The Final Fun Tier
The release of a new Iron Maiden album has almost become more than simply music. Along with Priest and the other elder statesmen of the genre, every new release is an affirmation of the continuing health of a beloved musical institution and, by extension, metal itself. For a metalhead a new Maiden album should be greeted with the sort of rapturous masturbation usually reserved for a teenage boy that’s just flicked over to babestation for the first time, and so it was as a loyal acolyte that I made the pilgrimage to HMV to pick up a copy of The Final Frontier, Iron Maiden’s 15th opus.
Like every other fan expecting the galloping, rabble-rousing, boner-inducing call-to-arms that is a patented Iron Maiden album opener I did a double take when the echoing atmospherics of Satellite 15 started flowing from my speakers, in case someone had accidentally placed the wrong disc in the case. As it segues into the more familiar yet still fairly reserved title track it is abundantly clear that this is another step deeper into Maidens post-Brave New World brave new world, which is one where they feel no pressure to conform to fan expectation. Even lead single El Dorado eschews many traditional Maidenisms in favour of a distinctly prog-style intro and classic rock-sounding riffs, but it still has a chorus that will be in your brain days later, whether you like it or not.
Mother of Mercy follows, where the folk-tinged side of the band that has been emerging over the past few releases is far more clearly established, Bruce Dickinson’s weathered vocals adding a gravitas and an edge of desperation and urgency to the lyrics that elevates the song far above its purely instrumental merits. The same can be said for quite a few songs on ‘…Frontier’; as the song lengths grow and the once bountiful hooks that formed the backbone of their songs become fewer and further between, I find the vocal lines and delivery taking on a far more prominent role in the listening experience. Where the vocals were once carried along by the fast-flowing river of musical bluster, they now have room to weave and lead the way as on Coming Home, an expansive and uplifting track that should be a live favourite, and most prominently on the introductions to album highlight The Man Who Would Be King and classic Harris-penned epic closer Where the Wild Wind Blows, complete with emotional, emotive lyrics and melodies along the lines of Blood Brothers from 2000.
That these two standouts are the final tracks on the album illustrates the way it gathers momentum throughout, hinging on the swashbuckling The Alchemist – whose verses sound more than a little like Man On The Edge – and sees the band really kicking into high gear for the first time on the album, propelled by Nicko’s snappy drumming, radiating an energy that players half his age would kill for. As its final notes ring out we are now firmly heading downhill into epic territory, ushered in with the progressive Isle Of Avalon, complete with stunning mid-section shred work that showcases the triple guitar attack of modern Maiden to fine extent. Starblind sails effortlessly along with soaring vocals and driving, exhilarating riffs, while The Talisman is essentially a distillation of their last 4 albums into one 9 minute masterpiece, again taking in those folk influences in the intro, before bursting into life and galloping into the distance, not even slowing as they unleash a chorus that’s as good as anything they have ever put their name to.
This is Maiden the way they want to sound – the way they should sound. A band of wily veterans who realise they have nothing to prove in the speed or technicality stakes, just making the music that flows naturally from them, unspoiled by industry pressure or financial concerns. While they only occasionally sound like they used to in their spandex-worrying heyday, this is the logical conclusion to the Maiden journey, where the progressive, sprawling compositions are no longer consigned to life as album closers, instead the whole thing marches at a stately pace, unrushed, unfettered and unapologetically grandiose.
This might not be Iron Maiden’s last release, but if, as some suspect, it does turn out to be their swansong, the last thing we hear will be the sound of a band brimming with confidence producing music entirely on their own terms…Which is exactly the way Maiden should go out.