The British metal legends defy the odds yet again on their strongest album in 18 years.
Following a decade-long period during which Iron Maiden sounded increasingly tired and old, from the abysmal No Prayer For the Dying, to the tepid Fear of the Dark, to the pair of commercial busts with singer Blaze Bayley (1995's The X Factor and 1998's Virtual XI), the metal legends got a new lease on life after welcoming singer Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith back into the fold in 1999. After the spirited reunion disc Brave New World had fans ecstatic in 2000, the 2003 follow-up Dance of Death showed small hints of that mid-'90s rut starting to settle in again, and despite the fact that it was still a strong record, it was clear that if the band wanted to keep the positive momentum going, they would need a serious fire lit under their collective arses. And thanks to a cantankerous celebrity wife, they got just that.
At the end of a very contentious 2005 Ozzfest that had the band stealing the show on a nightly basis, the boys in Maiden went head to head with Sharon Osbourne on the last night of the summer tour, the band performing while being pelted with eggs and having their power cut by the woman and her minions. Professionals that they are, they valiantly kept a cool head amidst such childish antics and the publicity that followed, and that same defiant determination has carried over onto their 14th studio album, A Matter of Life and Death. A dark, raw, muscular 70-plus minute epic, it's their most focused record since 1988's Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, one that eschews crowd-pleasing anthems in favor of massive, sprawling compositions that, while unlikely to win many new fans, will certainly please the old ones to no end. It's the sound of a bunch of wily veterans discovering another gear, and on this record, it's full throttle all the way.
War-related themes has always been prevalent on Iron Maiden's recordings, but while such early classics as "The Trooper", "Where Eagles Dare", and "Aces High" are energetic accounts of various battles, A Matter of Life and Death, as the title indicates, follows the example set by Dance of Death standout "Paschendale", taking a considerably more philosophical approach to the subject. Instead of seeing things primarily in black and white, the band, showing their maturity, don't so much condemn the powers that be as question them, empathizing with the many helpless pawns in the global game. "Everybody has a different way to view the world," sings Dickinson on the propulsive opening track "Different World". "It's not too late to learn."
The dignified, melodic groove of "These Colours Don't Run" expresses admiration for those who serve their country, no matter which country (and includes that tried-and-true unifying touch, the pub chant), but is quick to emphasize the pointlessness of it all: "For the passion, for the glory, for the memories, for the money / You're a soldier, for your country what's the difference, all the same." "Brighter than a Thousand Suns" touches on the development of the atomic bomb ("Whatever would Robert have said to his God / About how he made war with the sun?"), and is highlighted by the eerie melodies of the intro and a flamboyant solo by guitarist Janick Gers.
Bassist Steve Harris's "For the Greater Good of God" is an effective meditation on the futility of war in the name of a higher power, and just as the song's structure threatens to sound as predictable as his more average compositions, it's rescued by a majestic chorus, Dickinson's cries of, "Please tell me now what love is," underscored by orchestral keyboard flourishes. "The Legacy" closes the album on a grandiose note, and is arguably the best song Gers has ever written for the band, incorporating elements of folk, '70s progressive rock, and symphonic metal into the classic Maiden sound, the lyrics addressing man's lust for power at the cost of innocent lives, quixotically hoping for a happy ending, only to come to the grave, realistic conclusion that that won't happen anytime soon.
The D-Day tribute "The Longest Day" ranks as one of Iron Maiden's very best war epics, but unlike their more famous work, this track shows tremendous restraint, its opening section offering vivid lyrical depictions of the American, British, and Canadian soldiers waiting to do battle on the shores of France ("These wretched souls puking, shaking fear / To take a bullet for those who sent them here"), the descriptions of enemy fire echoed by drummer Nicko McBrain's thunderous fills. After memorably describing the slow march toward the beach amidst the Nazi onslaught ("To the edge of the wire and we rush with the tide / The water is red with the blood of the dead"), the song takes an interesting turn in its second half, Dickinson's howls giving way to an instrumental piece, the mood captured well by an ominous breakdown, followed by a pair of expressive solos by Smith and Dave Murray.
Musically, A Matter of Life and Death benefits from its simplicity, the band sticking to its strengths, their oft-duplicated formula still managing to sound fresh. "The Pilgrim" possesses an old school swagger that hearkens back to the band's early days, Dickinson is in terrific form on the galloping "Lord of Light", and the acoustic-tinged ballad "Out of the Shadows" is reminiscent of both 1981's Killers album and Dickinson's much-loved solo tune "Tears of the Dragon". Most compelling is the enigmatic "The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg" which, after a two-minute intro that borders on Jethro Tull at its most tedious, launches into one of the biggest, muscular Maiden riffs in recent memory. Incredibly, the trio of guitarists stick to the riff, Harris keeps his bass low (as opposed to his usual upper-register melodies), and McBrain, who delivers one of his best performances to date on the album, shows great restraint on drums. The loose, jam-like feel of the song, is a significant departure from the band's usual tendency to complicate things, and accordingly, sounds surprisingly fresh.
Producer Kevin Shirley has brought an air of spontaneity to the last three Iron Maiden albums, and the immediacy is palpable on A Matter of Life and Death, the punchy, unmastered mix suiting the live-off-the-floor music perfectly. It's not unlike Killing Joke's recent Hosannas From the Basements of Hell, in that neither album attempts to reinvent the wheel, each band content with delivering a product that will make their legions of fans happy, and consequently, both records are roaring successes. The six members of Iron Maiden might all be in their fifties, but the second wind they've discovered during these last seven years is something to behold, a testament to the ageless quality of their music and heavy metal in general.