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Alchemy Of A Second Golden Age: Iron Maiden's Senjutsu Reviewed
Jeremy Allen , September 10th, 2021 08:46

Jeremy Allen gets to grips with Iron Maiden's epic but not sprawling seventeenth album

There was nothing inevitable about the 21st century renaissance of Iron Maiden. Following the departure of the talismanic Bruce Dickinson in 1993 which ended the band’s decade-long “Golden Era”, the heavy metal giants struggled to stay relevant during the rest of the 90s, entering what looked like a prolonged death rattle. Blaze Bayley of Wolfsbane was a worthy replacement, but he wasn’t Bruce Almighty. After six long years, Dickinson returned, the prodigal son. Even his own solo touring band thought it was his destiny, with one member telling him to return to the mothership: “The world needs Iron Maiden,” he said, earnestly. That may well be true, but reformations are dicey and going back to what you know can be perilous. The announcement was greeted with jubilation by fans, but there was still some tittering at the back.

Then something extraordinary happened. Maiden roared back into life in 2000, rejuvenated, recalibrated and reanimated. With 12th studio album Brave New World, it seemed as if nothing had been lost in the interregnum, and in reuniting, something had also been gained. Older and more experienced, they prowled with the same menace, exhibited the same hunger. Remarkably, more than two decades later, they’ve managed to keep complacency at bay, still performing superhuman feats of virtuosity at a breakneck gallop, with no discernible chinks in their armour. The subsequent five studio albums strike the perfect balance between giving fans what they want, and augmenting what they do by bringing new ideas to the table, and as their new album attests, it’s not all sonic pile driving either.

Senjutsu is the band’s most panoramic album yet. Weighing it at an impressive 82 minutes, it’s only slightly shorter than 2015’s The Book Of Souls, both of which are double albums. Named after a Japanese word meaning ​'tactics and strategy’, there’s a loose far eastern influence, but thankfully there’s no embarrassing dodecaphonic scales or awkward orientalism, aside from arguably the cover art. Steve Harris introduced the concept, but it’s not adhered to with any discipline. Familiar themes arise in the shape of battle, whether with samurai swords or Spitfires. The change of scenery actually makes for a welcome change, though Dickinson breaks out the Churchillian language on the war ballad ‘Darkest Hour’, waxing about black dogs and blood on the beaches. It was only a matter of time.

Senjutsu and The Book of Souls are really twin totems of Iron Maiden in the modern age, ambitious in scope and unrelenting in execution. Both were recorded in the band’s present studio of choice, adjacent to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which is clearly a productive and inspirational setting for them. For both, the songs were only rehearsed briefly before they entered the Guillaume Tell Studio with longtime producer Kevin “Caveman” Shirley, bringing all the raw excitement that comes with new material. The album was actually laid down in 2019 – even Iron Maiden are not immune to the disruptive nature of a pandemic, meaning that six years later, fans get one indomitable double record after another.

Steve Harris, stalwart bassist and de facto chief, took a step back from his songwriting duties on The Book Of Souls due to a bereavement. He was still onboard of course, but for the first time, other members of the band began contributing without his involvement. That new array of contributions has brought added dimensions to the Maiden sound, and on Senjutsu again, the songs come from everywhere.

Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith appear to have formed a songwriting partnership that’s integral to the progressive new Maiden, and Smith might well be the band’s secret weapon. His return in 1999 didn’t warrant the same attention as Dickinson’s, but that augmentation we spoke of is in no small part to the fact his original replacement – Janick Gers – remained in place. Indeed, some of the inventive guitar work on ‘The Writing On The Wall’ between the two men seems to seesaw between Aerosmith riffs and Arabic-style ululations, demonstrating a freedom that surely wouldn’t have been permitted in the 80s. ‘Lost In A World’, too, has a subtle, hypnotic north African vibe that’s hard to place, though it swaggers and surprises all the same. ‘Days Of Future Past’, meanwhile, has a definitive groove that would have seemed sacrilegious in the golden era. And Dickinson’s voice too, is deeper and more abrasive, with what appears to be an even more defined range. And you believe him when he growls “in anger” on ‘Hell On Earth’.

Harris hasn’t let these new songwriting factions have it all their own way. He’s back with a vengeance, having written four fifths of side two. The beauty of a double album is that you can do pretty much everything you want, and when you’re as fastidious as Iron Maiden, you can pull it off too. His songs are epic of scale and not for the faint hearted, and supplies may need to be sent out for when embarking on ‘The Parchment’, a 12-minute odyssey that will sound more familiar to the ears of longtime fans. ‘Death Of The Celts’, weighing in at a more slender ten minutes, delights in its own Tap-esquerie, and with all of these epics lined up alongside each other, they thankfully take enough requisite detours to ensure it never becomes ponderous.

There’s plenty to get through, but like 17th century Dutch masters, the band have offered up another hefty classic. “A strange thing about late-period Maiden,” wrote Harry Sword in this very organ in 2017, “it's simultaneously bigger and more preposterously grandiose than any of their 1980's 'classic' material – but also rawer and heavier.” There’s a case to be made, and has been made – by Sword and others – that Iron Maiden’s hallowed “Golden Era” is no longer the ten years from 1982 onwards, but actually the last two decades. To compare and contrast is like pitting legendary sports teams of bygone eras against modern teams with all the scientific advances and dietary improvements that enhance performance – the splashy, plucky, punky ‘Phantom Of The Opera’ sounded like the fiery abyss when Daley Thompson was advertising Lucozade in 1985, but in terms of sonic viscosity, it is no match for the widescreen HD of the new stuff. Dexterity is not always a good look in music, but with a band like Maiden, it’s part of the very fabric of what they are. And now, after everything that’s happened, the world needs Iron Maiden more than ever. No tittering at the back.

Senjutsu is out now on Parlophone