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The 90s sure were a hard time for metal bands. With the rise of grunge and nu-metal the old bands were cast aside. The old metal was somehow fading away and most 80s bands tried different styles, and so did Iron Maiden. Besides their vocalist replacement, which probably needs no further explanation, they obtained a very dark sound for this album. I hear complaining about the production, though I think it was done on purpose since it really fits the dark atmosphere the album contains, and so does new vocalist Blaze Bayley’s voice.
We are here at the beginning of this Iron Maiden album, listening to the very silent intro of “Sign of the Cross”. After some Gregorian chanting we have the bass guitar playing a gentle intro, as we are used to on the more recent Iron Maiden releases, accompanied by Blaze’s almost whispering vocals. When finally after a minute or so the band kicks in it becomes clear that the band have tried something different from the past. It’s still true trademark Maiden, but then with a different and darker touch. The rest of the opening song continues to be very epic, and the long interlude might seem confusing at first, but evolves into something very enjoyable at second. I first wondered why the hell this mid-paced long song would be the album opener, but then I realized this song was the definition of The X Factor. Lots of songs on this album feature a silent bass guitar intro, Blaze’s whispers during the intro and the epic vocal melodies when the band kicks in. Most songs are very dragging and mid-paced as well, such as “The Aftermath” or the first part of “Fortunes of War”. Apart from that, “Sign of the Cross” is just a great way to open the album, also to tell the listener that he should stop expecting “The Trooper”-kind of songs on here, because they’ve done something new. The lyrics are mostly about war and related themes, but instead of concentrating on the battlefield, they tell the tale about what war does to the soldier. Their lyrics are really striking and show them it’s not very much fun to be in a war. Not that we didn’t already know that, but we don’t realize what our boys are sacrificing for us on that battlefield, and that is very unique.
Let’s get into the album highlights a bit more. Songs like “Fortunes of War” and “The Edge of Darkness” start off with the trademark bass intro, then kick into a mid-paced epic full band part, and then go off fast into the trademark Maiden galloping rhythms with the guitar solos and their trademark legato guitar themes. These two songs, especially the latter, are truly two of the best songs off the album, leaving me struck not only by the epic music, but also by the great lyrics. The latter was based on one of the best movies I ever saw, Apocalypse Now. Another highlight of the album would be the up-tempo “Man on the Edge”, which really stands alone on here, since it’s the only continuously fast song on this release. It deals with suicide, and besides from that it’s got a true killer riff, killer drums, killer vocals and killer chorus. It’s a real killer song, so to say. It’s full of energy, and that’s what this album could use at some moments. Also worth mentioning would be “Lord of the Flies”. Though starting off with a weird sort of riff complemented with very stylish bass guitar and drums, it evolves soon enough into a relatively fast mid-paced song, with Blaze singing as great as he’s always done and the epic chorus. I this song is truly magnificent and certainly one of the best. I do not wish to describe each song on here separately, but they’re truly all great. Some tend to bore sometimes (“Judgement of Heaven”), but all the others are very beautiful and well-composed. There is, however, one oddity I’d like to discuss. “The Unbeliever” is closing the album with a very weird progressive 8-minute piece. This song is to this day still a one-of-a-kind Maiden song. It starts off with a nice riff, and then changes to a guitar melody consisting of natural harmonics. Before you know it Blaze is rapping, and then after a sudden speed change we get an atmospheric chorus, which gets repeated a little faster later. The intermezzo is really epic, and at the end we have the previous mentioned parts repeated a few times.
I think the album opens a new chapter to the Iron Maiden era, and then I’m not just speaking of the Blaze Bayley chapter, but also of the progressive chapter. Not that Iron Maiden are progressive, but they certainly try to be in their most recent albums. The songs are longer, have more content and tend to be more complex. The X Factor marks the beginning of that era by having two 8-minute plus songs and a majority of 5-minute plus songs.
Having said all these things, I think The X Factor is a very good effort by metal legends Iron Maiden. Though often looked at as a failure, I think it is their finest release to date. I would definitely recommend this album to anyone, whether they are familiar with Iron Maiden or not.
Strongest tracks: “Lord of the Flies”, “Man on the Edge” and “The Edge of Darkness”.