The Final Frontier
, August 11th, 2010 07:58
There was much murmuring when the title of Iron Maiden's 15th studio album was revealed. The Final Frontier. Were one of the most successful British bands of all time - heavy metal or otherwise - about to knock it on the head? Especially with founder Steve Harris always saying 15 albums was always his target.
As it happens, and on this evidence, thankfully not. The title - tied into some running space related themes - was merely a bit of a lark. Maiden are at a peak both creatively and in terms of their ever growing, ever youthful fan base, and probably enjoyed the kerfuffle it caused. And good for them; there really can't be many bands around who, after 30 years, could still cause such a huge wave of disappointment if they decided not to produce any new material. Most are happy (and God love em’) playing the hits while new releases are met with a distinct 'if we must...' rolling of the eyes by fans and media alike. Maiden still create an air of expectation around the world that few can match; not just tolerated, but genuinely anticipated.
The true mark of how Maiden do things is the way they balanced the release of 2006’s superbly dark A Matter of Life And Death and the growing cry for classic era Maiden by touring both. Playing the whole of A Matter of Life and Death to packed arenas and stadiums followed by taking the classic Somewhere (Back) In Time tour with all its history and in all its detail to the same places. Different approach, same result: crowds revelling in the almost obscenely majestic spectacle of it all. A band who can still sprint around the stage like teenagers. How men of a certain age weighed down by 30 years of touring and some pretty serious beer consumption have this much energy is a mystery in itself; I've run two London Marathons, but they’re ridiculous.
The Final Frontier kicks off with a blinding scurry of futuristic noise which grinds and pummels the record into life and leads into the stunningly Maideness’ of the opening few tracks. Sounding more alert and wide-eyed than ever, they lurch from the intro into the title track, a tale of a space explorer desperate to say goodbye to his family as he enters the unknown, into one last grand adventure. First single 'El Dorado' is summed up beautifully by someone I know thus: "burn in… gallop… burn out… textbook Maiden". And that’s also what we get through 'Mother of Mercy' with its bold strokes - a long, lean intro which draws us into a story of warfare before cannon fire drums and the familiar chug of Steve Harris bass take hold. Again, it’s Iron Maiden to its core, which isn’t to say predictable, or uninteresting - this is just exceptional Maiden. A band doing what they do best and what we, in turn, crave from them.
'Coming Home' is a song people will hang their own meanings on, but is ostensibly about returning to the heart of your family, your friends, whether that be after a world tour – a tour of duty – or anything that keeps you away from home. Look no further for your ultimate 2011 beers-aloft moment: anthemic sing-a-longs do not get bigger, brassier or better. Bruce Dickinson manages to have a twinkle in his eye and at the same time radiate incredible sincerity. When he sings about returning to ‘Albions land’, he means it. It's nostalgic on every conceivable level and, in the hands of another band, could have sounded trite or lightweight, but injected with that certain something Maiden possess sounds incredibly meaningful. 'The Alchemist' also harks back to classic Maiden – tall tales wrapped up in bombastic, furiously paced delivery and tied together with immense riffs.
So far, so very very good – five tracks of unequivocal Iron Maiden. But this is where the listener really earns their reward. 'Isle of Avalon', all nine minutes plus of it, starts in a folky, progressive mould with an intro both delicate and dark, storm clouds (literally) rumbling overhead. The way Maiden have laced these elements together with their usual fearless approach is something to behold. Killer riffs once more prevail, evoking Floyd in the way they layer and build again and again before dropping back into what feels like a tight jam with an instinctive burst of fire-power; peaks upon peaks, waves upon waves.
'Starblind' is perhaps the track on the album that falls somewhere between the different approaches. Though disjointed and at times off kilter it still displays some exceptional musicianship and some sweeping key changes. 'The Talisman', meanwhile, also starts with a gentle, acoustic guitar and Bruce sounding like the master of myths and legends, telling stories to fellow seafarers while they blow the froth off another ale - holding court until the music kicks in once more with a savage, almost unparalleled urgency as Harris and McBrains' incredible rhythm section once again explodes into life. 'The Man Who Would Be King' is another larger-than-life legend, with its constantly climbing, ever upward riffs, verging in parts on the psychedelic but reigning itself back in just in time for more no-nonsense, heads-down, foot-on monitor-assaults.
The end flourish is the 11-minute, Harris penned 'When The Wild Wind Blows' - a tenderly crafted, deceptively complex song which tells the sad tale of a couple who are so convinced an earthquake is actually a nuclear explosion, and fearing the fallout, poison themselves. It's a track that's sure to divide opinion, but what's clear is that most bands would kill for an ability to take their music by the scruff of the neck in this way, with an air of confidence that only comes with experience.
Iron Maiden, then. 15 albums and still a relevant force. Still producing records and live shows that keep them, deservedly, at the very top of their game. The Final Frontier takes time, it take effort, but it's overwhelmingly brilliant. They haven’t just served up the easy option - that would have been boring for us and, more importantly you feel, boring for them. It’s a great time to be an Iron Maiden fan – but then again, it always has been...