Thursday, September 1, 2011

Iron Maiden Commentary - Part Ten

The X Factor (1995)

This is where everything changes for Iron Maiden. Aside from the arrival of new singer "Blaze" Bayley Cooke, the difference between Fear of the Dark and this album represents the largest and most drastic style change in the band's history. The foundation for all the band's future material is laid here.

Most people expected the departure of Bruce Dickinson to mean the end of the band altogether. All this was also happening during the era of grunge, meaning that Steve Harris and the others had to answer obnoxious questions from music journalists about whether or not metal was still relevant. Fools, everyone knows you can't kill the metal! Still, Iron Maiden had the odds seriously stacked against them so it's pretty amazing how good this album is. Defying all expectations, The X Factor is a huge and powerful album with eleven great songs. The overall tempo of the music is slower than what Maiden fans were used to, and often began with lengthy, gentle introductions. Thematically, it goes into some very dark places, with songs about war, rage, depression and adaptations of some well-known cynical works of art.

I think this is seriously one of Maiden's best albums, but it won't ever get the respect it deserves. A huge part of the fandom never forgave Blaze for not being Bruce. Even now, idiots on YouTube will make claims that "Blaze has NO range." This is obviously bullshit - Blaze is a baritone where Bruce is a tenor, so what they mean is "Blaze can't hit the same high notes as Bruce." This is true, but honestly tenors like Bruce (and me) have an awful hard time with the kind of low notes Blaze hits in songs like "Fortunes of War." Part of the resentment had less to do with the content written for Blaze and more with live performances where the differences between the two singers became an issue regarding older songs. One time, Blaze was even spat on by a fan for his rendition of "The Trooper."

Still, Maiden fans who aren't whiny little morons will be very pleasantly surprised by The X Factor. It blows away the last two albums and charts an exciting new course for the band.

"Sign of the Cross,"
a massive 11-minute epic about the Spanish Inquisition, lets you know right away that this album is serious business. Opening with a Gregorian-sounding choir, this song boasts great riffs, furious solos, loads of atmosphere and a chorus perfectly tailored to Blaze's range. The structure is almost identical to a very early Maiden epic, "The Phantom of the Opera." Both start with some verses and choruses and the final chorus is separated from the rest by a huge instrumental section. This song conjures up an amazing amount of pure menace and listeners will probably be glad they weren't alive during the Inquisition.

"Lord of the Flies" is based on the famous William Golding novel of the same name, and its dim view of humanity is perfect fodder for this album. God knows Golding's thesis about the tribal nature and brutality of children has been well driven home by school shootings and the persistence of brutal bullying kids experience while growing up. This song is reasonably popular within the fandom for its exotic riff and catchy chorus, plus the lyrics display an acute understanding of the book's themes and symbolism. Steve's English teacher was definitely doing a good job. I don't think it's one of the stronger songs on the album, but that's not an insult with an album like this one. I do really like the sing-along part before the last chorus, though.

Blaze teamed up with the band's other relatively new member, guitarist Janick Gers, to write the masterful "Man on the Edge," a blistering song that I think can stand with some of Iron Maiden's finest material. It's tough not to relate to the story - a man going through some tough times encounters a lot of bullshit in one day and just...snaps. The lyrics chillingly state that the protagonist's violent rage is "a glimpse of the future." Hard to argue with that. Has the quality of life for your average person gotten better or worse since 1995? All the instruments are in top form and the solos are great. No wonder this song remained a live favorite for many years after the album came out.

"Fortunes of War" is one of two emotional, slow-moving dirges on the album that deal with post-war trauma. If classics like "Run to the Hills" or "The Evil that Men Do" gallop, this song marches. It's definitely not in any hurry, but it's power will sink in after a few listens. If I have any complaints about this song, it's that I wish it was easier to sing along with. Blaze hits some seriously low notes during this chorus. Oh well, just my limitations as a tenor.

