With so much having been written about them over the 30+ years of their illustrious and prolific career, Iron Maiden needs no lengthy introduction. The British heavy metal pioneers have influenced countless bands, not to mention genres, with their trademark gallops, twin (now triple) guitar layers, banshee wails and thunderous yet tasteful drumming. Their most recent album, The Final Frontier, was released this August amidst much hype and anticipation. The album is assuredly a strong one, containing all the stereotypical Maiden material the metal community has come to expect. While they certainly do experiment somewhat and nudge the boundaries set by their previous releases, the reality is that this is simply another solid album from a well-oiled, six-headed metal behemoth. Riding the post-Somewhere Back in Time/Flight 666 (the hugely successful Powerslave-era retrospective tour and DVD, respectively) wave, Maiden are in a unique position, especially considering their age. The Final Frontier goes where no Maiden album has gone before (pardon the horrible pun), but stays firmly anchored in the band’s roots.
Some highlights from The Final Frontier include:
Coming Home: This power ballad-esque track sports some of the best lyrics on the album, penned by singer Bruce Dickinson. The song describes the feelings the singer felt as he piloted the band’s custom Boeing 757 aircraft (dubbed “Ed Force One” after their iconic zombie mascot, Eddie) home to the UK after their massive 6-leg, 91-date Somewhere Back In Time world tour. The simple, poetic lyrics are complemented by stellar guitar layering. Transitioning from slow picking into a half time gallop, the verse builds perfectly up to the anthemic chorus. This song will work phenomenally live, as the chorus’s triple guitar chord assault and soaring vocals bring out a wonderful sense of catharsis. Dave Murray’s bluesy guitar solo is both beautiful and sultry at the same time, and as the song picks up again in time for Adrian Smith to showcase his razorlike quasi-shred skills the song takes on a whole new gravity while at the same time launching the listener even higher into the stratosphere. This song really makes you feel like you’re descending from the sky back down to a place you love. Finally Maiden gets a ballad right.
“Over borders that divide the earthbound tribes/No creed and no religion, just a hundred winged souls/We will ride this thunderbird, silver shadows on the earth/A thousand leagues away our land of birth.”
Starblind: One of several epics taking up the bulk of the album’s 1.2 hour length, this track is a standout. The song starts of hauntingly, with reverb-laden guitars and subtle synth chords underlying Dickinson’s superbly ethereal treatment of the lyrics. After this short preview, the song kicks into gear with an interestingly syncopated drumbeat in an uncharacteristically non-Maiden fashion. Towards the end of the verse a great free-form guitar lead appears in the background and carries the song into the chorus. Of particular note is the extended instrumental/solo section taking up the middle part of the song. Primarily in 7/4, it showcases the more progressive side of Maiden that has been coming to a head over the past couple of albums. The lyrics of this track are very much outside the traditional Maiden box, without the stereotypical repetitive song-title-as-chorus. Dickinson takes a much more stream of consciousness approach to the wording, fitting what could be an entire short story into the song. The meaning of the lyrics is very hard to decipher; they begin speaking of weariness with one’s life and the planet on which we live, but continue onto the subject of leaving religion (specifically Christianity) behind. All in all a very philosophical, albeit psychedelic narrative.
“We can shed our skins and swim into the darkened void beyond/We will dance among the worlds that orbit stars that aren’t our sun/All the oxygen that trapped us in a carbon spiders’ web/Solar winds are whispering you may hear the sirens of the dead.”
The Talisman: Perhaps one of the more traditionally “Maiden” tracks on the album, this number begins with an extended narrative sung softly over a beautifully simple acoustic guitar treatment. Speaking as a man leaving his home country in Europe for the New World, Dickinson uses his superb vocal control and annunciation to convey the serious nature of the lyrics. Dishearteningly, (although I am no expert on production and editing) it is fairly obvious that a couple of notes have been digitally pitch-adjusted. Why producer Kevin Shirley chose this method instead of a simple second take of the lines in question I don’t know, but it reeks of lackluster production. After the intro, the song gallops and romps as the lyrics describe a sailor on a ship in a storm. This song reminds me heavily of “The Ghost of the Navigator” from 2000’s Brave New World, which dealt with a similar subject. Though the lyrics (penned by bassist and founding member Steve Harris) are nothing new, the song is still an outstanding example of Maiden at their best. The vocals in the chorus soar to levels rarely reached by Dickinson, let alone any other contemporary metal group.
“Spirits, sails, they drive us on/Through the all-consuming waves/Cold mortality no weapon/’Gainst these ever-raging seas.”
When the Wild Wind Blows: The closing song of the album, as is common with Iron Maiden albums, is the true epic of the disc. In the tradition of such songs as Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Hallowed Be Thy Name and Alexander The Great, this track is a true Steve Harris masterpiece, marrying complex (at times overwhelming) composition with narrative lyrics. This time the inspiration for Harris’ penstrokes comes from Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel When the Wind Blows. The song opens with an interestingly delicate guitar melody, which soon gives way to a heavier interpretation of the same melody. The lyrics can get a bit awkward in places, as Harris has always given preference to melody over grammar and proper English when writing. As the song gets going, Harris describes an older couple hearing stories on the news of an impending nuclear attack from a foreign nation. As they begin building a shelter in their backyard and stockpiling supplies for the disaster, the old man wonders if it’s really worth surviving anyways. At about 3:40, the track gets flat out heavy as fuck, in a groovy half-time sense. The ground begins to shake, and the couple retreat into their shelter as a quick guitar solo gives way to a classic Maiden dual-lead melody. More solos follow as the mood builds frantically. Suddenly, a series of stops punctuate the music and yet another short guitar lead comes in (that’s what you get when you have three lead guitarists I suppose). I’m not going to go into every single riff from here on out because there are so many, but let’s just say that this song chugs along like a tank towards the middle. Vocals reenter: the couple is now in the shelter sitting and waiting for something to happen as the ground continues to shake. We are treated to another classic dual-lead as the dust settles after the supposed disaster, but by the end of the song we learn that in fact it was no nuclear holocaust at all. The media has propagandized what was merely an earthquake and their was no weapon used at all. The couple have taken poison, thinking they were either about to die a horrible death or live a short few months in an irradiated dystopia. They offed themselves based on the information of mass media, which merely played up a story to make things sound worse than they are. Social commentary at its finest? Perhaps not, but Steve Harris has written another classic Maiden epic.
“And when they found them/had their arms wrapped around each other/their tins of poison lying nearby their clothes/the day they both mistook an earthquake for the fallout/just another when the wild wind blows…”
All in all, The Final Frontier is a great record. There are a couple of clunkers, but as with any good album the gems more than make up for them. My only major issue is the production, which is very compressed and digitized, a far cry from the phenomenal production on 2006’s A Matter of Life and Death. Perhaps next time producer Kevin Shirley will learn his lesson. Despite this, the album is Iron fucking Maiden 100%: no bullshit. Hopefully they'll be around long enough to top this record, but until then you'll have to catch one of their legendary live shows. Keep your eyes pointed to their website (www.ironmaiden.com) as they continue to announce tourdates for 2011 and beyond.