Album Review: Iron Maiden – ‘A Matter of Life and Death’

A Matter of Life and Death.  Great film.  Seen it?  I expect not.  It’s not the sort of film that would be made anymore.  When it comes to Iron Maiden I’ve got to admit that I gave up on them after Bruce Dickinson abandoned ship in the ‘90s.  I was going in a different direction in my life so it would be unfair to blame Maiden entirely for my disloyalty.  However, the band did not make it easy for people like me – the fans who didn’t have the ‘Killers’ album cover tattooed on their backs.  Maiden stuck, AC/DC/Status Quo-like, steadfastly to their blueprint.  It was as if the onward progression of music could not be heard from the lofty, ivory towers of millionaire rock stars.  I like the sound people make when they take risks.  For better or for worse, at least the music an artist creates when he tries to break the mould is interesting.  I didn’t hear that from Maiden after ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’, and yet, for a while I still enjoyed their music.  Iron Maiden did themselves no favours.  They painted themselves into a corner.  Dickinson’s decision to quit was probably the right thing for him to do at the time.  Maiden’s decision to replace him with Blaze Bayley destroyed one of my favourite bands – Wolfsbane.  I had a ticket to the Wolfsbane gig that was cancelled due to the Iron Maiden announcement and I remember being in two minds about it.  I loved Blaze Bayley and thought he’d be a pretty good fit for Iron Maiden.  In Wolsbane’s early days Bayley looked like an evil, demented Bruce Dickinson.  He did.  Seriously!  He had a similar quality to his voice too, albeit eight octaves lower.  I completely understand why he jumped at the Maiden gig.  Who wouldn’t?  To be lifted from obscurity and get to play with the big boys on the world stage.  Yes please!  Except it didn’t quite work out like that.  Did Bayley make the right life choice?  Who knows?  Hindsight is always 20/20.

For great Iron Maiden albums you have to look to the period beginning with ‘Iron Maiden’ and ending with ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’.  Yes, for a little while longer they still chucked out a few useful songs, but, as the cover art began to fall apart so did their music.  Perhaps, when Dickinson was killed in an ‘Iron Maiden’ (a modern invention masquerading as a real medieval torture device) during a weird live/magic performance on TV, that might have been the ideal moment to call it a day.  I remember that gig, as friends who weren’t Maiden fans watched it with me.  It did nothing to convert them to the cause, and my abiding memory is of Dickinson’s grown-out fringe.  I never owned the Bayley-era Maiden albums and I only listened to them for the first time very recently.  I may write about them in a future post.  Maybe.  During my time away from Maiden I released my own albums and gigged around the country.  Importantly, my music never strayed close to the Maiden formula.  You’d have thought that I would have been influenced at least a little by one of my favourite childhood bands.  But no.  Maiden had become something of a joke and I steered well clear.  I’m being unfair in singling out Iron Maiden here as I pulled myself away from the whole scene.  The faithful stuck with their band and for that reason the tattooed-album-art-adorned ‘true fans’ would never really count me as one of their own.  I would however take issue with that assessment.  I am a fan.  I am just a discerning fan.  As a fan you are allowed to take issue with the actions of your heroes.  Life isn’t perfect – and it’s too short to simply follow blindly.

I was watching Football Focus one day in the early noughties and a goal was being scored to a soundtrack suspiciously like Iron Maiden.  With Dickinson singing?  Yes.  Maiden were back.  But I didn’t buy the comeback album, ‘Brave New World’ – at least not until much later. And I didn’t buy ‘Dance of Death’.  I did however buy ‘A Matter of Life and Death’.

I couldn’t resist ‘A Matter of Life and Death’.  Great name.  Great art.  I loved the idea of songs written and played with no concern as to their length.  Okay, it’s a lack of concern that can be afforded when you have a million pounds in the bank, but nevertheless, it was liberating.  Look, let’s not beat about the bush here.  I went to Maiden’s complete run through of the album at Earls Court.  I like this album.  A lot.  This is the closest Maiden have come to hitting the highs of that earlier period I was talking about.  The bloated follow-up, ‘The Final Frontier’, was the sound of a band getting carried away.  For me, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ was just the right level of self-indulgence.

The first single pricked my ears.  Iron Maiden using viral advertising methods?  Bloody Hell!  The Curious Case of Benjamin Button… no, wait, /checks the title, ‘The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg’.  A few monstrous riffs welded together like only Maiden can do.  A ponderous, beating heart of a song.  Not flawless, not even necessarily great.  But good enough.  So, what would the rest of the album be like?

