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With Bruce Dickinson flying the coop, Iron Maiden were faced with a dire situation...who could fill this man's shoes? Who would even try? I would have to think that the financial benefits of fronting one of the world's most recognizable heavy metal bands would certainly bring the roaches out of the woodwork, and in fact Maiden did audition a great many prospective replacements for their infamous second singer. The band had survived the transition from Paul Di'anno to Bruce Dickinson, to be sure, but keep in mind those were the years the band was only beginning to generate buzz, they hadn't grown massive until the 80s, at which point Dickinson was the vocalist many identified with.
Obviously the band would be after someone with a professional pedigree, and that person wound up being Blaze Bayley, frontman for the band Wolfsbane who had released a few albums at that point; the first of which, Live Fast Die Fast, was quite a rollicking romp of fist fighting pub speed metal that generated some buzz at the end of the previous decade. The man had a good voice, at least one which fit his band's down to earth, brawling excess, but it was really nothing like Bruce Dickinson, so the decision felt quite controversial. Still, an admirer of his previous band, I took the bus from University after classes the week this was released, and enthusiastically picked up my copy of The X Factor...yes, a not so clever title for the band's 10th full-length album...curious about the use of the model on the cover in place of another Derek Rigg illustration.
What I was greeted with when I first played the album, was, well...shock. Not shock that the new singer sucked, or that the band had somehow changed their direction. Shock that even after No Prayer for the Dying and Fear of the Dark, both good but not great albums, the band could not rally up an acceptable set of songs to debut their new singer. Slowly, the latter half of the album started to grow on me, but the first half is almost inaccessibly boring. I'm all for another Maiden epic, but the 11+ minute "Sign of the Cross" is simply not a sufficient track to break in this full-length, and from there you've still got numerous tracks to pore through before you arrive at anything bordering on catchy.
That is correct. I am not blaming this one on Blaze Bayley, who seems to give it all he can, but simply cannot succeed when the music he is fronting is so crushingly mediocre. He's stretching himself out here, taking a more mellow approach than the Wolfsbane material I enjoyed, and his voice does seem to hold together, but it simply incapable of all the peaks and valleys of a Bruce Dickinson. Yet, he's the man with the job.
"Sign of the Cross" is not the epic I was looking for, having expected a possibly harder hitting Iron Maiden that would make the proper use of their new hire. It's plodding and dull, all of its best moments arriving when the band either makes the slight, sluggish lean towards warp drive, or provides Dominican-like chanting or some other nuance to distract the listener from how sterile the central riffing is. Why this song has been included in the band's set list for years is far beyond my ability to comprehend, when so many others never made it there. Even this very album has better songs which have gone long ignored. Unfortunately, "Lord of the Flies" did not smack the taste out of my mouth, another of the band's Dire Straits-like intro rhythms descending into bland verse riffs that even the pumping of Harris' bass cannot salve. "Man On the Edge" doesn't really work either, though it feels a lot more flighty and Maiden, and has that one ascending line in the verse that has you praying for more. Just how do you fuck up a song about a great book/movie like Falling Down and then look yourself in the mirror the following morning?
Sadly, the center of the Tootsie Roll is still a few good licks away. "Fortunes of War" is another insipid bore, especially the first few minutes while you wait for the stagnant morass to develop into something more...only to be greeted with a slug-a-long that must have taken this band under 30 seconds to compose. After that, "Look for the Truth" wastes another few minutes in morose, wasteful balladry before it starts to bare its fangs, and the riffs barely carry it to the level of average. "The Aftermath" is a little better, but honestly, even these riffs feel stretched out and completely lacking in any inspirational melody, just a simple hard rock rhythm which sounds nearly as neutered as anything prior, with a slightly better written vocal hook. It wasn't until "Judgement of Heaven" that I got a song which didn't outright leaden my eyelids and pass me into a dull dreaming. It's not perfect, mind you, but at least the vocals, riffs and leads perk up the attention span, like the sad little melody after 3:30.
From here on, the album slowly tries to redeem itself like a slowly evolving beast that exchanges its fins for webbed feet to travel quick along the banks of mud at the edge of the primordial swamp. "Blood On the World's Hands" has some decent jamming moments, and a passable atmosphere resounding beneath some of Blaze's more powerful intonations. "The Edge of Darkness" feels largely like a classic Maiden track, though you've once again gotta get past a boring and predictable escalation to get to the meat. "2 A.M." again assumes we want the dull intro with the clean guitars, like almost every song on this album, but builds into Bayley's catchiest vocal hook on the album, the 'Here I am again' sequence, and another cute little lead at around 3:00. "The Unbeliever" is the other 'epic' track here, just over 8 minutes, but it's vastly more memorable than "Sign of the Cross", not as long or torturous.
Is it too little, too late? Yes it is. Thanks to the CD technology, it's not so hard...and in this case, always tempting to just click >>| >>| >>| up until about track 7, in order to save nearly 40 minutes of my life from the sucking drain that grants one entrance to this 70+ minute monstrosity of stagnant sewage. And for all I might sing in favor of some of the album's later tracks, there are still none I would find worthy of any 'greatest hits' list when shuffling tracks about an .mp3 player or making a mix for an aspiring Maiden-head. It's almost as if the fan's negative, precognitive reaction to hearing a new album without their lord and master Bruce Dickinson not only psychically willed this album the chart lower than many of its predecessors, but also sapped the life energy directly from the band.
Oddly enough, then, that this is NOT the worst Iron Maiden album...
Highlights: turn over enough rocks and you might found two or three, later in the search.