IRON MAIDEN – THE FINAL FRONTIER (EMI 2010)

REVIEW BY VILLE KRANNILA / DECEMBER 2010

You have to respect Iron Maiden for retaining their stadium status in the year 2010, when so many of their contemporaries have been forced to down scale their tours. But as always, this comes with a price tag and while they have attained a strong, younger following, Maiden’s creative decisions have often times disappointed a long time fan.

“Brave New World” in 2000 was a very strong comeback-effort that especially in light of the albums that followed has risen to a much higher status that what it was originally when released. They followed it with the “Dance Of Death”, which was a huge disappointment featuring mostly second rate material. “A Matter Of Life And Death” in 2006 was a marginal improvement but still plagued by overdrawn arrangements, unnecessary progressive overtones and uneven song writing. Four years have passed since then and Maiden among other things had completed massively successful “Somewhere Back In Time” world tour that saw them revisiting classic “Powerslave”-set and songs. One would hope this had a positive creative influence on the band and would focus them on writing catchier, more to the point material. Or simply good heavy metal songs.

“The Final Frontier’s” 76-minute length is already a sign to worry about. But bravely we delve deeper into the record and wade through it track by track.

The Final Frontier

The intro is unbelievable. To say it’s bad is a massive understatement. Adrian Smith probably demoed it really quickly and as a joke. His mouth must have dropped when Steve Harris decided to put it out and even open the bloody record with it. Over four minutes of digital noise ending with Bruce Dickinson’s corny vocals. It sounds like a demo from Dickinson’s solo album “Skunkworks” or any of its mediocre b-sides. Come to think of it, even the b-sides were better. I cannot tell you much about it, since I immediately edited it out and burned a copy of the record without it. So I only listened to it once. Once was enough.

Title track follows with intro guitar riff ripping off Kiss’ “Magic Touch”. However, this one is pretty solid opener. A basic rocker with quite simple riffs and solos, the chorus is repeated a bit too many times as usual with latter day Maiden but overall “The Final Frontier” is a promising start. Better than the opening tracks from two previous albums at least.

El Dorado

The first single. It opens with crash-ending which is interesting at least. The verses have Bruce Dickinson singing in talking-style, it points to his solo stuff and just as before I don’t like this in context of Maiden. From “Dance Of Death” onwards Dickinson has inserted his own style into the songs, which more or less take over the song from Maiden. This wouldn’t be a problem but when the song structure and arrangement is Iron Maiden, Bruce’s vocals clash with it badly. On “El Dorado” this isn’t as distracting as on some other tracks from the past, although when we get to chorus it raises a smile. A more than little rip off from Bruce’s “Darkside Of Aquarius” appears here.

The best part of the song comes at roughly 3:30 onwards all the way through the guitar solos. A classic Maiden arrangement that is familiar but still sounds good! Also solos by the three amigos are all great, the bass part by Harris infectious and I’ve grown to like the guitar riff which introduces another round of verses. The ending is perfect too. This has definitely grown on me since the first listen, the song is about 1-2 minutes too long and like I said I dislike Dickinson’s vocals and melodies on verses. Otherwise this one’s a solid number.

Mother Of Mercy

Musically we’re back into more traditional sounding Maiden. Slow beginning, a relatively short and nice build-up, some power chords and a semi-decent riff. The verse is somewhat boring, Bruce sings “I’m A Soldier Of War!” at the climax but the build-up doesn’t entirely work. You wait for the fast part but it never comes, same case on a lot tracks on this album. You have the two fast rockers but all the rest are almost all either mid-tempo or straight slow tunes. There are not any tempo changes on “Mother Of Mercy” either – not any major ones.

Then we’re onto chorus. Oh dear. The melody is nice actually but Bruce sings it WAY too high. It sounds like he’s killing the cat. He just cannot pull off a song like this anymore. I doubt they will play this live, after few listens the chorus starts to irritate me and since rest of the song isn’t anything special, this loses out to first two tracks in my ranking.

Coming Home

Fans have compared this to previous records “Out Of The Shadows”. “Coming Home” is clearly a Bruce Dickinson composition, so they are not totally wrong. Actually this one is a better track, but not much. The only thing memorable is the chorus which has a good melody line. Unfortunately everything else is very average. There’s no slow, acoustic beginning as the song takes on a more power ballad type of feeling. Regardless, you struggle to remember the arrangement afterwards. The chorus is ok though and is left ringing in your ear for a while.

