Thursday, 17 March 2011

CD Review: The X Factor, by Iron Maiden (1995)


Blaze Bayley accepted one of the all-time the most thankless jobs in heavy metal: replacing Bruce Dickinson as vocalist of Iron Maiden. Dickinson had defined the sound of metal for more than decade; Bayley had very large shoes to fill.

It would have taken a very special talent to succeed, and Bayley was game to try but unfortunately not up to the task. On The X Factor, his first Maiden album, he never sounds comfortable. On his lower register he gets swallowed up by the music. On the high notes he sounds strained. He simply cannot maintain a hold on long high notes, resulting in some tortuous moments.

Steve Harris, who wrote or co-wrote all the songs, must have known what he was dealing with. The band gets around the handicap on vocals by ensuring that every song has long, soaring instrumental sections in which guitarists Janick Gers and Dave Murray, with energetic support from Nicko McBrain's drum set, take centre stage for prolonged periods. And this is the paradox of The X Factor: yes, the vocals are poor, but a lot of the music is terrific, easily the band's most creative work since Powerslave in 1984.

The tracks on The X Factor are long, rich and feature slow, thoughtful build-ups, extensive, expressive and unrepressed melodic sections with expansive guitar work, and complex, maze-like structures. This would become Maiden's standard template, and it is born here, resulting in an impressive album filled with quality music. The effortless terrific music of the youthful band from the earliest albums is long gone: The X Factor is when Maiden started working hard to create mature solid metal, perhaps not as accessible as the earlier material but certainly engaging.

Opener Sign Of The Cross, at over 11 minutes, is an epic composition, with a slow, doomsday intro that lasts for more than two minutes, followed by a grand melody energized by some of McBrain's best ever work on the drums. When Gers and Murray finally take over for the hauntingly restrained guitar work, the countryside has been reduced to blackened ashes with just dark shadows scurrying in the distance.

Fortunes Of War is the other great track on the album, and it follows the same general formula. The guitar solo work by Gers is colossal, dominant without being showy. Most of the other tracks on The X Factor have a lot to offer without necessarily being classics.

The X Factor is a transitional album in many respects, Maiden demonstrating a resiliency to evolve and adapt, an attribute that would contribute to their re-birth when metal was rediscovered half a decade later.


Band:

Steve Harris - Bass
Blaze Bayley - Vocals
Dave Murray - Guitar
Janick Gers - Guitar
Nicko McBrain - Drums


Songlist (ratings out of 10):

1. Sign Of The Cross - 10
2. Lord Of The Flies - 6
3. Man On The Edge - 7
4. Fortunes Of War - 9
5. Look For The Truth - 7
6. The Aftermath - 8
7. Judgement Of Heaven - 8
8. Blood On The World's Hands - 7
9. The Edge Of Darkness - 8
10. 2 A.M. - 8
11. The Unbeliever - 7

Average: 7.73

Produced and Mixed by Steve Harris and Nigel Green.
Engineered by Nigel Green.

All Ace Black Blog Heavy Metal CD Reviews are here.


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