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Though I tried not to plea for The X Factor in my review of that album, I can’t stop myself this time, because this is truly looked at as Maiden’s worst album, and I strongly disagree there. I just don’t understand why people can’t really get into this album and dismiss it as utter crap. There are a few changes in Maiden’s sound here and there, like every 80s metalband used to have in the 90s, but nothing so terrible so everyone would hate it. The introduction of truly long songs and more dominant keyboards are a few, but they’re quite nice actually. Another reason this album is often turned down is our beloved Blaze Bayley, but the man actually performs very good on this album and I can’t find any weaknesses in his voice on here. Instead of trying to defend this album from its haters any further, I will now explain why I love it so much.
The ambience is a lot lighter than on The X Factor, which was masterful, but at times you just need to kick some ass, and that’s where Virtual XI comes in. “Futureal” is the first of a bunch of adrenaline pumping fast-paced tracks. It’s got everything a classic Maiden opener got, except for Bruce Dickinson, and I don’t think that’s a big loss on here. Second song on the album is a bit of a dragger and could be weary at times. “The Angel and the Gambler” is an 8-minute long song with heavy pop influences and an overlong interplay. The synths are added very cheesily on here and it gives a bit of an 80s pop feel. Apart from that, the sentence “don’t you think I’m a saviour” and the rest of it gets repeated more than 20 times. That’s quite a lot, isn’t it? It’s far from a highlight, but I think in the end I can swallow it; it can pass by on the album without notice. Adrenaline pumper #2 is “Lightning Strikes Twice”. It starts with a gentle guitar intro, and then Blaze’s splendid vocals enter and BOOM the song speeds up all of sudden. The guitar solo’s are really inspiring here and kick major ass. To stay in the pattern of fast-long, we now should have another long one, and yes. It’s even an epic! “The Clansman” qualifies for the best song of the album, and it’s quite hard to determine such a thing, for there are so much more great songs on here, as we will soon notice. This one starts off with the by now classic Maiden bass intro and then goes into the unbeatable “freedom!” chorus, already in an upbeat part. It then goes on for another 8 minutes with a cool diversity of verses and choruses, with a silent bridge in between with cool solo’s thereafter. The heroic legato melodies on here are also superb.
And then we have “When Two Worlds Collide”; another song in the style of “Lightning Strikes Twice”. It also starts of slow, this time with some arpeggiated chords, and then explodes. We are already out of lyrics when the interplay starts, just like on the aforementioned song, and we again have a killer solo to fill it up. Though it’s similar in style it’s by no means boring and still kicks some butts. Then comes the severely underrated “The Educated Fool”. It also begins with a gentle intro. The chorus however is immensely catchy and energetic. The “time will flow”-part needs a bit getting used to, but in the end it’s just part of the great song. The lyrics are also brilliant. There is some heavy ass kicking in the interplay of this song, shifting from the legato-themes to a staccato-theme to a great solo and all the way back! One of the best songs of Iron Maiden ever, and I can’t believe that people discard this one. When we go on we have “Don’t Look to the Eyes of a Stranger”. Another 8-minute song and this time not an epic, not a pop song with overlong parts, but a stretched out rocker. Though you will be fooled by the intro, this song is fast and heavy and... long. Perhaps a bit too long, or perhaps not. They could’ve cut down the “don’t look to, don’t look to” part just before the interplay, but actually the whole instrumental part is a true feast for your ears. Nicko is having the time of his life on the drums, Dave and Janick switch leads most successfully and Steve probably had a good time composing it. The band is very coherent here.
This album has been on a very high note and Iron Maiden want to close it at the same quality. “Como Estais Amigos” is a beautiful ballad dedicated to the victims of the Falklands War. Iron Maiden never succeeded to bring tears to my eyes with Di’Anno or Dickinson on vocals, but with Blaze it just happens. He managed to do that a few times on The X Factor, but also on this album closer he succeeds again. It's so very touching a song and so much emotion inside his voice. This is what makes Blaze Bayley one of my favorite singers; it’s a feeling only he can give me. Apart from his performance, the band is at their best as well: incredibly well-composed interlude it has with maintaining the touching ambience of the verses and chorus within the legato-theme and the solo’s. The best part of this song is the construction. It starts off very gentle, subtly adding an element after each verse until finally the full band kicks in and Blaze sings at full volume “No More Tears”. And how dare people say the synthesizers were added improperly? Without them this song could not have been as great as it was.
Need I say more? I love this album! I can’t understand how other people hate this. There are well-crafted songs, amazing guitar leads and stunning vocals. I wish Iron Maiden would have kept Blaze and made some more Virtual XI-esque albums. Unfortunately nobody agrees with what I just stated and the band was forced to take Bruce back. Alas, we will never know what their future could’ve been with Blaze... Anyway, I highly recommend this album, as long as you can forget about Bruce. This exceeds Bruce and a lot of Maiden’s earlier material by far.
Strongest tracks: “The Clansman”, “The Educated Fool” and “Como Estais Amigos”.
Weakest track: “The Angel and the Gambler”.