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Before its release, “The X Factor” was one of the most anticipated albums in the history of heavy metal. After little more than a decade of faithful service, Bruce Dickinson had left Iron Maiden to pursue a solo career. Could the band find a replacement, that would be as skilful and accomplished as Bruce? Uncertainty. Following a rather long period of speculation, Blaze Bayley, member of Wolsbane until then, was eventually announced as the new vocalist of Iron Maiden. The uncertainty increased. Blaze might have been a good singer, yet his voice and style were fairly different than what the fans of Maiden had grown used to the last ten years. Everyone was anxious to find out whether Bayley’s presence could revive Iron Maiden and whether the upcoming album could restore the group’s former glory.
After its release, “The X Factor” became one of the most controversial albums in the history of heavy metal. On the one hand, many metalheads were quick to condemn the record, claiming that it did not sound like Maiden at all, that Blaze Bayley as a vocalist was far inferior to Bruce Dickinson, that the production was weak and lacking in depth. On the other hand, many fans welcomed the new direction the band was following, and considered “The X Factor” to be an excellent step towards musical progress. According to them, the album contained excellent compositions, as well as solid performances in all aspects, including Bayley’s vocals.
Nowadays, about 12 years after its release, one can judge “The X Factor” objectively and in cold blood, without having to jump into conclusions. The first impression created is that Maiden’s tenth studio album is breeds a dark, broody atmosphere. Everything about it (cover artwork, layout, band photos) is dominated by a heavy, merciless shade of black, while its lyrics are, for the most part, melancholic and introverted. Even the band’s performance seems more depressive than usual. In some of his later interviews, Steve Harris would attribute this dark mood into the problems his personal life was facing during the recordings (the divorce with his wife, etc). This overall pessimistic atmosphere provides the album with an anti - commercial touch, and that is the main reason why a lot of fans found it difficult to comprehend.
Nevertheless, the fact that “The X Factor” wasn’t as commercial or as catchy as previous Maiden efforts, doesn’t necessarily make it a worthless album. On the contrary, the record does indeed include a number of interesting compositions. The epic and atmospheric “Sign Of The Cross” or “The Edge Of Darkness”, the catchy “Man On The Edge” or “Look For The Truth”, even “Lord Of The Flies”, with its clever lyrics, are all tracks that Maiden could be proud of. Bayley’s performance is at least decent, if not anything else, and his presence seems to have had a positive effect on the rest of the band. Especially Janick Gers and Nicko McBrain display an encouraging willingness to adopt new styles and develop fresh techniques.
In addition, “The X Factor” possesses another positive aspect, which constitutes its main strength as an album. More specifically, there is a honest, straightforward quality running through its entire length. Some say that it didn’t sound like typical Maiden: well, it was not supposed to sound like typical Maiden. The band had hired a new member, who was bound to bring along his own influences and ideas. In order for these influences and ideas to be harmonically combined with the traditional Maiden approach into a coherent result, the group had to slightly modify their sound. The production had also to be modified accordingly. Iron Maiden are aware of the fact that Blaze Bayley is a different vocalist than Bruce Dickinson, regardless of who is superior or inferior. From this point of view, they do not try to replicate the sound they had in the past, which was accomplished with the precious contributions of their former singer. If they did, they would be attempting to become something they were not, thus deceiving themselves and, more importantly, their fans. Instead, what they try to do is enrich their sound with the healthy elements that Bayley has to offer, even if this means that the band will be led to alternate music fields. Tracks like the groovy “The Aftermath” or the progressive, weird “The Unbeliever” are a clear manifestation of the group’s eagerness to experiment and seek new musical directions.
On the other hand, “The X Factor” is not a perfect album. One of its drawbacks is that its second part isn’t as strong as the first one. More specifically, with the exceptions of “The Edge Of Darkness” and “The Unbeliever”, the tracks from “The Aftermath” until the end of the album don’t seem to be as inspired as the first five compositions. This doesn’t mean that the former are utterly pointless; they just possess some small flaws that don’t allow them to be characterised as “excellent”. What is more, form time to time, the rest of the band tend to make way for some bass solos of Steve Harris. These solos end up sounding quite annoying, as they represent an attitude of “bow before me, I’m the leader of the group”.
In conclusion, most approaches tend to either underestimate or overestimate the artistic value of “The X Factor”. It is certain that the specific album cannot actually be compared with the masterpieces of the past, like “Powerslave” or “Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son”. Nevertheless, it is also certain that it is not a totally worthless record. The fact is that it successfully introduced new elements to the music of Iron Maiden and, despite its flaws, it seemed to be a step towards the right direction. Unfortunately, this didn’t hold true for its successor, “Virtual XI”, where the band just attempted to replicate the sound of former, glorious recordings.