Monday, November 1, 2010

Iron Maiden's The Final Frontier: Mediocre metal

Regular visitors to The Silver Key know the high esteem in which I hold Iron Maiden. They are, as I’ve said before and never hesitate to repeat, the greatest heavy metal band of all time. Yeah, even better than Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, man. If you don’t think so, I will fight you.

Which is why it pains me to have to admit to this next bit: Maiden’s latest album, The Final Frontier, isn’t that great. If I had to give it a letter grade it’d be a B-, maybe even a C+. That makes it, in my book, Maiden’s worst album since Fear of the Dark (I don’t count the two Blaze Bayley albums, which, a few good songs mixed in, seem to me written by another band entirely).

You can’t imagine how hard it was for me to write the above paragraph. Criticizing Iron Maiden is not fun. The closest analogy I can make is if J.R.R. Tolkien, were he still alive today, decided to write a sequel to The Lord of the Rings in which Frodo came back from Valinor to go on some other, semi-bland quest to destroy a lesser artifact, in which the fate of Middle-Earth did not hang in the balance.

The Final Frontier is of course technically proficient (this is Maiden, after all). It’s not actively bad. It doesn’t contain any outright stinkers like “Weekend Warrior.” There’s just not much there to recommend it.

Before I go any further, I’d like to make it clear that I’m not one of those guys with a mullet and denim jacket still living in 1985 who thinks that Iron Maiden’s last good album was Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (or perhaps 1984’s Powerslave--there are some internet whackjobs who do hold this opinion, clutching onto it possessively like their vinyl, shrinkwrapped collector copies of Live After Death). I was a fan back in the 80’s and I’m just as big a fan now. Maiden in my opinion did some of their best work during the last decade. Brave New World (2000) was a remarkable return to form for Dickinson and the boys after seven years of separation (Dickinson left the band to pursue a solo career in 1993). Dance of Death (2003) was in my opinion even better. “Paschendale” is brilliant, and “Montségur” and the title track are incredible, too.

Maiden followed up those two releases with 2006’s A Matter of Life and Death, which many fans call their best record since Seventh Son. I got to see them play the whole album live a couple years back and was blown away by war-themed songs like “These Colours Don’t Run,” “For the Greater Good of God,” and “The Longest Day.” All amazing stuff.

But so far I’ve been rather unimpressed with The Final Frontier. It’s not actively bad, and listening to it in my car hasn’t been painful. It’s just—there, like some good background music. It’s lacking any strong, memorable hooks. There’s no killer riffs, no edge.

Maiden has always kicked off its albums with a throat-grabbing, fast-driving hit. Even 1990’s rather poor No Prayer for the Dying led off with the kick-ass “Tailgunner.” “Satellite 15…The Final Frontier” is four and half minutes of bland instrumentation and sound effects, followed by the four minute “The Final Frontier,” which is … merely workmanlike. If “El Dorado” is supposed to be the big single from the album, and I suspect it is, it’s only okay, too. “El Dorado” also isn’t helped by the fact that Bruce’s voice sounds a little strained.

I do like a few songs on The Final Frontier. “Isle of Avalon” is a nice long song, moody, with some great lyrics, and it holds a high standard throughout. But it just doesn’t deliver the shattering chorus I was hoping for. “The Man Who Would Be King” has an epic two minute buildup to … more mediocrity. I feel the same about “When the Wild Wind Blows.” With its apocalyptic lyrics and a terrific bass line by Steve Harris, it has the potential for serious epic—but falls just short. These are great songs to listen to as background music but not to bang my head or weep over, as I have done for “Paschendale” and “These Colours Don’t Run.” Something just seems missing.

The thoughtful, personal lyrics of “Coming Home” make it a decent enough song (it seems like it would make a nice fit on one of Dickinson’s underrated solo albums). “The Alchemist” is a fine, hard-driving little song. But a couple of other tracks are rather painful. I find the chorus of “Mother of Mercy” so repetitive as to be unbearable. “Starblind” and “The Talisman” are just there, and encapsulate a lot of the problems I have with this album. Some good material stretched out too far.

