Iron Maiden 2021
Photo: Courtesy of Wilful Publicity

Iron Maiden Are As Exhilarating As Ever on ‘Senjutsu’

Iron Maiden’s Senjutsu is not without its share of bumps and plenty of familiar scenery, but after more than 40 years, the band are as exhilarating as ever.

Senjutsu
Iron Maiden
Parlophone / Warner
3 September 2021

In its 50-odd year history, heavy metal has not seen a late-career renaissance quite like what Iron Maiden have pulled off. Ever since welcoming erstwhile singer Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith back into the fold in 1999 – on the heels of a disastrous decade that saw the band’s album and concert sales crater – Maiden’s global popularity exploded in the 2000s. The band have taken full advantage of it with a series of tactics that got more audacious each year. The last 21 years have been masterfully executed, to be honest. If Iron Maiden aren’t staging an elaborate “throwback” tour to please the fans, they’re making new music that’s increasingly ambitious, then playing the hell out of that new material on the road. Up until 2019, things were going according to plan, but then the damned pandemic happened, forcing the Maiden juggernaut to a screeching halt along with the rest of the world.

By the end of 2019, Iron Maiden were at another commercial peak, having come off the wildly popular “Legacy of the Beast” world tour that featured the most ambitious stage production the band had ever put together. There were always hopes for a follow-up to 2015’s excellent triple-album opus The Book of Souls. But little did anyone know that the band quietly slipped into Guillaume Tell Studios in Paris with longtime producer and collaborator Kevin Shirley to record their 17th album in the spring of 2019. The record was in the can, ready for either a late 2019 or early 2020 release, but Covid-19 forced all plans to be scuttled as band management had to re-strategize amidst the uncertainty of the global pandemic.

Almost two and a half years after those Paris sessions were completed, Senjutsu is out, and the band have thrown down the proverbial gauntlet with their most uncompromising, sprawling collection of songs to date. Since 2000’s triumphant Brave New World, Iron Maiden’s sound and songwriting style has gotten bigger and more grandiose with each subsequent album. Senjutsu follows the pattern of The Book of Souls, containing ten sprawling, densely recorded tracks over 82 demanding minutes.

Old-timers yearning for the days of a 38-minute Iron Maiden album full of ferocity, bite, and hooks might as well keep living in the past because those days are long gone. If the 1980 self-titled debut was a lager that could be joyfully downed in an instant, Senjutsu is more like a quadruple Trappist ale. If you don’t take the time to savor it, you’ll be overwhelmed. Maiden albums require patience these days, and the more the listener allows Senjutsu to settle in, the more rewarding it becomes.

Historically a band with a penchant for blazing, barnstorming opening tracks (“Aces High”, “Invaders”, “The Wicker Man”), Iron Maiden have thrown plenty of experimental change-ups on their most recent albums, and the thunderous title track continues that new trend. Built around the thudding toms by drummer Nicko McBrain, the Samurai-inspired song ranks among the heaviest songs the band have ever recorded. Guitarists Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, and Janick Gers churn away, and Dickinson’s vocal melodies are more mournful than soaring. It’s a fascinating departure that sets the stage for the epic sonic adventure ahead.

The lead single “The Writing on the Wall” is another unexpected turn. Written by Smith and Dickinson, a songwriting team that often yields many of the band’s most immediately enjoyable moments on the record, it’s built around Smith’s groovy rhythm riff that hearkens back to the heavy blues-rock of early Fleetwood Mac and Wishbone Ash. Lyrically, Dickinson addresses humanity’s tendency to recoil against the idea of change, be it environmental or social, his lines hitting particularly hard in 2021. “A tide of change is coming, and that is what you fear / The earthquake is a-coming, but you don’t want to hear.”

Another Smith/Dickinson composition, “Lost in a Lost World”, is another exercise in a mid-tempo groove, reminiscent of the shorter tracks on 1988’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, while their epic “Darkest Hour” is the closest thing to a ballad on the album, a stirring depiction of Winston Churchill’s pivotal moment in World War Two. Iron Maiden have always excelled at songs that bring British military history to life, and “Darkest Hour” ranks as one of their best.

Speaking of warfare, the rousing, galloping “Stratego” puts a clever spin on the theme. Although invoking a board game seems like an exceedingly nerdy thing for a band to do – even a heavy metal band – it actually fits well. There’s a good chance that a person interested in history and military strategy started out playing Stratego as a child, and bassist Steve Harris brings that idea to vivid life atop the band’s most wickedly catchy hook since 2003’s “Rainmaker”. The song’s protagonist wants to learn (“How do you read a madman’s mind? / Teach me the art of war”), and you can picture their imagination transforming the game board into a vivid, relentless battleground. Dickinson’s voice soars atop the chugging riffs, and the memorable chorus – wonderfully accentuated by sly keyboard orchestration deep in the mix – cements the song’s status as an instant Iron Maiden classic.

