Saturday, October 9, 2010

"The Final Frontier" is latest epic from Iron Maiden

Genre: Metal
Sony Legacy
Running Time: 76:39

Iron Maiden have been on a lot of wacky adventures over the years.

They've flown with the Icarus, discovered secret performances of satanic rituals, and hid out in the Rue Morgue. They've even read Dune by Frank Herbert.

Over the last 30 years, Maiden has been one of metal's most consistent bands. Since the release of their 1980 eponymous debut, the band has never gone more than four years without releasing an album.

So with the recent release of their 15th studio album, The Final Frontier, are they ready to continue their march forward, or have the years finally caught up with them? Maiden has released a decent album, but one that may struggle to stand the test of time.

The Giant Elephant in the Room: The Length

The two albums prior to The Final Frontier showcased two vastly different sides of Maiden. 2003's Dance of Death was very melodic, so much so that it almost sounded like a pop metal record at times.

The followup, 2006's A Matter of Life and Death, took the opposite approach by stringing out long epics. The Final Frontier fits more closely in the vein of the latter record than the former. The songs are long, drawn out, and usually don't really seem to go anywhere.

The #1 issue with The Final Frontier is not the length of the songs. It's more in the lack of melody, the lack of creativity and a general lack of direction in this album. It's a sobering thought, but it appears Steve Harris and Co. may be running low on musical ideas.

The guitar work, whcih was once one of Maiden's strengths, really dosn't impress on this album. Not even the guitar solos really do much for me.

And it's clear at this point that Bruce Dickinson's voice is no longer what it once was. The wear started to become noticeable on A Matter of Life and Death, but on the latest album it's hard to deny that something is up with Bruce's voice.

The fact that the songs are so long just further hamstrings the album's appeal. Out of the last five songs on the album, only "Starblind" is under eight minutes. Three of those songs clock in over a whopping nine minutes, with the closer "Where the Wild Wind Blows" nearly cracking the 11 minute mark.

You don't have to try to write Beowulf on every song, guys.

Maiden's Sense of Melody

There are three good songs on this album - "El Dorado," "Where the Wild Wind Blows," and the title track. Then there's one decent track - "The Alchemist."  The rest of the songs aren't bad, they just aren't particularly memorable.

When the formula works, it's because the band has its sense of melody working. For examples, see the chorus of "El Dorado" or the guitar lead in the beginning of "When the Wild Wind Blows." There definitely are flashes of brilliance.

Lyrical Brilliance

Oh, and speaking of positives, did I mention the lyrics? No matter what anybody says about this album, you can't knock the lyrics. "The Man Who Would Be King" tells the story of man on the run, wanted for murder. When you read the lyric sheet you can pitcure him making his way across desolate barrens, searching for salvation.

"The Alchemist" tells the tale of a once powerful mage who met an untimely end. And the closer, "When the Wild Wind Blows," is an emotional story about a family and society preparing to face nuclear warfare. If there's a standout track on the album it's this. No other song on the album pairs Maiden's storytelling talents with a compelling musical soundscape like this track does.

I thought the way the story ends was pretty lame, however. I won't spoil it, but it's just so lame and such a copout that it actually degrades the quality of the track as a whole. M. Night Shyamalan would be shaking his head in disgust if he were to read this one.

Maiden Reaches into their Bag of Tricks

On the opener, "Satellite 15... The Final Frontier," the band pulls off a little trickery. The album opens with a sporadic, twisting bassline and then ominous guitar strains break in over top of that. You'll wonder if you popped in the wrong CD.

Surely you think once Bruce's vocals kick in it will restore a sense of normalcy - but no! Dickinson's whispy and fleeting vocals tell the tale of a man trapped on a satellite being sucked toward the sun. It sounds like some kind of bizarre, alternate reality version of Maiden.

Just before the five minute mark the band changes gears and returns to the Maiden sound we all know and love. But the first part of the song does such an effective job of creating a sense of foreboding that it could literally put a lump in your stomach. Sadly, it's one of the few times on the entire album the band does somethhing interesting musically.

Where Maiden Stands with this Album

Iron Maiden possesses a great musical legacy, having come out of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal Movement in the early 1980s. They're without question the only band from that era to still remain even remotely relevant today (the only other possible contender being maybe Saxon.)

But since their critically acclaimed comback album Brave New World in 2000, it's been a mixed bag. They need something fresh, a new sense of direction. When Maiden hangs it up for good, it will be a sad day for metal, but hopefully they can pull out something better before then. If not, their final years may end up being remembered as Wasted Years.

Tracks to check out:

Satellite 15... The Final Frontier
El Dorado
When the Wild Wind Blows

Lyric to use as your Facebook status:

"I was the keeper of the books
I had the knowledge of the scrolls
But now through ignorance and fear
I cast a shadow through the years"
 - The Alchemist

Score: 77/100

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