. You would be safe saying that No Prayer For The Dying and Fear Of The Dark weren't up to usual standards, and there's a small crowd coming out now claiming Brave New World is poor as well (funny it took them so long, but never mind). But of all the albums, it has to be this one, closely followed by Virtual XI, that actually inspires pure vitriol from 'fans'. The slagging it gets is well known, but if you ask me the things it gets put down for are what, in my opinion, make it one of Maiden's strongest releases.
The most striking thing about this is the overall atmospherics, being what sets it apart from all the other albums. Sign Of The Cross starts off with a sinister Gregorian chant, and this pretty much sets the mood for the next hour and 10 minutes. It's not limited to the first song - various others start off with mellow semi-acoustic intros, including Blood On The World's Hands with it's stunning semi-acoustic bass intro. The album's artwork - black throughout with the most graphic Eddie ever - supports this, along with the serious themes of each and every songs.
The songs themselves still retain the classic Maiden touch. Sign Of The Cross, again, chugs along for 11 minutes repeating riff and riff to saturation point, yet still manages to cram in a classic Maiden-style solo right at the end, that wouldn't sound out of place on most other epics. Not long after that is Man On The Edge, just about the only upbeat song on the album, and it's a meaty fast-paced headbanger of a song.
All the others, despite some non-con introductions, still contain some classic riffing, great lyrics and great solos. Fortunes Of War stands out, and Look For The Truth has always been a favourite of mine lyric-wise. If you've had some hard times in your life, you'll probably find something to connect to in here.
Blaze Bayley, of course, takes a lot of undue punishment and is thought of as some as the man who ruined Maiden. Bullshit, of course. You have to ask yourself, could Bruce Dickinson sing these songs and still capture the feeling? I doubt it, really. Blaze's low-pitched voice suits these songs brilliantly, and he's got a great sounding voice as it is. Maybe he didn't fit in so well on Virtual XI, but here he's just the man for the job.
The trick to appreciating this album is to keep an open mind. If you're expecting The Number Of The Beast again you are certain to be disappointed. And frankly, anyone still expecting another album like that after all this time deserves to be disappointed. Maiden's sound has changed, and this is probably where it truly began.