At various points during the last decade it was easy to wonder if Iron Maiden would ever get it right again. The Blaze Bayley experiment didn't pay off, a critical write off in terms of sales and credibility, even if the two albums 1995's 'The X Factor' and 1998's 'Virtual XI' weren't that bad, if never coming close to their 80's heyday. The signs had been there however. The end of the Bruce Dickinson era in 1993 seemed appropriate, given the shambles that was 1992's 'Fear Of The Dark', a tired album that displayed Dickinson's then dissatisfaction with his position in the band, wanting to go solo.
High hopes were held in 1999 when it was announced Dickinson and Adrian Smith (who originally played with Maiden from 1980-89) were returning to the fold, which hopefully would revitalise the band into creating something worthwhile again. When they did, 2000's 'Brave New World' wasn't it. I didn't care for it much then and my opinion hasn't changed. It seemed laboured and forced, dragging on interminably. After the world tour Maiden took some time off before commencing work on their next album, again with producer Kevin Shirley who handled production oN 'BNW'.
It wasn't certain what direction Maiden would take, but it was obvious it would contain more of the epic direction of the last ten years, as seven to eight minute tracks had become the norm with slow intros, a fast mid section, before reverting to the slower intro near the end. I admit to becoming bored with this style, as it was becoming repetitive, 'The Nomad' from 2000,perhaps the worst example, nine minutes of nothing. Readers of this site may even recall me writing Maiden off some time back, that's how disenchanted I was.
Not to worry.
'Dance Of Death' is undoubtedly Maiden's best album since 1990's raw 'No Prayer For The Dying'. Like Metallica's brilliant 'St Anger', Maiden seem to have rediscoeverd their songwriting touch and an overall sense of metal genius. Not once was I compelled to fast forward or skip tracks. I would venture to say this is one of the best albums of their long career, up there with 'Killers', 'Piece Of Mind' and 'Powerslave'. Finally Steve Harris (bass) seems to have nailed the formula he has toyed with for so long. The epic tracks are plentiful, six over six minutes, but they are more invigorating than ever, with mind bending passages, very ambitious in structure. One minute it's quiet, the next an explosion of noise, with the guitar trio of Smith, Janick Gers and Dave Murray making more of an impact than last time, each delivering some breakneck solos, with deceptive chord changes.
Happily there isn't a wasted track. Opening single 'Wildest Dreams' is one of Maiden's catchiest moments, an exuberant anthem I've found myself singing out loud more than once. Surely their most accessible single ever. This and the more modern 'Rainmaker' are the albums shortest tracks at under four minutes, almost an intro to the lengthy tracks which follow. 'Montsegur' is the most blatant traditional heavy metal throwback, the steaming riffs belonging to any of the previous three decades, galloping along at a nice pace. 'No More Lies' is the first impressive epic, followed by the title track, a winding eight minute journey, heavy on orchestration and unbelievable tangents. 'Gates Of Tmorrow' and 'New Frontier' are comparitively short at the five minute mark, both competent in heaviness and melody, an aspect which Maiden have never faulted in. The moving 'Paschedale' runs eight minutes also, a stirring World War One epic, so heavy in atmospherics you could place yourself in the battle. 'Age Of Innocence' features a chorus that suits modern rock radio, while retaining Miaden trademark sound, a good combination of old and new. Stunning still is closing track 'Journeyman', an acoustic number which brings to mind King Crimson or Kansas, very early 70's progressive rock. You can almost see a minstrel running through the forest......
Maiden have made a statement, one that says they aren't going anywhere, The long arena tours may be over, but clearly their creativity and musicianship isn't. Kevin Shirley said during production that Maiden are the last great rock band and he is indeed right. There isn't anyone making music this focused, or challenging. Metallica are in their circles, but their heaviness is far removed from this. Maideen haven't changed, but their quality control has tenfold. Their abilit to shift between an older and more contemporary sounds suggest they aren't scared to progress either, switching guitar tones to verify this newer aspect at odd moments.
'Dance Of Death' entered Billboard's Top 200 at number 18, their highest placing since 1992. In the U.K. it came in at no 2. Amazing statistics when you consider twenty three years ago their debut reached no 4. How many acts have the longetivity to acheive that? Maiden are, as many say, an institution. It's a relief to me that they are still able to produce music that pushes the boundaries. It's also hard to imagine teens picking up on this, it appears more geared towards adults, such is the complexity of the music, so structually ambitious as it is. Hats off to the band for this masterpiece. This time I'm looking forward to the next one.