The album opens with ‘A Different World’ and a song with a pre-chorus featuring backing vocals.  I like it.  I like it a lot.  Dickinson’s vocals sound back on point.  For a long while I thought he’d lost it.  Even going back as far as the ‘90s he sounded burned out.  For me, and I walk sacrilegious paving slabs here, even during the seminal ‘Live After Death’ album he was struggling.  He’s one of those singers that soars on a studio album, but can falter on the high notes live.  A song like ‘Run to the Hills’ was sung with a different chorus during the majority of Maiden’s shows.  You wonder why bands do that.  But they all do.  Including me!  I hit notes on earlier songs that I can’t even be in the same room as now.  There are workarounds, as Dickinson found (and Blaze Bayley didn’t!).  But you know what?  Watching the documentary bundled with the ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ album reminded me of what a phenomenal singer Bruce Dickinson is.  He is a total power house, and, in many ways his voice has matured for the greater good.  His voice is not ‘better’ than it was.  Nothing beats ‘The Number of the Beast’.  It is different.  It’s in a different world.  Thinner, slightly strained, but absolutely gargantuan.  Dickinson should be included in any discussion of the best singer of all time.  He would never win, ‘cause he’s ‘heavy metal’, but he should be talked of in the same breath as the greats.

‘These Colours Don’t Run’.  A punch in the face of a song.  The seeds of the song’s creation were probably sown after something Dickinson said in retaliation during the Ozzfest concert when Maiden’s set was allegedly sabotaged by Sharon Osbourne.  The song is actually more fully formed than a simple two-fingered salute and likely has nothing to do with the Osbourne incident.  It’s a good, solid song.  Marching drum beats and intricate guitar workouts.  I have read ‘clever’ critiques that say Maiden now march where once they galloped.  There is nothing wrong with marching.  What’s the point in galloping when your horse has died of old age?  You might as well just clap a couple of coconut halves together.

Next is ‘Brighter Than a Thousand Suns’, the album’s highlight.  This song is a superb, complex and heavy piece of work.  The main riff is a lumbering beast – the sound of a dinosaur being awoken after consuming a particularly violent curry.  Dickinson sounds out of control, barking over a 7/4 time signature that he seems unable to get quite right in his head.  The chorus, another of Maiden’s ‘let’s repeat the title ad infinitum’ really works, and is one of the best I can recall.  The result is a song that sounds modern – or dated, depending on your stance on prog rock.  It was the bright point of the Earls Court gig and the fact that Maiden can still pull off such a song is one of the reasons for their continued success.  In a business built on the shallow foundations of youth it is life affirming that a bunch of ‘old’ men can still produce music with at least of a modicum of relevance.  That this is one of Maiden’s heaviest songs is testament to what can be achieved by men considered ‘past it’ by the X-Factor generation.  It’s ironic now that Maiden once released an album called ‘the X-Factor’.

‘The Pilgrim’ opens with the kind of riff Maiden used to dine upon in the years following ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’.  I’ve heard rumour that ‘The Pilgrim’ was considered as a title for the album.  I’m glad they changed their minds!  Terrible, terrible idea!  The song is okay.  Nothing special.  The first trough on the album, but not a deep trough… and filled with wine, not dirty water.  ‘The Pilgrim’ would have benefitted from being lowered a semitone or two in pitch.  Dickinson’s efforts to hit the high notes here sound forced.  This criticism could probably be levelled at the whole album.

The quality is shunted back up to eleven again with ‘The Longest Day’.  Dickinson hits great earthy tones on the verse and the chorus is memorable – although it makes for exhausting listening.  Given the title of the song I think we can forgive it its meandering nature.  There are a few rhythms and melodies which border on Maiden-by-numbers, but overall it’s a worthy track.

The album continues with overlong, sometimes simplistic, sometimes demanding, music.  While it is true that the album could probably benefit from a thorough edit, I think it might also lose its soul.  What we have here is an album that, due to its very construction, will split an audience down the middle.  Some will love it and some will hate it, often with venom.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that this is not the fans’ favourite Iron Maiden album.  The lengths of the songs have been heavily criticised as have their pace.  But we have what we have.  This is a weighty, thoughtful album.  It is an album that celebrates the whole concept of what it is to be an album.  This is a collection of songs that feel ‘right’ together.  This is a collection of songs showcasing great musicianship.  Most of all, this is an unrestricted, primal scream of emotion.  Yes, it would be more commercial to edit the songs down to nice three and a half minute portions that would fit in a radio-friendly box.  But that would be to miss the point.  This is not an album full of catchy songs.  This is not an album to put on at a party.  For the world to rotate, life needs light and shade.  For every ‘Thriller’ or ‘Rumours’ you need an album that provides the battleship-grey paint.  If everyone else is listening to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ on their iPhones, don’t fret.  Iron Maiden are still writing ‘War and Peace’.

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