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I tend to talk a lot of shit on the Blaze Bayley era of Iron Maiden. I'm just not a fan of him fronting the band. However, I don't think I can deny that the first album with him, “X-Factor,” probably deserves more credit than I give it. I honestly disliked the album the first few times I tried it, and I was very open about it. However, in recent years it's grown on me a lot more, and while many of my original complaints are still intact, I think I rate this album much higher now than I would have even a year ago. And yet, I've never been as open about how I've come around to it as about my original dislike for it. So in a way this is something of me de-closeting my enjoyment for “The X Factor.”
Just about every Maiden album has that one song considered the epic, and while it's usually the closer, in this case it kicks the album off. “Sign of the Cross” starts with a dark sort of Gregorian type chant, before going into a dark synth driven intro with melodic guitars and bass, which then goes into a somewhat explosive mid-paced song after a few minutes. Blaze’s voice is deep and powerful, a contrast to Bruce's voice soaring over every other instrument, Blaze’s vocals aren't soaring much of anywhere. However, the rest of the band has adapted to this change, adopting a darker overall feel for this album, but still staying undeniably Maiden. “Sign of the Cross” might not only be the best song Maiden recorded with Blaze, but is among the top 3 songs they've written in all of the 90s, and might be in their top 10 of all time. It's just as good when Bruce sings it on Rock in Rio, but this song is amazing, Bruce or Blaze.
Other songs of excellence here are Man on the Edge, with some high speeds, sounding not entirely like some of their earlier works. Blood on the World's hands kicks off with a somewhat interesting bass intro, going into a somewhat aggressive but very Maiden sounding song about corruption and the state of the world and whatnot. Obviously, the lyrics here have also taken a darker tone, not that Maiden have always written the happiest of lyrics.
“Lord of the Flies” has a strange kind of intro that kicks off slowly with an odd bass riff and distorted guitar thing going on, and I think those first 45 seconds or so was what always threw me off, but once you get passed the into, the rest of the song is actually quite good. “Look for the Truth” starts off with another quiet intro, going into a song with an almost dance rhythm. It actually almost has traces of Iron Maiden's later song Dance of Death (keeping in mind that's a pretty loose comparison).
“Fortunes of War” starts off with a quiet guitar/bass riff, Blaze singing quietly, then becomes a powerful bass/drum part, becomes a somewhat grinding riff, then starts and stops back and forth, with a sort of solo-like riff between. There's a part where he ends up singing the chorus (“Fortunes of war, fortunes of war, fortunes of war, no pain anymore”) slow, then faster, then slower. As a whole, while not entirely bad the song just seems to not really go anywhere; however the individual parts are somewhat interesting. In case you might not have noticed quiet intros going into heavier songs is something of a theme here. It happens on almost every song. And when listening through it becomes somewhat tiresome. I know Maiden would continue to do this when Bruce returned, but not to this extent and not the point where you can say “And the song gets heavier… NOW!” It gets a little tiresome. By the time “The Edge of Darkness” comes around, the whole slow and quiet intro into a heavier song thing has been done enough for this song to be unnecessary. If it were to play at random on or something I’m sure it would be interesting, but by this point most of the album has followed this formula, and often better. “2 A.M.” features that same formula with some ridiculous lyrics about coming home from work late and being bored with TV or something. With beer. “The Aftermath” is a similar piece of filler that the album could probably do without; however a very cool speedy ending saves it from being completely useless. Decent, cool ending, but not incredibly interesting otherwise.
“The Unbeliever” is a strange one. The verse riff is somewhat start and stop-ish and awkward, and the pre-chorus is bland and not worth noting, but the chorus is very good. Some of the instrumentals work for me and others don’t. It’s a matter of personal taste I guess.
All in all, if you’re the kind of person who can’t get past Iron Maiden without Bruce, you’ll never get it. If you can appreciate a darker Iron Maiden without Bruce, give it a shot. A lot of the songs follow a mellow to heavier formula that can get tiresome, but there’s some good stuff for those who give the album a fair chance. I still feel this album is on the lower spectrum of Maiden’s work, but the fact that I enjoy half of it is a lot more than I could say about it a year ago. Maybe I’ll never be able to fully enjoy this album, but hell, the parts I do enjoy are enough for me to insist every Maiden fan who turned this album off too soon to go back and give it a fair shot.