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Throughout history, there have existed men so vile that they have harbored the hatred of thousands. The infamous tyrant Vlad Dracule did it by brutally slaughtering his own countrymen simply to prove his own viciousness. Adolf Hitler did it by committing mass genocide against the Hebrew faith. Blaze Bayley did it by replacing Bruce Dickinson as the lead singer of Iron Maiden. Sound disproportionate to you? I’d like to think so, though something around 90% of Maiden fans would likely support the aforementioned allegation. Bayley is probably the least popular replacement vocalist in history, even more so than Tim Owens, John Bush, Coburn Pharr (in Omen, he was alright in Annihilator), or Gary Cherone, simply because his was the unfortunate task of living up to Dickinson’s legacy.
Now personally, I think it’s unfair to have a presumed bias against anyone in that situation. Their job is tough enough without an additional onslaught of prejudice to overcome. Sure, they might actually suck (see: Gary Cherone), but at least give them the benefit of the doubt. As one who formerly held such a bias against Bayley, I decided to check out his former band, Wolfsbane, to see if he had anything going for him before he ruined Iron Maiden in the 90’s. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. And you know what? The guy can actually sing. As anyone who has heard Wolfsbane’s Live Fast Die Fast album is aware, Bayley actually has quite an ear for a catchy vocal melody and even a few nice falsetto moments. And though he didn’t utilize as much range for his work with Iron Maiden, I have to admit, he doesn’t sound bad. So why does everyone hate him if he can actually sing?
This leads to another thing that Wolfsbane listeners are explicitly aware of: that Wolfsbane and Iron Maiden are nothing alike. Wolfsbane, though entertaining in their own right, weren’t far removed from a David Lee Roth tribute band. How Bayley got roped into the Maiden gig is beyond me, because his voice is NOT suited for their style at all. He lacks the range, the presence, and the bravado to properly fill Dickinson’s shoes and the fan outrage was not only expected, but unavoidable. The first album recorded with him, The X Factor, stands as one of the poorest Maiden releases to date, surpassed only by No Prayer for the Dying. But even though Bayley’s performance is lacking, the blame for the album’s failure does not rest solely on his shoulders.
Though the ‘new’ Maiden sound was officially declared on the Brave New World reunion album, the seeds of it are rooted with this album. Steve Harris, likely working to create a noticeable departure from the tired, formulaic songs featured on the last two Dickinson albums, wrote some pretty experimental stuff for this. I shy away from the term “progressive,” as the songs are merely longer, more atmospheric, and a bit more open-ended, rather than being particularly complex or unique. To say that the songs are long is a bit facetious; “drawn-out” is a better term. Take opener “Sign of the Cross.” The song begins with nearly three minutes of atmospheric introduction. And even when it picks up, it over-extends itself. What could have been a fantastic six minute song becomes a tedious eleven minute one. Granted, the Gregorian chants are put to good use, but the song takes its time in getting anywhere. This slow development is a recurring problem on the album, as well as a general lack of heavy metal. Most of the songs are slower and feature numerous mellow interludes. Think Barlow-era Iced Earth, as many parallels can be drawn. But even when these songs pick up, they’re still way too soft to be Maiden proper. This phenomenon occurs because of the production, which highlights Steve’s bass over the guitars. And with both Dave Murray’s and Janick Gers’ guitar tones subdued, one can’t help but feel that the album lacks energy. There’s plenty of trademark Maiden riffs and harmonies present, but with their power and passion absent. They kind of make up for it with their solos, but even those aren’t up to their usual standard. All the instrumentation on here feels completely different than what the band is known for and it isn’t for the better. Oh, and as for Nicko, he’s still here, but barely. There’s only one quick song that requires his full effort (“Man on the Edge,” with occasional fast parts in one or two of the other songs). The rest he merely coasts through, providing the rhythm to an album more focused on impressionism than substance, frequently calling to mind the band’s classic songwriting without actually providing it.
I understand that this was a ‘dark’ period in the band’s history; therefore, the darker tone of the album’s lyrics and sound are appropriate. But it would really help if the lyrics weren’t so contrived. Maybe they really aren’t, but it sure seems that way as delivered by Bayley. No catchy Dickinson melodies here. Hell, there aren’t even any catchy Wolfbane-era Blaze ones, hindered further by Bayley’s weakened voice and his occasionally grating cadence (listen to “The Unbeliever” if you don’t believe me, no pun intended). Even if you can appreciate the mood set up by the album’s arrangement, don’t expect to come out of this with a memorable line on your tongue; they are virtually extinct in the confines of this album.
To actually enjoy The X Factor, the potential listener is required to be a bit more than open-minded. You have to really be into the newer Maiden albums (BNW through A Matter of Life and Death) and not hung up on the fact that this sounds very far removed from the band’s classic period. Alternatively, fans of atmospheric rock/metal might find some cool tunes to dig. Otherwise, it’s a Maiden album of which Maiden fans are not the target audience. But blame Steve, not Blaze. Had Bruce been singing on this album, revitalized or not, it would have fared about the same, even without the preconceived antipathy towards the ‘new guy’ weighing it down. It’s just not a good album, though it serves for a decent listen now and again. Give it a try, you might agree. But if you must hate it, keep in mind that it takes more than an uninspired singer to condemn an album to this plane of mediocrity.