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If there is one band I would die for, that would be Iron Maiden. If I had to choose the ultimate line-up for a band, that would be Iron Maiden. My love for them is endless. I find great pleasure and delight in listening to all their albums. Well, anyway, almost all of them. Dickinson’s departure did a big damage to the band. Blaze Bailey’s debut, The X-Factor was partly good, partly horrible. I looked forward to their next step, hoping that this time they wouldn’t let me down. A decade later, I’m still confused.
Despite any similarities to The X-Factor, Maiden move one step further, by making numerous flashbacks to earlier albums, particularly Seventh Son… The album, titled Virtual XI, generally moves in mid-tempo rhythms with plenty breaks. There are some epic traces but also a touch of 70’s progressive rock, surprisingly. The production is very good and the cover is quite strange, though a lot better than the previous one.
The first thing I have to comment on would be Bailey’s vocals. He has established his own style of singing and he does not try to imitate the one and only Bruce Dickinson. Not that he would have been able of, anyway. Still, I must admit that he does much better this time. Those who liked him before will like him in this one too. Those who didn’t might change their mind. He sings with passion and strength and he is probably the album’s big surprise. On The X-Factor it seemed as if Maiden were trying to adjust the songs to his vocals to get the best result. Now they work all together and most of the times it pays off.
Another thing that lifts the quality of the album is the guitar work of Murray and Gers. The riffs are improved and the solos do exist, in contrast to their absence on the X-Factor. Of course there isn’t much to say about the bass. Steve Harris is as always on the front line, giving his best.
The opener, Futureal, which is also the first single, is aimed to be the album’s “hit”. It’s got everything it needs. It is short, less than three minutes and fast with sharp guitars. It’s quite catchy but it is not the best song. Well, not even the second best. This place rightfully goes to Lightning Strikes Twice. An excellent song that begins with a slow intro ‘till the moment Murray and Gers start causing electric shock waves that hit you like lightning. At last, we get the Maiden double solos that we love so much.
With the first notes of The Clansman, you understand that Maiden are making a journey back in time, to the Seventh Son… album. The Clansman is a nine-minute epic that follows the spirit of The Sign of the Cross and in my opinion is much better. The lyrics refer to Scotland’s will for independence from the United Kingdom. Pretty inspired I can say. After A typical slow passage half-way, it speeds up again before its slow ending. Blaze Bailey performance is fantastic.
When Two Worlds Collide is another fine track based upon the same structure. The once again slow intro gives its place to fast guitar themes. Though, at a point it repeats some lines, maybe more than it should, it is considered as a good moment in the album. The Angel and the Gambler is a song very unusual for Iron Maiden. It is also very long, approximately ten minutes and here the band experiments with many keyboards that, to me, don’t fit in. It is not as awful as many believe but it could have been shorter, thus less mediocre.
A song that is quite different from the rest is Como Estais Amigos which is basically a kind of ballad, heavy at times but no match for the divine Wasting Love. The remaining song, The Educated Fool and Don’t Look to the Eyes of a Stranger can only be appreciated if you think of them as a joke! They are totally shity and horrible and the great flaws of Virtual XI. Completely unworthy of Maiden, I pretend they don’t exist every time I listen to the album.
It would be very easy and convenient for me to praise Iron Maiden and claim that Virtual XI is fantastic, glorious etc. but I will not. If four great songs in a total of eight in a Maiden’s release are enough for you, then fine. Otherwise…