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Oh, they are back (the review originally written in 1998 after the album was released, only slight changes made)! The 11th (count them!) studio album from one of the biggest heavy metal bands around the universe... Iron Maiden. At least they used to be one of the biggest, but Bruce Dickinson's departure was quite a shock, to both the band and the fans. Blaze Bayley was chosen to fill the place of the Airraid Siren, probably THE best heavy metal singer, ever.
'Virtual XI' is a second album with Blaze handling the vocal duties. I think he has gotten into the band now. Still, he can't get nowhere near Bruce's heights and skill. Blaze's voice is quite low and also kind of dry. The voice works best, when the man puts enough power to it, but sadly it doesn't happen too frequently here. Some lines sound just powerless and even a bit soulless, some sound like he just can't quite hit the right notes. Well, Blaze still has an individual style which is always a good thing, innit? I think so, and that's where Blaze's true strength lies. This is the fact, and can be heard on man's own albums.
'Virtual XI' includes eight songs. 'Futureal' kicks the album on its way in a good way. One of the fastest songs from the band and only three minutes long. 'The Angel and the Gambler' is 10 minutes of waiting. Nothing much happens as this rock song drifts on and on, but it still manages to catch a listener anyways. It's not droning, but still the band went on simplistic gear. The song is just too long for its own good, and they should've cut at least five minutes off. There is also a 6-minute single edit of the song, as well as a 4 minutes long video edit, which is the best version in my opinion.
After 'The Angel...' song, the music gets more rolling again. 'Lightning Strikes Twice' is a good Maiden tune with awesome chorus. Blaze hits his highest here. 'The Clansman', an epic tale in the vein of 'Braveheart' (Mel Gibson's Scottish hero -flick hated by Scots). An absolute classic, best song on this record!!! 'When Two Worlds Collide' is another good song with galloping trademark Maiden-rhythm, but it builds up quite slowly. 'The Educated Fool' also starts quite calmly, but gets faster (and better) and it has a great chorus. Maybe a tad too long song... 'Don't Look to the Eyes of the Stranger' definitely is too long and quite a boring song with some dull song writing as the song goes to double speed towards the end. 'Como Estais Amigos' is a story about Falkland war. It is balladish at the beginning, but gets rockier. A good song, definitely, and Blaze's softer vocals work very well indeed.
There are too many calm and slow parts on this album, and they are lacking power. The playing is a bit tame, especially from Nicko McBrain. He's a great drummer and could do it thousand times better. The band doesn't get it rocking too many times. Maybe it's the production: Too thin and not heavy at all. 'The Clansman' is the only song that the band really hits it big time. The music is getting into direction that began on 'Fear of the Dark' (1992). Sometimes it feels too lazy... Iron Maiden can do it a lot better, so maybe next time.
Every album's (or singles, or whatever a release is in the question) artwork have always played a big part of the band's image. This time it's quite bad, I'm afraid. The cover art theme isn't very good, but otherwise it's a nice piece of work. 3D-cover is cool (if you found that limited CD version)! The booklet includes possible pictures from forthcoming 'Ed Hunter' computer game. Quite lame futuristic CGI graphics. 'Virtual XI' seems to be a football team with Maiden guys and real footballers like Overmars, Vierra and Gascoigne.
Iron Maiden seem to have many things going on. It feels like some of the music wasn't composed with full consideration. Exactly the same problem that plagued the previous album 'X-Factor' (1995). Gladly these two albums get better with time, at least I appreciate both a lot. But really, if you love Maiden, you still gotta love this. That's the truth. But this is just my least favourite Maiden album. If you want to check Iron Maiden out, start with 1980s albums. If you ask me, I say they've never made it wrong... So, please, take that into consideration.