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The Xcellent Factor - 95%

VampireKiller, March 25th, 2008

This is probably Maiden's most controversial album to date, save for perhaps "Virtual XI". And this is for many reasons. First of all, Bruce Dickinson had left the band, and how were they gonna be able to find a vocalist to match him? They probably knew that it was futile to search for someone of Bruce's caliber, so they went in the complete opposite direction instead, and hired ex-Wolfsbane singer Blaze Bayley. Now, Bayley's voice is very different from Bruce's voice. His voice is darker and deeper than Bruce's is, and he sometimes has trouble with a shaky pitch. But apart from that, Blaze was probably the best replacement the band could ever find. And second of all, Steve Harris had been subjected to a wide variety of chaotic events in his private life that was undoubtedly going to have some effect on the band, and the effects are widely visible in the lyrics on this album. But perhaps this album's biggest detractions are the production, which I will get to later, and the fact that the album isn't very riff-laden judging by Maiden standards. But apart from those small detractions, it's an excellent album IMO.

I said I would get on to the production later. And it's like a double edged sword. The drums pack quite some punch, especially in the toms, even though the snare is a little flat. The bass is pretty much as upfront as it can be in Maiden. And then the guitars. Oh boy, what the hell went wrong here? The rhythm guitars sound like they could belong on a hard rock album rather than a heavy metal one, but thankfully the lead guitar tracks pack more crunch.

And so the album begins with "Sign of the Cross", an epic track almost just as long as "Rime of the Ancient Mariner". The band surely must have known that starting up the album with an 11 minute long track would be a huge risk, but they still had the balls to do it. The start of the song is composed of some nice Gregorian chants that seem to say "Aeternus halleluiah" or something like that. And after the chants a long but conscious build up begins before the song erupts into midtempo br00tality with Blaze singing his lungs out. The solos may also be one of Maiden's fastest solos ever.

"Lord of the Flies" is an instant winner with an instantly recognisable riff, a catchy chorus and insightful lyrics. I also think that Blaze sings this song way better than what Bruce did on the "Death On the Road" live album from 2005.

"Man On the Edge" is probably the album's fastest song. There's nothing really special about it, but it's very catchy.

And after two recognisable Maiden anthems we get to slower tracks. "Fortunes of War" is the first one. It's another song with a long build up consisting acoustic guitars and so on. But then it turns into quite a Black Sabbath-esque song with guitar solos that inject feelings of despair and sadness.

"The Aftermath" is another recognisable song with a very distinctive intro. This song also contains a nice speed/thrash metal part that's bound to get you pounding your fists in the air.

"Judgement of Heaven" is a pretty sad but at the same time kind of uplifting song with a strong message. It contains some of Blaze's finest moments, but also one of his worst in the form of the out-of-tune "Yeah, yeah!" screams.

"Blood On the World's Hands" begins with a nice extended acoustic bass solo which sets up the atmosphere of the track excellently. It has a rhythm that somewhat reminds me of a walz, which is another distinctive trait. The guitar solos also work very well.

And so the speed picks up on us in "The Edge of Darkness", a song based on the Joseph Conrad novel called "The Heart of Darkness" which I am currently reading. It begins slowly just like the majority of songs on this album, but don't worry, cause this is indeed a fast track. It contains some of the finest guitar solos and drumming on this album and a really fucking nice main riff.

"The Unbeliever" is a slow but at the same time pounding song. It might be a bit repetitive in structure, but the strong and harsh lyrics make up for it, believe me. And the chorus is another catchy one.

And finally we are left with only two tracks that IMO can be classified as filler; "Look for the Truth" and "2 AM". They are not bad by any means IMO, I just don't think they're as strong as the rest. "Look for the Truth" has a similar intro to "The Aftermath", or perhaps it's the other way around since "Look for the Truth" precedes "The Aftermath". The problem with the song is that it doesn't go anymore, and "2 AM" suffers from the same problem. But both songs feature some really nice melodies.

Buy this album if you want a different taste of what Maiden can be.