I do want to conclude with a whimpering, suck-up statement and say that I haven’t given up on The Final Frontier yet. I’m still holding out hope that it will be a deep and slow grower, an album that takes multiple listens to get into (I’ve been tied up with some audio books and Blind Guardian’s At the Edge of Time and haven’t given The Final Frontier as many listens as it deserves). But so far, I haven’t been blown away, and I’m sad to report that Maiden seems to be merely mortal on this one. But that’s okay—no one, not even the great Iron Maiden, can bat 1.000.


migellito said...

Ugh.. hearing that, and hearing the obvious honesty in it, really is bloody gutting :(

Andy said...

I have to disagree because to my ears this is the best album they've done since Bruce and Adrian rejoined the band, and it's probably their best since 7th Son of a 7th Son. Seems like everytime I listen to it (which is still quite often), I discover something new and get a new favorite song.

cyclopeatron said...

Thanks for the review. I'll definitely skip this album!

I guess I'm one of those guys with the denim jacket and mullet. I kind of like IM's first two albums the best. My views are also painfully typically when it comes to the Dickinson years - 7th Son was the last album I'd want to listen to more than once, frankly. You are amazingly kind about their later albums!

I'm actually kind of embarrassed that my opinions are so typical. But when all is said and done, the simple truth is that the first two albums are the ones I listen to over and over again. I'm a little burned out on the Dickinson albums right now, although I concede the earlier ones are excellent.

I'll definitely fight you over the Sabbath and Priest! Maybe you should re-listen to some early Priest, like Sin After Sin and Sad Wings of Destiny. This is pretty weird and awesome stuff! Actually, maybe I'll go put my Sin After Sin record on right now...

Eric D. Lehman said...

My mullet is long gone, and I don't actually think Powerslave was the last great album Maiden did, but man was it brilliant. It was one of the few cassette tapes that I wore through the tape and broke.

Used to be a good one to listen to in the Walkman while mowing lawns.

Anonymous said...

first of all I'm not a great fan of Iron Maiden, a bit repetitive for me, I prefer for example Judas Priest or german bands like Helloween or Gamma Ray, although I haven't heard their more recent albums and nowadays I almost heard nothing of music... I only have heard Live after death that is a great live compilation with great themes like Run to the hills or Aces high and Somewhere in time that is an excellent record with all the songs being great...
but that's not exactly the topic for my post... well I will try to explain it in english, after read your article I have listen in youtube Paschendale with some moments of the tv remake of All quiet in the west front...
well I want to know, what are they doung exactly with this song, gloryfying war, violence, the hate between humans? maybe you can respond that they are gloryfiying heroism or sacrifice, but they are talking about a battle with a great cost of human lives... try to understand me I like history specially conflicts and battles but I know that those events are written in blood and were a tragedy for the people...
I hope you understand what I try to say...

Brian Murphy said...

Migellito: You can see by Andy's response (and some of the positive reviews I've read around the web) that there is no critical consensus on The Final Frontier. Who knows, you might like it. I just haven't been very impressed from my early listens.

Cyclopeatron/Eric: I love Maiden's early stuff too, and it probably always be my favorite, but they've done some stellar work from 2000-on.

If you want to fight over Priest vs. Maiden, I'm game. Let's meet at 22 Acacia Avenue.

Francisco: I'm glad you brought that up. Paschendale is most definitely not a pro-war song. Rather, it's about innocence lost and an honest remembrance of the terrible carnage on one of WWI's bloodiest battlefields. It sympathizes with an 18-year-old soldier who's dreaming of home, but is tragically killed in a suicidal advance into machine gun fire.

Here are some of the lyrics. It's amazing stuff and flies in the face of the widely-held opinion that heavy metal is mindless and all about sex, drugs, and rock and roll:

swear I heard the angels cry
pray to God no more may die
so that people know the truth
tell the tale of Paschendale

See my spirit on the wind
across the lines beyond the hill
friend and foe will meet again
those who died at Paschendale

Falze said...

