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Iron Maiden - The X Factor - 99%

Silicon Messiah, October 27th, 2015
Written based on this version: 1995, CD, EMI

If you're making a list of Maiden's albums, from best to worst, and put The X Factor at the bottom (and/or Virtual XI for that matter), using "Blaze Bayley" as your argument, you can shove your list where no light should shine, because it's wrong. And now that I've explained invalid 90 percent of all Maiden album rankings in existence, I'll tell you why. After the happy eighties Maiden's sound gradually got darker, more introspective. Actually, it started already on 1988's Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son before culminating in The X Factor, released in 1995.

But even with its darkness and its gloomy sound, the album does hint at positives. Most often in the guitars. Like before the blistering guitar solo in 'The Aftermath' or the quick leads in 'The Edge Of Darkness'. Dave Murray and Janick Gers make their third Maiden record together and their chemistry is tighter than before. The overall guitar sound is also a big improvement from the previous two albums. Sometimes Murray feels a bit laid back while the brisk Gers keeps even the darkest tracks alive. Very few Maiden albums have had song material this strong. Most albums have one or a few half weak songs, but The X Factor has zero. In its entirety, the album reaches 70 minutes. That's a pretty long album. Despite this, no single song feels like filler, even to the point that I'd have wanted at least one more song. 'Judgement Day', found on the 'Man On The Edge' single as a B side would have worked as an opener and a single of its own, and 'Virus' fits the whole theme of the album perfectly and would have made an excellent addition and album closer.

Of course, the one who takes the hardest beating for this album is Blaze Bayley. Only because he isn't Bruce Dickinson or his clone. But the truth is he is perfect for the part. His deep, dark voice makes excellent in mid tempo tracks like 'Lord Of The Flies' and 'The Edge Of Darkness'. But, also the fastest track, single 'Man On The Edge' gets a solid delivery by Bayley. The song is straight to the point, hinting of classic Maiden, with a sublime bass line by Steve Harris, with a distinct 90's touch. Many of the lyrics Bayley gets to sing are soul searching, introspective, almost haunted. They are clear testament to Harris' mental health at the time, having gone through divorce, the loss of front man Dickinson, long time Maiden producer Martin Birch and the passing of his father.

"Oh man, he's a tortured motherfucker, Steve is sometimes", Dickinson has later said. Harris' sound on The X Factor is deep and dark and seems to go hand in hand with Bayley's uncontrollably emotive voice. The bass intro to 'Blood On The World's Hands' is 70 seconds in length and gives the song a distinct sense of self. The guitar leads in the song are also close to perfect, while the vocal melodies do lack in something that I can't put my finger on. The chorus somehow feels incomplete, and the song reminds me a bit of 'Face In The Sand', to show up on 2003's Dance Of Death. It's by no account a bad song, quite the opposite, but still is the weakest on the album.

As I stated earlier, The X Factor has some of Maiden's best song material to date. 'Fortunes Of War' is unbelievably underrated. A seven minute relic where Bayley goes through close to every emotive state there is. Somewhat repetitive in its "chorus", but Harris makes one of his career's best deliveries. And the lead guitar, melancholic, foreboding and among the best I've heard. Another highlight is 'Judgement Of Heaven'. It's insane that Maiden haven't played it live. It's only as of late that Bayley has picked it up for a few solo performances. Even though it goes through the same darkness that the rest of the album does, it does hint of some positivity. As if Heaven's judgement might not be bad, in the end.

'The Unbeliever' would have been praised had Dickinson sung it. Written by my personal favorite duo in Maiden songwriting, Harris/Gers, it closes The X Factor and reminds a bit of Harris/Gers penned songs to come, like 'Dream Of Mirrors' of Brave New World (for which Bayley actually wrote some lyrics!). 'The Unbeliever' would have fit better closer to the middle of the album. In fact, that might be the biggest flaw that The X Factor makes. Song placement. 'Man On The Edge' should have opened. Instead, the opener would have been my choice of closing song. It's Maiden's most theatrical song. And one of their best.

'Sign Of The Cross' has been praised, and not just Dickinson's version (it was played on the Brave New World tour, making an appearance on live album Rock In Rio), just like it should. It's a "Harris epic" dealing with the Spanish inquisition. 80 seconds of Gregorian chanting opens the song ominously before guitar and bass makes their entrance. Slow, low key and foreboding. It's the greatest song Bayley has ever sung, and as I said, one of Maiden's greatest tracks. In its eleven minute run time, it has everything. The slow build up leads to fast, heavy parts where Bayley's singing is simply sublime. Murray and Gers shines with perfect guitar parts. In short, probably the most underrated song ever.

As a whole, The X Factor is one of Maiden's most complete albums. Several lists that I've read ranks it as Maiden's worst, and to tell you the truth, that's all bullshit by idiots writing what "fans" want to hear; that everything Maiden has done after the 80's suck. The kind of people who covers his ears and goes "la la la la" when you try to convince them to give the album an honest chance. But no. And so The X Factor is the most underrated album there is. Simply because Bruce Dickinson or his clone doesn't sing on it.

Standout tracks: Sign Of The Cross, Fortunes Of War, Judgement Of Heaven