The Alchemist

The fast rip roarer written by Janick Gers. People have compared this one to “Man On The Edge” – don’t quite get it though. There are some familiar elements but even more so to tracks like “The Mercenary” and “New Frontier.” The song has some tasteful guitar melodies and chorus isn’t half bad. Too bad it is the one song on the album that suffers greatly from the lifeless and dry production. Whereas a song like “The Mercenary” has crunching guitars, “The Alchemist” feels like it was recorded inside a plastic can. Thus the song is robbed of all its power. If producer Kevin Shirley had done his job, this would be the top track here. As it is, it loses to couple of other ones herein. The basic track is still a very solid, melodic up-tempo number.

Isle Of Avalon

Ok it’s time to go progressive. This tune sounds a lot like any number of songs from “A Matter Of Life And Death” – vocal melodies remind me of “These Colours Don’t Run” or “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns”. Also the arrangement is very close to previous Maiden record. And the chorus seems to be stolen from somewhere AMOLAD. I didn’t bother to check it out. The solo section soon follows and we are totally into old Yes territory. Adrian Smith’s lead work is the most progressive I’ve ever heard of him and what seems like several minutes are spent in the jamming zone. I don’t like it much, Maiden isn’t Yes, they are supposed to be a heavy metal band.

The best thing this time around is the last 20 seconds that sound like classic Maiden. Power chord ending ala “Rime Of The Ancient Mariner” or “Hallowed Be Thy Name.” Well, rest of “Isle Of Avalon” has some good stuff on it too but they should have removed half of the song (9 minutes, too long as usual) and leave out the middle prog jamming completely. Still cannot help feeling this one stinks of a somewhat mediocre song.

Starblind

Iron Maiden goes Jethro Tull. Yep even more than the previous track we are back in the progressive land of the 1970’s. Uriah Heep, ELP and so forth. Although most of the riffs and solos come in courtesy of Adrian Smith, I suspect it’s Steve Harris pulling most of the strings here. Along with obvious prog-parts, “Starblind” borrows heavily from Maiden’s own “Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son” and “Infinite Dreams” in particular. Swaying keyboards, the pompous arrangement, a massive chorus…Yes, we’re definitely in the SSOASS-territory as the song progresses.

The opening guitar riff is decent enough but the one at 4-minute mark is a huge let-down. Instead of crunching metal riff, Smith cranks out more Jethro Tull-dirge. I do like some of the progressive bands and Uriah Heep in particular are a great band, but come on…the chorus returns and off we go until the end. I have a hard time dealing with this number. On the other hand it’s not bad, the chorus is semi-nice and if you try to forget this is Iron Maiden, the song itself is epic enough. But somehow it leaves me totally cold, they try hard to get the Seventh Son-drama going but the emotion just isn’t there.

The Talisman

A first and only completely acoustic intro begins and we get more Uriah Heep- influence thrown in. This one could have been written by Ken Hensley instead of Janick Gers. Bruce sings over acoustic refrain softly and again we have shades of David Byron. It sounds good but unfortunately the thing is stretched out for much too long. This is Maiden’s original sin; the intro could and should have been cut before the 40-second mark. Instead it goes on for over 2 minutes and gets tedious to listen to.

Intro is quickly forgotten as the album’s greatest guitar riff begins. Thumbs up Janick! Unlike Smith’s prog warbling on “Starblind” and “Isle Of Avalon” this is definitely heavy metal guitar and for once, production works as well. The song structure is close to “A Matter Of Life And Death” again, but this time more akin to songs like “The Longest Day” where no progressive touch can be found. The chorus is the best on the whole album, it’s a far cry from “Wasted Years” but the bar has been dropped so I guess this is a as good as it gets. And it is good, no doubt about it. This is my contender for the best song on the album and definitely the best of the more epic tracks. If only they had cut 3 minutes out of it, it would have been perfect.

The Man Who Would Be King

Dave Murray’s contribution to the record begins with slow, ballad-influenced mood as we are used to by now. Keyboards and guitars support this part nicely and for once lasting roughly 1:30 this intro isn’t overlong (although I suppose it too could have been shorter). The fast part kicks in with VERY familiar rhythm. Maiden rip themselves off like there’s no tomorrow. I like the arrangement simply because it is the first (and only) fast paced one on all the epic tracks – but to be fair it is too old, used on several Maiden songs before.