You hit on one point that really sticks out when I listen to this album (and I haven't much), the high quality production really exposes the fact that Bruce sounds like he's straining. I thought on AMOLAD he sounded like he was holding back and he still does a bit, which is understandable because when he reaches he's not getting there anymore. And boy do I hate writing that. He's not done, not by any stretch, and he sounds good on the boots I've heard from their current tour, but there are a few cringe-inducers on this album, not that they're THAT bad, just that it's BRUCE that's making those noises.

(currently listening to Head On by Samson, oddly enough, 'Can you hear the hammerhead in the wind...')

cyclopeatron said...

Let's meet at 22 Acacia Avenue.

Might be more interesting things to do there than fight, eh?

David J. West said...

Brian, a friend recently sent me this meme and I thought you might get a kick out of it.

My Life According to Iron Maiden

INSTRUCTIONS: Copy and paste below. Then delete my answers then insert your answers using only song names from YOUR ARTIST. Tag some of your friends and include me. You can't use the artist I used. Do not repeat song titles. Post as "My Life According to (artist name)"

Pick your Artist
Iron Maiden

Are you a male or female:
Alexander the Great

Describe yourself:
The Duellist

How do you feel:
The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner

Describe where you currently live:
Stranger in a Strange Land

If you could go anywhere, where would you go?
Isle of Avalon

Your favorite form of transportation:
Aces High

Your best friend?
The Trooper

You and your best friends are:
The Invaders

What's the weather like:
When the Wild Wind Blows

Favorite time of day:
Coming Home

If your life was a TV show, what would it be called:
Dream of Mirrors

What is life to you:
Brighter Than a Thousand Suns

Your fear:
Total Eclipse

What is the best advice you have to give:
Run to the Hills

Thought for the Day:
Hallowed Be Thy Name

How I would like to die:
Somewhere in Time

Something you would like to accomplish in life :
The Man Who Would Be King

My motto:
The Thin Line Between Love and Hate

Brian Murphy said...

Nice, I like it David. I'll post mine later this week.

Anonymous said...

I personally like The Final Frontier, feeling that it has a nice Powerslave/Piece of Mind vibe to it. Reading through the posts, I got a kick out of someone mentioning that they are listening to Samson's "Hammerhead" song. I feel that said song is the best thing that Bruce ever recorded, and this is coming from someone who has always regarded Iron Maiden as the greatest band of all time, all genres included. Truth be told, I was a little saddened when Bruce opted to reunite with the boys of Maiden rather than with his old bandmates in Samson back in 2000. I feel that a new Samson record with Bruce singing would have been absolutely brilliant. Sadly, being as Paul Samson has since passed away, such will never come to pass.

Thanks for reading,
Alphonso Warden

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Alphonso, thanks for the comment. I can't say I agree with the Powerslave/Piece of Mind vibe--I can't think of any strong hooks on The Final Frontier to match songs like "The Trooper," "Aces High," or "Powerslave."

Samson is a band I need to listen to more. I don't actually own any of their albums, just a few songs. But man, Bruce could belt it out then.

Kent said...

Having read and considered this post I still think this is one of the few awesome blogs on the web. lol. I can hear Bruce's voice struggling even on Live After Death (a great album mind) but as a critic of the word you must be appreciating the lyrics at this point.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks Kent, you're too kind!

Maiden is writing better lyrics now than ever, no doubt. "Paschendale" could almost pass for a Siegfried Sassoon poem. I love "Isle of Avalon" too. There's a lot of philosophizing and questioning of the meaning of life and religion on the new album.

Sean Jorden said...

Although my appreciation grew over a manner of weeks and months, I eventually started liking this one quite a bit. Perhaps it is my age (40) and my varied musical tastes, but I am convinced these guys are simply evolving as they age, a perfectly natural process. I never begrudge change, just mediocrity.

The songwriting definitely has quality, but as one journalist put it 'Iron Maiden doesn't know how to write hits anymore'. Very true. If you noticed, the first Final Frontier tour included Dream Theater as the opener which to me says that Maiden now considers themselves a progressive metal band. And a damn good one at that.

Brian Murphy said...

Funny you mention that, Sean, because this album is also growing on me. I still don't think it's great, but its solid throughout, and I give Maiden credit for writing songs that appeal to them, rather than trying to rewrite "Aces High" or "The Trooper" at this point in their career.