It's been a pretty good past few years for the guys in Iron Maiden. After welcoming two prodigal members (singer Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith) back into the fold in 1999, the band, a sextet for the first time, staged a highly successful comeback tour in support of a voted-by-the-fans compilation (not to mention the cool Ed Hunter computer game). Then in 2000, they released Brave New World, one of the biggest surprises of that year, which, after 12 years of middling to mediocre studio output, proved there was still plenty of gas left in the tank. Then there was the huge world tour, culminating in a performance in front of a quarter million insane Brazilians in Rio de Janeiro in January 2001, which was recorded for both a double live album and a DVD release. In the past year, the band has put out two highly successful DVDs (the aforementioned Rock in Rio and the video compilation Visions of the Beast), yet another best-of compilation (their third), and a lavish box set of rare recordings. Plus, this past summer, they completed yet another triumphant tour of Europe and North America. Cap it all off with a single that has just debuted at No. Six on the UK charts, and another album that should debut highly as well, and you've got three and a half years that most younger bands can only dream of experiencing in their lifetime.
Dance of Death is Iron Maiden's 13th album, and it picks up immediately where the band left off on Brave New World -- which means, basically, more of what fans have come to expect from the band. Their trademark style of epic song lengths, orchestral riffs, powerful vocal melodies, and galloping rhythms is far from the coolest thing in contemporary music these days, but it's a tried-and-true formula that still works, and as bassist/primary songwriter/fearless leader Steve Harris knows all too well, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Only with this new album, though it cruises along comfortably, you still feel that perhaps it could have used a bit of a repair job.
This isn't a great, upper-tier Iron Maiden album, but it's not close to being their worst record, either. It's merely good. Not great, not awful, just good. Unlike the previous album, there's no knockout single like "The Wicker Man", no brilliant longer song like "Dream of Mirrors"; instead, we get a healthy dose of Maiden-By-Numbers, which, in itself, isn't too shabby at all. The first eight tracks, in their own subtle way, manage to hold their own and niggle their way into your head. "Wildest Dreams", the first single, is a straightforward, simple hard rock tune, reminiscent of their work on 1990's No Prayer For the Dying, but unlike that embarrassingly flaccid album (easily their worst), you hear passion in Bruce Dickinson's voice when he sings the fist-pumping chorus. "Rainmaker" is perhaps the album's nicest surprise, sounding like it came straight from the melodic progressive metal of 1988's Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. Co-written by guitarist Dave Murray, it could very well be his finest songwriting contribution in his 24 years with the band. And if that weren't enough, drummer Nicko McBrain gets his first ever songwriting credit in the 20 years he's been pounding the skins in the band; the result, the upbeat "New Frontier", bursts with energy.
As far as the lengthier songs go, several work well enough to hold your attention. "No More Lies", written by Harris, is a perfect showcase for Dickinson's powerful vocals, as his trademark "air raid siren" voice shows no sign of aging, sounding as commanding as ever. The title track is standard Iron Maiden fare, but the kind of stuff that Maiden fans never tire of hearing: haunting lyrics that maybe try a little bit too hard ("Let me tell you a story to chill the bones"), a mellow intro, a slow, gradual crescendo, and a climax of some deliciously bombastic, orchestral swirls of guitar harmonies and strings. And what would an Iron Maiden album be without a couple of historical epics? The heavy, rumbling "Montsegur" chronicles the 13th century eradication of the Cathars at the hands of the French, as all three guitarists (Murray, Adrian Smith, and Janick Gers) provide both a massive roar and some great harmony solos. However, it's Smith's own "Paschendale" that provides the album's strongest moment, made memorable by Smith's distinctive, solemn intro, as Dickinson, in that unmistakable way of his, spews line after line about the infamous World War One battle.
If Dance of Death ended right as "Paschendale" concluded, it would have been a very good album, but instead, it goes on for another 20 minutes, and by the time you get to the final track, you're basically tired after so many lengthy songs. The three songs that comprise the album's final third, "Face in the Sand", "Age of Innocence", and "Journeyman" aren't awful, but their mere ordinariness makes you wish producer Kevin Shirley and Harris had exercised more restraint. They seem to forget that classic albums like Piece of Mind and Powerslave were only around 50 minutes long.
Aside from that one complaint, and the fact that it doesn't match the quality of Iron Maiden's last studio album, Dance of Death has enough quality material to satisfy most Maiden fans. As bands like Metallica desperately try to change their sound to try to restore their lost credibility, these old veterans keep on doing their thing. Their best music may be behind them, but Iron Maiden still possesses such passion and energy, that they still easily outclass most of the younger nu-metal bands today, and you can't help but wish that they never, ever stop.