Iron Maiden's incredible late-career upswing continues on what might be their most ambitious album to date.
When you follow a band for a long time, there comes a point where you know their “classic era” has long since passed, and even though you still eagerly buy their albums 25, 30 years into their career, all you basically ask is that they come through with new music that’s enjoyable enough and that they don’t embarrass themselves too much. Such is the case with most “legacy” acts in metal; so many veteran bands are still doing their thing, and although Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, Motörhead, Deep Purple, UFO, Scorpions, and others are still putting out solid music, they’re not exactly setting the world afire like they all did in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Which, in the opinions of many, is perfectly fine.
Incredibly, nobody told Iron Maiden that was the road to take. After spending the entire 1990s as a creatively exhausted imitation of their 1980s incarnation, their three-year stint with singer Blaze Bayley a career nadir, the band found themselves completely rejuvenated when key members Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith returned to the fold. In the ten years that have passed, Iron Maiden's trajectory has skyrocketed, simply because the band has refused to compromise. Their ideas have been innovative, from their audacious decision to play a new album in its entirety on tour to the brilliant decision to have Dickinson pilot their entire live production around the world in a custom-built plane. As a result, they are back to being one of the biggest draws in rock music across the globe, they've built up a very strong new following of young fans to go along with their already huge existing audience, and best of all, the four albums they've put out since 1999 sound nothing like a bunch of complacent rock stars. The music is vital, it's continually challenging the band and their fans, and from a metal perspective, it's incredibly relevant.
The four-year gap between 2006's A Matter of Life and Death and Iron Maiden's 15th album is the longest of the band's 35-year history, but with the six band members all well into their 50s, the slower songwriting pace benefits them hugely, as for the fourth time in a row they've put out a record that holds up well against any of their recorded output in the 1980s. In fact, in some ways this is the most ambitious album Iron Maiden has ever made, a 76-minute opus loaded with long songs that, more often than not, require some time to settle into listeners' heads.
This is still a band that cares about how an album is presented, and The Final Frontier is sequenced brilliantly. The first third of the album is heavily centered on accessible, riff-oriented fare, but not before the band throws us one hell of a curveball. "Satellite 15…The Final Frontier" opens with a striking, four-minute intro culled from guitarist Adrian Smith's demo tracks, a mélange of tribal drum beats, thrumming electronic bass, and dark, often atonal riffs. It's the weirdest, heaviest thing Maiden has ever put on record, and the way it builds and builds makes Smith's opening riff of "The Final Frontier" all the more explosive. Drawing heavily from UFO, the song is a simple, melodic heavy rocker that's bound to go over well in a live setting. The next three songs follow suit in the same fashion: "El Dorado" boasts a contagious galloping riff lifted from Thin Lizzy, "Mother of Mercy" is catapulted by a powerhouse performance by Dickinson, and the wistful "Coming Home" is a surprisingly effective mellow tune, in a way a fitting companion to 1986's "Wasted Years".
Those initial tracks ease listeners in for the real bulk of the album, a series of five epics that range from eight to more than 11 minutes in length. Guitarist Janick Gers' rousing "The Talisman" is a nine-minute exercise in Maiden cliché, but is done with such a sense of joy that it's easy to excuse its predictability. Dave Murray's trademark graceful lead melodies dominate "The Man Who Would Be King", while bassist Steve Harris, always the most predictable of the band's songwriters, shows astonishing restraint on the understated "When the Wild Wind Blows", as does the theatrical Dickinson in his controlled performance. The best of the epics, and probably the best song on the entire album, is "Isle of Avalon", a joint effort by Smith and Harris that builds great tension, culminating in a remarkable, prog-rock-inspired solo break reminiscent of early King Crimson. This isn't a band lazily resting on their laurels. They're having some genuine fun trying new things.
Producer Kevin Shirley sticks to the same, no-frills tone that made A Matter of Life and Death work so well, but this time slightly more emphasis is placed on the rhythm section of Harris and drummer Nicko McBrain. Consequently, the bottom end of this album is massive, the robust tone hammering home even more just how powerful this band still is. Throughout the album the lyrics seem to drop hints that the band is becoming more and more aware of its mortality, and as strong as they sound now, they know they're in the latter portion of their career. Stubbornly refusing to go gentle into that good night, Iron Maiden has put together the best late-career run metal has ever seen, and the only thing we can hope is that it lasts for at least one more album. Considering how defiantly they're raging against the dying of the light, chances are it'll happen.