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"Virtual XI" is a truly unique album in the discography of Iron Maiden. It's an album with a very special mood and atmosphere that you can entirely adore for some special occasions. I would describe this mood as slow, progressive and really hypnotizing with many melancholic melodies, repetitive vocal lines and long instrumental parts. The production is as simplistic as the music and the lyrics and I think that the band or at least the leading parts of it were exactly looking for this kind of mood even if some people might call it a poor lack of creativity which I honestly can't entirely deny. The band wanted to sound different and unique on this album and from that point of view the album could be described as a success. The record fits most as background music on a grey autumn or winter morning and during those occasions this album opens before me like the pages of a book and I truly enjoy it. The album is not a heavy metal record but rather an experimental and sometimes spontaneous progressive jam surrounding the topic of melancholy. This all sounds very positive but I can't deny that there are many flaws on this record that rate the final judgement down.
First of all, some songs simply go too far in their monotonous attempts and the most quoted example is surely the chorus of "The angel and the gambler" which would be a great effort if the band would have chosen to put the much shorter and still atmospheric single version on the record. "The educated fool" has the same dumb problem and even the emotional and conceptual masterpiece "The clansman" is spared from this. I prefer the shorter and still unique and melancholic tracks such as the underrated "When two worlds collide" or the hypnotizing ballad "Como estais amigos" which presents maybe the best vocal effort done by Blaze Bayley when he was in Iron Maiden. The second thing that really harms the album is the rather poor lyrics. A part of the inspired and more traditional epic track "The clansman" and Bayley's emotional farewell track which is the brilliant and underrated ballad "Como estais amigos", the topics are rather one dimensional and remain superficial which is the exact opposite of what the band has done with Bayley on the previous record which was very intense and profound. This fact underlines my idea that the band simply wanted to try out something new. The third negative point is the lack of inspired and emotional instrumental passages. The guitar work is somewhere between mediocre and good but the bass guitar sounds lame as never before and the drumming is lacking of power. One feels that Nicko McBrain wasn't that much into the new musical direction of the album and the continuous problems with Blaze Bayley and the lack of commercial success and popularity attached to this.
This album can only please to very patient and open minded fans that have no problems with slow, monotone and hypnotizing progressive music. Even if the band tried out something new in a surprisingly radical way, the previous two records had already a couple of signs that showed us the way in the direction that the band would take and anybody that liked the slow and dreamy passages of "Fear of the dark" or "The X-Factor" might appreciate this album and know what I mean. For the majority and those who liked the legendary works of the eighties, this release is a deception as it goes far away from the band's roots and no one would have ever thought that this band would sound like that one day. A part of the opener "Futureal" which is a good and straight song in the key of “Be quick or be dead” but which really doesn't fit at all on this record where the other songs are very coherent and homogeneous, the other seven songs of this record are dreamy, hypnotizing and cumbersome.
Even though I happen to be musically very open minded and even though I like the experimental flow of this record, I prefer the heavier and darker side of the band and must admit that I don't listen quite often to this disturbing and yet beautiful record. But when I'm listening to it, I do it with much more intensity than I listen to most of the other records of the band and I want to underline this unique status of the album. It really takes some time and a lot of patience before the record grows on you and maybe several years or decades. But if you happen to have listened to this record when it was initially released and if you have put it in some dusty corner of your collection after a few disappointing tries, I really suggest you to pull this album out of the shadows and appreciate it with a new distance and from a more objective point of view and you might finally discover at least an interesting gem. But I wouldn't be surprised if this procedure would still not work and you need another five or ten years to understand and appreciate this simplistic and yet complicated flawed masterpiece.