I know that this is not a very common or popular opinion, but for me, the X-Factor is my favourite Iron Maiden record. I have known the band with Bruce Dickinson as a singer and I really liked their classical records like "Powerslave" or "Somewhere in time" and even their early stuff with Paul Di'Anno. I discovered the Blaze Bayley era of the band quite late and had heard a lot of negative comments about him and the band's style and direction at the time when he was in it. When I first listened to the x-Factor, I really liked the dark and profound atmosphere but I found many songs on the album too long and too similar. Today, four years later, I have completely changed my point of view. This album has grown on me like no other album of the band. It is way more intense and atmospheric than any other stuff the band has ever tried. It is probably the best metal record of the whole nineties to me.
The album starts with one of my favourite Iron Maiden songs, "The sign of the cross". Many people say that this song is too long, too dark and too complicated to take it as an opener, but I don't think so. The album introduces perfectly to the dark atmosphere of this whole piece of art. It is courageous to put this song as an opener but this courage was worth the try. The song starts with monk choirs and some really dark vibes before Blaze Bayley introduces himself as the new singer of Iron Maiden. I think that it was an excellent choice of Steve Harris to not choose a similar singer to Bruce Dickinson and take the easy way out with high pitched voice singer. When Paul Di'Anno with his wild voice and punk attitude had left the band, Steve Harris had also chosen to not take a similar singer but to try something different with Bruce Dickinson's very particular voice and it has been the best choice at that time, too. It's the same thing here. Bruce Dickinson would have never been able to sing as dark, as melancholic, as angry and desperate as Blaze Bayley on the X-Factor. Bruce Dickinson does some great performances of some of the album's songs on later live releases, but he sings the songs way too emotional, way too positive.
"Sign of the cross" is a diversified, dark, melancholic masterpiece of eleven minutes with a great, long and surprising introdution with a very high tension and uneasy atmosphere, before Blaze Bayley literarily explodes and does a more than solid performance. Everything fits on this album. The guitar solos are emotional even if Adrian Smith isn't present here. Steve Harris is probably doing the job of his career on this album, you can very often hear his diversified and brilliant bass play and this dark tuned instruments fits perfectly to the atmosphere of the album and it sounds really fresh and surprising that this metal record is more based on the bass guitar than on the ordinary guitars. You've got all of this already in the first song and that's what makes him so innovative.
"Lord of the flies" has a very catchy and dark introductional riff and Blaze does a particular emotional and brilliant job here. The melody of the bridge and the chorus is really catchy and doesn't go out of your mind any more once you have listened to it.
"The man on the edge" is a surprisingly fast rocker and gives you a little break after more than fifteen minutes of melancholic atmosphere. It is a very fresh banger and welcome change in style in the very tension filled album.
"The fortunes of war" is probably my favourite song on this record. A very dark, sad Blaze Bayley gets you in a very dark and emotional mood, the bass introduction by Steve Harris is the best one he has ever done. The guitars that interrupt the brilliant plugged and unplugged bass play sound very melodic and remind me of Mike Oldfield. The bridge to the second part of the songs fits perfectly and the songs is very diversified with very slow and very fast parts, sing-along parts and storyteller parts, melodic guitar solos and brilliant bass guitar passages. The outro closes the circle perfectly to the beginning of this masterpiece.
"Look for the truth" has a very dark and eerie mood and the introduction gives me goose bumps every time I listen to it. Blaze Bayley sings in a stunning way after the intense introduction, you can really feel his desperate anger. He is not only a singer, he "lives" the lyrics and you get completely absorbed by his style. This song has great and atmospheric but very simple sing-along parts that fits perfectly with the rest of the song.
"The aftermath" is a song I didn't like really much when I heard it first but this one really grew on me. I really like the somehow dreamy and melancholic guitars in the introduction and the intelligent lyrics of this song. The chorus is really not what you are used to listen to when you listen to this band and this is what makes this song very special and interesting. Give this song the time it needs to convince you, but once it makes "click" in your head you will really be into its very particular style and atmosphere.