But that’s barely half the album, which brings us to the meat of Senjutsu, or as yours truly likes to call it, The Trouble With ‘Arry. Since day one, the band’s founding member, boss, and overall visionary, Steve “’Arry” Harris, has been Iron Maiden’s chief creative force. His solo compositions dominate this album more than any in recent memory, to the tune of 44 whopping minutes. And as any fan knows by now, Harris has followed the same epic songwriting formula since “Sign of the Cross” in 1995, to a sometimes frustrating degree: extended bass-driven intro, subdued beginning, a long, steady crescendo, usually an explosive gallop featuring Celtic-inspired melodies, and a drawn-out, bass-driven outro. It’s incredibly predictable, but the result can be scintillating when it works, especially in a live setting. However, how well Harris’s four long compositions on Senjutsu work is the biggest hurdle on the record and asks a lot from listeners.

A sense of melancholy and world-weariness permeates “Lost in a Lost World”. Dickinson’s sexagenarian voice sounds appropriately haggard – a far cry from the towering “Stratego”, But the song is all about Harris’s lumbering, stop-start riff that anchors the track’s solo section during which Murray, Smith, and Gers let loose. It works decently as a down-hearted mood piece, but five minutes would have been better than a plodding nine and a half. Meanwhile, “Death of the Celts” is essentially a rewrite of 1998’s superior “The Clansman”. While it’s not necessarily a bad thing because Iron Maiden do a wonderful job injecting drama into the song, the pattern is familiar. It’s fun and bracing stuff, falling right into Maiden’s wheelhouse – the solo break at the seven-minute mark is exhilarating – but seasoned listeners will know what’s coming behind every curve, and that can feel distracting.

Thankfully Harris saves his best for the final 24 minutes of the album, delivering a pair of stunners that redeem his missteps. “The Parchment” is the longest track on Senjutsu, and one of the best, in which Harris returns to the Egyptian themes of 1984’s “Powerslave”, the main riff cleverly cut from the same cloth as Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and Rainbow’s “Stargazer”. It’s relentlessly heavy, brooding, gigantic as the band plays to its more theatrical side with equal parts energy and discipline, Dickinson turning in a powerhouse vocal performance. It’s not hard to picture this as a show-stopping concert centerpiece along the lines of “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” or “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

“Hell on Earth” is more plaintive in tone, starting with the gentle intro and segueing into a gentle gallop and the song’s central melody. Echoed by a chiming guitar line, Dickinson’s vocal hook is a sneakily memorable one, accentuated beautifully by Harris’s well-timed dynamic shifts. There’s a fitting sense of finality as Dickinson sings, rather joyfully, Harris’s sobering line, “On the other side I’ll see you again in heaven, far away from this hell on earth.”

Shirley’s production has been an increasingly polarizing issue with Maiden’s legions of fans. Those who disapprove of his off-the-floor style will not be happy with the thick, soupy, dry tone of Senjutsu, which only makes the record more challenging to digest. For decades Shirley has been an avowed opponent of slick studio trickery – it’s admittedly a miracle that the better tracks are accentuated with keyboards – preferring to capture a band’s live sound, much like the late Martin Birch did in the 1970s and 1980s. And to his credit, the rhythm section of Harris and McBrain sounds fantastic on this album. Although the mix is in stereo, the way Shirley entwines all six musicians together on Senjutsu gives the album a mono feel, creating a gigantic wall of sound with just enough room to allow the music to breathe. It sounds great on headphones, but through large speakers, that thick morass of a mix will indeed wake the neighbors. Adjust your EQ accordingly.

Half the fun of following Iron Maiden’s output over the last 21 years has been digging deep into each new album, whether raging to their latest galloping anthem or exploring those unwieldy epics with a careful ear. With Senjutsu, even if you’re listening via a streaming service, it’s best to take a vinyl-style approach: listen to a couple of tracks, take a few moments, listen to a couple more. Grab a beverage of your choice, sit back, and let the world’s greatest heavy metal band take you on yet another excursion. It’s not without its share of bumps and plenty of familiar scenery, but after more than 40 years, it’s as exhilarating as ever.

RATING 8 / 10
PopMatters