Ever since the Dickenson/Smith reunion album “Brave New World”, Iron Maiden albums seem to have had some... I hate to say gimmick but some selling point, as if they needed that. Of course the return of Bruce Dickenson on vocals was the greatest thing that could have happened to Iron Maiden, and with Adrian Smith back in the line-up as well things couldn’t have looked better as the band opened the new millennium. In 2003, “Dance of Death” was recorded all on analogue tape, and “A Matter of Life and Death”, according to the Wiki article, was not mastered but just put straight to disc to give it that “what you hear in the studio” sound. Later came “The Final Frontier”, which many thought might be the final Iron Maiden album, and then in 2015 we had Maiden’s longest album yet with an epic song that featured Bruce on piano.
From my perspective, Iron Maiden spent the first four albums perfecting their sound. What we hear on “Piece of Mind” is THE Iron Maiden sound. They added a long composition for their fifth album “Powerslave”, guitar synthesizers for “Somewhere in Time” and a concept album for “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son”. After that, I don’t know where they went, though I know many felt “No Prayer for the Dying” was substandard and “Fear of the Dark” was an attempt to keep Iron Maiden in vogue with the grunge scene happening all around. The Blaze Bailey albums, I don’t know about. Perhaps I’ll find out one day. I think many people agree, however, that from “Brave New World” Iron Maiden were back in their soundscope and playing what us old fans love to hear.
Now honestly, I was not thinking to give this album four stars. After “The Book of Souls” came out, I was impressed enough to buy the four albums from “Brave New World” and on because I hadn’t bought anything since “Seventh Son”. Each album had some excellent songs with all the trademarks of excellent Iron Maiden songs. For a couple of weeks I listened to almost nothing but new Iron Maiden with a bit of the old classics thrown in for enjoyment’s sake. But as months passed and loads of new music came to me, the thrill of many of the songs on this album faded. Recently I put some songs on mixed playlists and I found that I was not as impressed. The sound was too muddy. Dickenson’s vocals were not clear and even sounded weak in parts, like he was straining his voice to keep the notes. When a song from this album followed a song from “Powerslave” I really noticed the difference in recording clarity; “Powerslave” sounded just so much better!
So tonight I cued up “A Matter of Life and Death” and let it run through my ear buds and I found myself once more pleasantly surprised. The sound is a bit thick or muddy at first. I did feel that Bruce Dickenson’s vocals don’t stand out in the mix as they should. The band rocks out with the opening track “Different World” and “These Colours Don’t Run” is slower but heavy as a Maiden song should be. Neither of them warmed my feelings toward the album though because of the recording quality.
So I notched the volume up one.
That made a big difference. From here on in, each song delivered things to impress. Some featured excellent heavy riffing like “Brighter than a Thousand Suns” and “The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg”. And many songs include what I call the Maiden musical journey. This is where the band go into an extended instrumental segment that is only partly devoted to guitar solos but is otherwise used for adding in new rhythms and riffs and changing tempo and meter. In a couple of tracks there were some surprise heavy riff parts like in “The Longest Day” that don’t crop up anywhere else in the songs. And in “Lord of Light” I was surprised to hear a high wailing sound that turned out to be an electric guitar played in a way I’ve never heard done on a Maiden album. “The Legacy” has an acoustic guitar and electric bass intro that I swear touches on renaissance music though I am no expert there at all. Bruce Dickenson still delivers his powerful vocals, and song after song just seems to sound great, some more so than others.
Where I feel there might be any reason to be disappointed other than the sound which could have been clearer is basically in the Iron Maiden formula approach to the song writing. I mean, Maiden established their sound and style over the first four albums and I feel that “A Matter of Life a Death” treads barely any discernable new territory. Why should no mastering of the recording be a big selling point? This album is the same as the previous two with some long songs over seven or eight minutes and some shorter ones under six minutes. There’s a standard approach of intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, repeat, instrumental journey interlude, pre-chorus, chorus, repeat the song title 8 to 12 times, and return to the intro to wind the song down. Six of the ten songs begin with a slower intro of clean electric guitars and bass and most of those end the same way, sometimes seemingly unnecessarily so. “Let’s just play the slow intro for the last few bars, gentleman, after the big thundering finish, you know, to make it all tie together”. The beginning of “Out of the Shadows” harkens back to “Revelations” from “Piece of Mind”. And some of the drum rhythms are the same, in particular the “ONE... two... three... ONE... two... three” approach that’s in “The Pilgrim” and “For the Greater Good of God”, which is also in songs on their other recent albums.
In a way, Iron Maiden have what I call AC/DC syndrome, which is where the band basically follows the same approach album after album, musically and lyrically, and every album has its great songs that typify the band’s ability and style but also have some songs that just seem to rely so heavily on that formula that they sound redundant.
Okay, that sounds like some harsh criticism and a reason to not buy this album. But as I mentioned earlier, once I started listening to this album all the way through, there were great moments in every song with some being greater than others. I was feeling really good about the songs and believing the album to be actually worthy of four stars after all.
Yes, I guess it is too late in Iron Maiden’s career for them to pull an Opeth and go off in a very different direction and I think no one would want them to. Their fans know what they’re going to get on an Iron Maiden LP and that’s what the band is expected to deliver. And they do. Very well. And this album is no exception.