"Judgement of heaven" begins once again with a brilliant acoustic bass line before Blaze Bayley sings the introduction in his very particular style. The lyrics are so personal, so intense and so heavy that it really touches you. After the dark and desperate introduction and first verse, the chorus is so optimistic and the band makes you travel from hell to heaven and back. The melodic twin guitar parts are brilliant in the bridge are just amazing and the gallopping bumble bee bass guitar and Blaze's angry voice create a create contrast and an antithesis that fits with the lyrics. The screams in the outro are somehow a little bit inappropriate and strange but I take this as another surprise that underlines the emotions of the song.
"Blood on the world's hands" begins with a hypnotic and mysterious bass intro and sounds just amazing. Some people say that it just sounds as if Steve Harris was tuning his instrument and playing some simple chords, but I wouldn't say that. The bass guitar has almost some mysterious folk sounds and the transition to the body of the song is perfectly done. Blaze Bayley sings then in a stunning and very emotional way. The uneasy and unusual chorus fits with the atmosphere of the song and the melodic bridge of the song gives you a little break and even some chills. Some dark orchestrations or keyboards underline the atmosphere of the song like in the opening track and this is very well done.
"The edge of darkness" is a song that I didn't like in the beginning. It's introduction, with a helicopter sound and once again a very dominant bass guitar play and some simple guitar harmonies over it, seemed very long and unnecessary to me. Today, I realise that this part is necessary to create a very slow paced and depressive atmosphere that underlines the lyrics of the song. But it's worth waiting the time before the song gets heavier and has some very fast and stunning parts with a few melodic guitar solos. The song really grows more and more on me and has passed from the bottom to the top 3 songs of the album for me.
"2 AM" works a little bit like "Man on the edge". It gives you a little break from the dark and complicated songs but it contains a very melancholic atmosphere. The melodic guitars dominate the bass guitar for the first time on the album and Dave Murray and Janick Gers do a brilliant job here. The chorus is simple and melancholic and this song would also have been a good choice for a single. Many people say that this song is the weakest one of the album, but I think it is a melodic and melancholic masterpiece and a welcome little change in style.
"The unbeliever" is the most difficult song on the album. It is very long, very complicated, has many changes and breaks. Blaze is really on the loose and sings in a very particular style, once almost rapping, than angrily screaming or roaring. Almost folkloric bass interruptions, simple riffs, chill-out acoustic guitars and melodic guitar parts are all mixed together in this song and it is not easy to get an approach to that. Even after four years, I recognize the brilliant and innovating style of the songs but have some difficulties to really appreciate it. It is a very interesting experiment and I believe that this song still needs some time and that I will appreciate it even more in a couple of years. It is like a good wine that becomes better with its age and this song has already passed from the state of "too weird" to the state of "innovative" so that I'm sure that this song is even able to grow more and more within the next years.
All in all, you have eleven dark and melancholic masterpieces on this album. This album is intense and difficult, but it is worth waiting and trying to get an approach to it. I am sure that this album will be considered as a classic and heavily underrated album in one or two decades just like "Somewhere in time" that was criticized when it came out and is considered as a masterpiece nowadays by many fans. This album is the most intense and the most personal album of Iron Maiden. All the tragedy around the separation of Bruce Dickinson, the pressure and anger of the fans, Steve Harris' difficult divorce - all these things got combined and created an image of the band's surroundings and inner life that you can see and also listen to on this album.
The only negative point I see about this album is its average production (especially "The sign of the cross" should kick out a little bit more as an opener). I would also understand if some people would say that some songs of the album are too similar and that one or two songs less would have done a better job but on the other hand, I am very happy to have them all on an album and I would have even add the brilliant "Virus" to the album (which has been added on the "Best of the beast" greatest hits compilation one year later). Even the b-sides "Judgement day" and "Justice of the peace" are brilliant and one could have easily created two great albums with this material! That's what i think is a sad thing as many fans do not even now those three masterpieces.
Give this album a chance and let the band pull and drown you towards the edge of darkness!