Don't be fooled by the very soft, gentle introduction to "Look for the Truth." After about 90 seconds of building tension, this song just explodes. It never gets especially fast, but it is seriously epic. The song is one of Blaze's better vocal performances - he does a great job with the intro and his "Oh-oh-ohs" are infectious. Lyrically, it's one of The X-Factor's only tracks that is at least a little optimistic. A man summons up his courage and faces his worst fears in an effort to find the "truth" about himself and perhaps the world around him.

"The Aftermath" is the album's other lumbering epic about the horrors of war. The two songs are probably a little too similar, and listeners may have a hard time telling them apart at first. Still, there are differences. While "Fortunes of War" did not specify any particular war, this song mentions mud, rain, barbed wire and mustard gas, suggesting World War I as a setting. In terms of lyrics, I think this one comes out ahead. Aside from detailing a soldier's individual suffering, it asks tough questions about the world as a whole. "After the war, left feeling no one has won." It's really heavy, but honestly a song with this kind of theme should be. World War I would prove to be a very fertile subject for Iron Maiden...just wait until we get to the Dance of Death entry.

After that comes the tear-jerking "Judgment of Heaven," a deeply moving song with mysterious lyrics. It paints a frank picture of depression and regret, but I'm not sure it's meant to bring down the listener. The riffs are actually upbeat, Blaze lets out a few triumphant-sounding yells and the light synth in the chorus evokes hope. I just have never been able to figure out if the "judgment" the narrator is waiting for will be a good or bad one. Maybe he doesn't know either. Still, this is a very powerful song...the kind that can make a huge difference to a troubled listener if he or she hears it at the right time. As one internet commenter puts it - "I hear this and I know I have to go on, no matter what."

"Blood on the World's Hands" is the only song on the album that clunks a little bit. It chastises the world's most powerful nations for being indifferent to the suffering in lesser-developed countries, but the in-your-face lyrics and Blaze's scolding delivery bring it dangerously close to unintentional humor territory. That said, there's plenty to recommend about it. Steve Harris pulls off a very impressive acoustic bass intro, and the song as a whole has an effective apocalyptic vibe.

Iron Maiden and Apocalypse Now is the match proposed by "The Edge of Darkness," and damn they go well together. This song does a great job conjuring up the iconic images of the film - If you've seen it, it's hard not to imagine helicopters against the sunset of Vietnam or a man slowly rising out of a pool of water in the dark. The lyrics encompass the film's plotline nicely and even incorporates dialogue from the film. Check out Blaze's uh, interesting, pronounciation of "extreme prejudice."

"2 A.M." is a bleak, beautiful song that might be too much for some listeners. Unlike "Judgment of Heaven," there's no hint of hope to go along with this tale of depression and the futility of life. The solos on this song are probably the album's best - they do an amazing job conjuring up the despair in the lyrics. Probably not a song that would work very well live, but truly sad songs often have a lot of beauty in them and that's definitely the case here.

The album's final song, "The Unbeliever," is hard to digest at first. It's a pretty progressive song with a lot of unusual rhythms thrown in. The narrator has lost his religious faith and it's unclear whether he actually misses it or not, but I get the sense the song is highly personal for Steve and Janick, who wrote it. It's got a nice middle section with great drumming from Nicko and the chorus is absolutely blistering. The band seems to be aware of its power, since the chorus is repeated a great many times. An interesting ending to a complex album.


Overall Strengths: A great album made even more impressive by the adversity faced by the band during this time in their history. A very consistent set of tracks filled with emotion and creativity. Picking only four tracks to recommend was tough.

Overall Weaknesses: I'm not sure if this is necessarily a weakness, but the album is very different from what Maiden fans are used to and can be a lot to take in at first. This one requires a lot of patience to appreciate.

Recommended Tracks
Sign of the Cross
Man on the Edge
Look for the Truth
2 A.M.

Next: The experimentation continues on "Virtual XI."

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