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As I sit here listening to The X Factor, I can't help but feel frustrated with the undeserved hatred towards this misunderstood masterpiece. If you ask metal fans what they think about Maiden's first album with Blaze, more often than not they'll say it was a mistake, the album that should've never been, the lowest point in Maiden's career.
Granted, everybody is entitled to their opinion and many of my Maiden-loving friends share this attitude towards The X Factor, but I certainly wish there were something I could do to make them appreciate the dark beauty of this superb album.
Now, I've always thought that if you have to explain why something is good, chances are it's actually not that good at all. See, you can't make people like sushi if they find it disgusting no matter how many times you explain why sushi is delicious. They know what they like and what they don't like, but sushi is an acquired taste... just like The X Factor.
I'll admit that I didn't like The X Factor either the first time I listened to it. I was sitting there in my bedroom feeling totally baffled. I just couldn't figure out what Maiden had tried to do with such a weird collection of sad and dark songs. There was no The Trooper, no glorious choruses, no hooks, no catchy songs, no trace of the Iron Maiden I'd come to love. Nevertheless, The X Factor grew on me and if you were to ask me what my favorite Iron Maiden albums are, I wouldn't even have to think about it and I'd say "Piece of Mind¨ and ¨The X Factor".
The biggest problem with The X Factor is not the music, but the fact that people fail to appreciate it for what it is. Fans of Maiden that don't get The X Factor compare it to the albums Maiden recorded with Bruce back in the early 1980s and that's where the problem lies.
Let me explain why I love The X Factor and the reasons you should listen to it in a different way. If this review makes you want to listen to it again and give it another chance, I'll be satisfied. Who knows? You may well rediscover it and come to love it.
There are bands that have chosen to always write about the same topic over and over again, bands like Cannibal Corpse (gore) and Deicide (Satan and a never ending war against Christianity). Not that there's anything wrong with that. I actually happen to like them both, but there are other bands that like to write about many different topics. A myriad of them, if you will, bands like Megadeth, Metallica and Iron Maiden. 22 Acacia Avenue? A song about a prostitute. Fear of the Dark? Self-explanatory. To Tame A Land? A famous book you should read if you haven't already. Where Eagles Dare and Tailgunner? World War II. Weekend Warrior? Soccer hooligans.
What am I getting at? Well, Steve Harris has never restricted his songs to a single topic. He's penned songs about movies, TV shows, literature, history, etc, etc., and he's even written some very personal songs (Blood Brothers and The Educated Fool - both of which were written after The X Factor came out, but you get the point). Such composers can't help it if the way they feel in a particular period of their lives influences their songwriting. I mean, I guess Alex Webster (Cannibal Corpse) will always write about zombies, regardless of what's going on in his life. But not Steve Harris, and that is something people always forget when they bash The X Factor. They forget that when it came to writing songs for the album that would eventually be called The X Factor, four major changes had taken place in Steve Harris' life, changes that undoubtedly impacted his music. What changes? 1. He got divorced, 2. Bruce left Iron Maiden, 3. Martin Birch stopped producing Iron Maiden records, and 4. His father passed away.
These four major changes are not to be underestimated and neither should their immediate effect on Maiden. First his divorce. He had been married 16 years. Not 2... not 5... not 8... but 16 years. And it all came crashing down in 1993 with all the pain a divorce usually entails. How do you think he felt? I don't know how many years he dated his ex-wife before they got married, but we could be talking about a relationship that may have well lasted 20 years. Maybe even more.
Then, Bruce announces he's leaving the band. Another important relationship in his life comes to an end, and a painful one at that. Remember, Bruce Dickinson never told Steve he was leaving the band. Steve found out because Rod told him, and according to the official biography, Steve felt betrayed and hurt. The frontman of your band, a person you may not be the best of friends with, but with whom you undeniably had an important relationship with, stabs you in the back and walks away after what? 10 years or more? How would YOU have felt?
And then another blow. His friend Martin Birch who had produced and engineered every single Maiden album since 1981 decides to call it quits. The man responsible for that classic Maiden sound we all love says "ok. I'm done". I'm sure that was not an easy time for the genius behind Iron Maiden.
And on top of all that, his father passes away.
So, in the face of all that, how can we expect Steve Harris to write about books, historical figures, or pyramids? The man was depressed, for God's sake, and that depression can be heard throughout The X Factor.
All you have to do is read the lyrics. It's pretty clear, actually: "I'm scarred for life, but it's not my flesh that's wounded", "Sometimes I wake, I feel that my spirit's broken", "Now that your faith will be put to the test. Nothing to do, but await what is coming", "I've felt like suicide a thousand times or more". These lyrics are, if you ask me, a cry for help. They're a unique opportunity to get inside Steve Harris' head and feel what he was going through in such a dark period of his life. So no wonder The X Factor is a dark album. It just couldn't have been any other way. Comparing it to Seventh Son of a Seventh Son or Piece of Mind is totally unfair. Iron Maiden was a different band when they wrote Infinite Dreams. It was a different time period with different circumstances.
Furthermore, The X Factor was not produced by Martin Birch. Sometimes it's easy to forget how much a producer can influence a band's sounds or the decisions made during the recording process. But remember the role played by Bob Rock in Metallica's eponymous album? Remember Scott Burns' influence in death metal? Birch ¨simply¨masterminded most of that amazing Iron Maiden sound that catapulted them to world fame. And he was now gone.
And then there's the issue of Blaze's voice. I think he takes too much flak, considering the fact that his voice fits perfectly with the dark atmosphere of the album. And not only that, you must also take into account the fact that the odds were stacked against him from the get-go.
He was chosen to replace Bruce Dickinson, one of the greatest heavy metal singers of all time. Blaze had big shoes to fill. Well, that sounds like an understatement. He had HUGE shoes to fill. There's just no way he was going to live up to the expectations. It was an impossible job. Even if there are many fans out there who like his voice, most people can't help thinking "he's no Bruce Dickinson", and that's also unfair. He did the job he was hired to do and his performance on The X Factor is superb. Period.
The X Factor is not an album for everybody. There are no songs to sing along to (with the exception of Man of the Edge, perhaps). It's not a fun album in the conventional sense of the word. It's slow and you won't hear Maiden doing what they do best, but every song is haunting and seductively simple. The lyrics are powerful and evocative. The feelings that emanate from them are not consistent with your typical heavy metal spirit, but that's the beauty of this album.
I don't know if I've managed to make you see things in a different way. I certainly hope so. But if not, let me try one more time before I end this review. Listen to The X Factor without comparing it to any other Maiden album. Appreciate it for what it is. Carefully read the lyrics and submerge yourself in Maiden's darkest period. Feel the pain Steve Harris felt and the endless questions that surely tormented him at the time. Let the gloomy atmosphere of The X Factor surround you and you'll understand why it doesn't have a single (truly) catchy song.
The X Factor is a beautiful masterpiece. A pessimistic, melancholic, and heartbreaking album. But it is indeed not beautiful in a conventional way. The X Factor holds the allure of the Doré illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy. See for yourself.
Listen and understand.
¨Life seems so pathetic I wish I could leave it all behind.¨