The build-up on to verses – unlike the one on “Mother Of Mercy” – works better here. Too bad the chorus is a let-down and after the first round the song starts to go around in circles, never going anywhere. Dave’s solo ranks as the worst guitar playing on the whole album, just pointless doodling with awful progressive (seriously, this is too much already) sounds. Whatever atmosphere the early part of the song created, it’s now lost and gone. The first 3 minutes are ok, but rest 6 just unfinished crap, I’m sorry.

When The Wild Wind Blows

Fans have been going nuts with this track, claiming it is Iron Maiden’s greatest epic number. It’s been compared to “Alexander The Great” and other immortal album closers. So expectations were certainly sky high.

What is immediately clear is that another “Alexander” this is not. The song has maybe 2-3 minutes of really good stuff in it but actually lasts – you guessed it – 11 minutes! It’s the one solely Steve Harris-credited number and it’s obvious he’s suffering from the mammoth-disease once again. This one has grown on me the most after the first listen; the intro is straight out of “The X-Factor” and “Virtual XI” songbook, very similar to “The Clansman” for example. Bruce starts singing and the melodies have the same essence. The intro theme is too long; 2 minutes could have been clipped out. Second theme is much better and we move into “Dance Of Death” influenced guitar melodies. Solos are boring again, there’s no idea in any of them. The third theme is easily the best melody on the whole record, Dickinson sings with lower register which sounds menacing and very refreshing after overdoing on the screams earlier. After Gers’ mediocre solo and more DOD-melodies we go back to first theme. They have added wind sounds at the beginning and the end thus you get extra one minute length into it. Yes, they have this thing down very well.

This song has the best vocal melodies on the album and the middle riffing is probably the high point. However, they should have cut at least 4 minutes out of it and add a fast part after the mid-riffs. The song seems to demand it, yet it never comes. I still quite like this song even as it is; it loses to “The Talisman” but beats the other epics easily.

Overall impression

This album definitely needs several spins, after first listen I thought it was the worst crap Maiden has ever released. After grudgingly going through it over and over again, some songs do start to grow on you. “The Talisman” and “When The Wild Wind Blows” are solid epic numbers, “The Alchemist” is a solid rocker and “The Final Frontier” is ok. The worst song is “The Man Who Would Be King” which is mostly just useless. All the rest have some good parts, but also some totally forgettable stuff that merely raises them to ok status. And that intro (especially as it is stuck into same track with “The Final Frontier”) tends to ruin any listening experience from the start.

As you can tell from many of the individual song comments, at least 20 minutes should have been cut to make the songs tighter and more focused. On some of the tunes there seems to be 10 verses and Dickinson tries hard to sing as many words within one sentence as he can. This doesn’t sound very good, it’s forced and songs aren’t allowed to breathe (and end) naturally. Again quantity doesn’t equal quality. There should be someone behind the mixing desk putting a stop to it saying a point has been made, now cut the song. The production is another problem; generally I find it to be more lifeless and hollow than on any of the previous Maiden albums. Some fans might love it, but I simply don’t think it’s heavy enough.

At the end of day “The Final Frontier” does beat “Dance Of Death.” While DOD had only 2 or 3 good songs and several tunes as bad or even worse than “The Man Who Would Be King”, TFF is more solid, if really unspectacular album. Meanwhile I still prefer “A Matter Of Life And Death” over TFF. None of the songs on TFF are as good as “For The Greater Good Of God” or “The Longest Day”. All other Dickinson-fronted records are miles ahead of this one. I don’t know what to make of this, for any other band I’d put this in the shelf as average prog metal offering. However, Maiden with their classic albums and even “Brave New World” set the bar so high, this one still remains a big disappointment. If they ever record another album, more realistic goal would be to just top this one. And for me personally, that would be enough. While they continue to be incredibly successful it’s obvious as a recording band, their golden days are far behind.

2k

ironmaiden_tff

1.Satellite 15…The Final Frontier
2. El Dorado
3. Mother Of Mercy
4. Coming Home
5. The Alchemist
6. Isle Of Avalon
7. Starblind
8. The Talisman
9. The Man Who Would Be King
10. When The Wild Wind Blows

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About Ville Krannila