With The Final Frontier Iron Maiden have now made a grand total of fifteen studio albums, that’s the number that Steve Harris has always said he wanted to make. So is this Maiden’s swansong? Well all you fans will be glad to know that in recent interviews members of the band are not ruling out another album, with drummer Nicko McBrain going as far to say that this isn’t the last. Thank God for that.
Now onto the album at hand. At a glance The Final Frontier may be described as an album of two parts, one part classic Iron Maiden, one part new more experimental and progressively inclined Iron Maiden. I wouldn’t say that the two parts are equal, actually I’d split it about 45% classic to 55% progressive. The first half of the album features generally shorter songs with the exception of the opening track Satellite 15... The Final Frontier., which clocks in at just over eight and a half minutes. It’s this song that makes me not split this album into 50/50 classic Maiden and prog, because it’s such an oddball. It is like two songs made into one track and it sounds like it. The Satellite 15 part is easily the most experiment piece of music that Iron Maiden ever recorded. It’s like an intro song at times that isn’t actually an intro at all, Bruce Dickinson’s vocals are delayed in coming in, but it is a song in its own right even before The Final frontier section starts, which is much more on the classic side of the Maiden sound. It’s the first bit that is perhaps most memorable though for being so different. Thundering bass and drums and eerie drawn out lead guitar. It is very percussive throughout with the exception of the first vocal part. It seems random at first listen but it actually has a lot of atmosphere and it does a good job of getting you in the mood for the rest of this album, which as the name may suggest has several songs with lyrics rooted in science fiction and space.This part of the song is actually slightly longer than The Final Frontier part. This is a very different album opener to what we’ve been given with their last three efforts, 2000’s Brave New World, 2003’s Dance of Death, and 2006’s A Matt of Life and Death, all of which opened with single material songs and while the second half of the song could easily be considered as such but as a whole this is an entirely different beast. This is a good thing, 2010 is Iron Maiden’s 35th year as a band and they still manage to surprise and sound fresh. Not many bands can claim that.
The next four songs really focus on that classic Maiden sound, though at the same time they aren’t songs designed to relive the days of albums such as The Number of the Beast and Powerslave. No, these are songs designed to be Maiden as Maiden are now and that is more versatile than ever. El Dorado is the longest of these songs at just under seven minutes and was the lead single from the album but again, it has a completely different feel to the other long songs on the second half of the album. It starts with a flurry of instrumentation that barely has a pause between it and the end of the first track, before it launches into a trademark gallop. Despite generally being longer this one is obvious single material and showcases classic Iron Maiden with that afore mentioned gallop, strong writing and an epic chorus delivered with great vocals from Dickinson, who quite frankly sounds great on The Final Frontier. This isn’t a vocalist who is losing power with age, in fact at times he sounds better than ever.
Highlights however from these songs have to be Mother of Mercy and Coming Home, which may be the most accessible song on the album from a commercial standpoint but is still pretty awesome. Mother of Mercy has a light intro with a lead melody that goes into the first verse, not getting heavy until nearly two minutes in. Another review I read recently said that this wouldn’t have been out of place on A Matter of Life and Death and I quite agree, it’s all in its war themed lyrics and generally delivery of the song. It’s also the most progressive of the first half of the album. The AMOLAD feel continues into Coming Home but I must stress that The Final Frontier is by no means AMOLAD Part II. This AMOLAD feel will again be heard later in the longer more progressive tracks, but for now let’s finish up with these shorter ones.
And on The Alchemist (in no way related to Bruce Dickinson’s song of the same name) that trademark Maiden gallop should bring a smile to people’s faces. As the shortest song on the album it isn’t so progressively inclined but at the same time it really belongs here. It all goes to show that Maiden are a band always moving forward and never back. It gets going quick and is one of the few songs on the album that doesn’t start light and build up into a metal song. It is however perhaps the weakest moment on The Final Frontier.
Then from track six onwards it all turns into epic tracks that range from just under eight minutes (Starblind) to eleven minutes in length (When the Wild Wind Blows). The sound here is very much influenced to progressive music. Here the music is not just about rocking, it’s about creating something much more intricate that includes changes in style, unexpected quirky moments and as stated, long songs. Was it wise to split the songs in this manner? Maybe, maybe not, personally I think it’s a point worth mentioned but my personal conclusion would be that it doesn’t matter too much. It’s all Maiden and it’s all good.
The progressive influence is something evident early on in Isle of Avalon, a song that has about three minutes of light music before it turns into a metal song, which although common in the previous songs as well, in those songs the light section was delivered just as an intro while this is a third of the song. The riffs are more unconventional by Maiden standards between the vocal sections as well. And then just to throw you they throw in a chorus that is more akin to what we’ve been hearing on the previous tracks. Isle of Avalon is a genuine highlight of The Final Frontier, so when Starblind comes along and knocks it out of the water, it is unfortunately slightly forgettable. Starblind may just be THE song of the whole album. Progressive and still very much Iron Maiden it’s the chorus of this one that really makes me want to sing along with it.
The band doesn’t shy from use of acoustics and clean tone guitars and softer vocals, although there isn’t a completely acoustic song as there was on Dance of Death. The Talisman in particular starts very soft with just the guitar and Dickinson’s vocals. It’s almost folksy in its intro but then at just over two minutes in it transforms into one of the album’s heaviest songs. Once it gets heavy it can feel like another nod towards A Matter of Life and Death, especially in the delivery of the chorus. Not a bad thing at all, but overall The Final Frontier is an album by a very developed band and as such cannot be recalled the v2.0 of any album they did previously.
The Man Who Would Be King is the most progressive song though, this one never goes in the direction it seemed to be leading up to in one minute. Again the chorus delivery gives a nod to AMOLAD while being completely different in instrumentation delivery and despite its eight and a half minute length it feels as if it’s over too soon. They save the longest of the songs for last though, the harrowing When the Wind Blows which is apparently based on a post-nuclear graphic novel. Like all the long progressive songs here it starts soft and the melodic presented here is one of the best on the album which really fits with Bruce’s vocals. An epic way to end the album.
I previously mentioned that 2010 is Maiden’s 35th year of life and to be honest some of their output in the last ten years has, in my opinion, been just as good as anything they did in what is widely considered to be the band’s classic era, and much of it better. Different and more evolved yes, but by no means a band in decline, as some people may try to have you believe. Maiden seem incapable of producing a truly bad album and this is not the exception, but I suppose the question to be asked is where does it sit in terms of score and position between the previous fourteen Maiden albums? Well this reviewer isn’t ready to call its ultimate position in the Maiden albums but of the last four I think that Dance of Death is its superior. It’s about on par with Brave New World and A Matter of Life and Death. One thing that I really feel needs to be said about The Final Frontier is that on my first listen I was a little disappointed with it. But after a couple more its growing on me and I definitely have the stress the fact that it is not an album to take an first listen. If you don’t like it at first give it a few more tries and you might just be surprised.
(Review originally written for Heavy Metal Haven)