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The Ultimate Frontier - 98%

blackcat2018, February 12th, 2018

I always say it, I love their old stuff but since Bruce’s and Adrian’s comeback, I think the band are better musically, technically, and miles better if we talk about live shows and performances. It must be hard to fill Steve Harris' shoes as Iron Maiden's legacy compels his crew to keep raising the bar - a heavy load indeed. Of course, there's a thin line between a band's goals and its fans' demands; consider it artistic self-actualisation versus mass expectations. That said, the latent sextet has always prided itself on foregoing concessions while trusting its instincts and not yielding to the status quo, i.e. any pre-conceived dictates concerning its destiny or path. This reflection is warranted when contemplating a new Maiden album as there's no point in judging its merits on individual tracks alone. However, looking at the big picture, its astounding polarity and variance provides the listener with a better understanding of the band's evolution. In other words, The Final Frontier is the "natural conclusion" for a band of Iron Maiden's high calibre (and consistency). Stagnant art - always rehashing the same type of album - loses its appeal and magic over time; from this standpoint, change is imperative. One could go even further and call it a matter of "life and death".

Following a couple of widely acclaimed, back-to-back multitudinous Somewhere Back In Time Tours and disclosure of its next album (Brave New World, recorded at the legendary Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas - a favourite haunt as attested by several past gems) Iron Maiden unequivocally caught the attention of its many fans, who'd anticipated the band would somehow re-connect with its glorious and insurmountable past: namely the 1980's, which saw the advent of five epochal landmark albums ranging from 1982's The Number of the Beast to 1988's Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. However, that wasn't the case as the boys unalterably forged on with the same musical pattern marked by Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith's return. The band's creative essence remained incredibly hermetic, intact and unalterable despite bombarding its fans - notably those who followed said tours - with nostalgic "80s" era stimuli. Essentially, The Final Frontier trumps Dance of Death while jockeying to outrank the aforementioned Brave New World. Although its initial brightness and immediate impact may not match the latter's, they sure as heck grow with every listen.

"Mother of Mercy" is one of the best cuts on the record as its Jethro Tull sounding, the semi-folk intro is reminiscent of Dickinson's solo projects; you can really get into it thanks to its great beat and overall instrumentation. Maiden's frontman goes from sounding loose and relaxed to strong and dominant, reaching new heights with impetus and a wide spectrum of emotion. "Coming Home" starts off with a typical guitar progression before transforming into the kind of epic ballad found on any solo Dickinson album. Such auspicious beginnings aren't unusual considering Adrian Smith's traditional lead-off compositions, found on gems such as Accident of Birth and Chemical Wedding. Without a doubt, another inspiring moment is the classy and elegant sequence of lead melodies throughout. The nine-minute "Isle of Avalon" unleashes a torrent of rather long-winded tracks. On this last, Harris' incepting and sparkling bass line instantly brings to mind Seventh Son of a Seventh Son proper; even Dickinson's prose brings to mind the classic closing epic from 1988. Whether it's intentional or not, this welcome crescendo of sorts eventually reaches explosive proportions, imbued as they are with Maiden's endearing signature melody, ardour and flair.

Essentially, Iron Maiden's fifteenth studio album took four long years to produce impeded as it was by constant touring; this didn't prevent the masters from taking a short propitious and providential break at the last minute in order to wrap 'er up (with a bow if you will), perhaps from feeling the pressure and need to finally release something new and fresh. This paid off in the end, seeing what a good album it turned out to be. If anything, its "stewing on the backburner" and quick, conducive "sautee-ing" improved its quality and craftsmanship, like a good spaghetti sauce left to marinate on the stove overnight. Though as a parting shot, this is in no part thanks to the producer, Kevin Shirley, who, in my opinion, has become somewhat complacent as he simply sits back without pushing the envelope or going against the grain. In other words, he's content with anything the band lays down without providing any feedback. I feel his present role goes no further than a sound engineer, akin to what happened between Metallica and Bob Rock in the 90s. That said, perhaps they should hire another for upcoming albums, someone like Roy Z. or Andy Sneap, who'd duly reap the best from the band. The question is, would Harris be up to it? Regardless, in spite of multiple line-ups and setbacks, Iron Maiden has always prevailed. Chances are, it'll continue to do so.