A Matter of Life and Death
History unfolds before us and the two-ton text that is Maiden slaps us across the face yet again to demand another thorough read with A Matter of Life and Death. Like any aging author whose most celebrated works comprise their respective genre’s canon, the men of Maiden seek not to sully but to cement the pride inherent in their name with each future release. It’s safe to say that while A Matter of Life and Death will never threaten the hierarchy of the Maiden discography, it proves that Dickinson and Co. are more than capable of carrying the metal torch with a firm grip and a twinkle in their eye this deep in their career.
If anything separates this release from the two that came before it, is its more pensive tracks. Maiden isn’t going straight for the throat. Songs like “Brighter than a Thousand Suns” and “For the Greater Good of God” are epic, and while Dickinson is as familiar with epics as any singer alive, he sounds more convincing here than on Brave New World and Dance of Death. Perhaps the drama of Ozzfest 2005 fired him up enough to give him a reason to sing lyrics as if they were his last words. I’ve always thought he sounds best when he softens his voice for the chorus. There’s something extremely eloquent and smooth in that tone he reaches. It’s vulnerable and open to criticism. It’s that tone that convinces me that even after the tour and merch profits and pilot paychecks, Dickinson is still the deserved voice and face of metal alongside Halford.
There will be moments where you’re like: “God, could this get any better? I am listening to the new MAIDEN!” The solos will send you into a half-shiver, half-seizure. You’ll be twitching enough to worry those around you, and if you’ve got roommates you better warn them ahead of time about singing a few of these choruses in the shower. It’s Iron Maiden, what did you expect? Catchiness? Check. Uberclimactic choruses? Check. Ballads? Check. Badass opener? Again, check. It’s all here. It’s not always consistent, but it’s here all the same. Sure, “Out of the Shadows” is pretty uninspired save for a select number of solos, and the entirety of “Lord of Light” is tepid at best, but most listeners won’t need every track to be stellar in order to make the album worth their money. While it initially turned me off, “The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg” is perhaps Maiden’s best song of the past 14 years. “These Colours Don’t Run” is fairly interesting, especially considering the lyrical content and Dickinson’s ability to give war, an entirely unoriginal concept in metal, a discernable reality. The epic scope of “Brighter than a Thousand Suns” reminds me of “Out of the Silent Planet” from Brave New World with its insanely catchy albeit repetitive chorus, but with more crunch in the guitar tone.
There’s no way to tip toe around the fact that Maiden is aging. There is no doubt in my mind that some critics will argue that these legends should simply tour and not record, because they are irrelevant and have little left in the way of writing music worth a listen. No, we don’t need another nostalgia act living off the past while contributing nothing new. There are plenty of those to keep us busy. Sure, “The Pilgrim” is no “Killers” or “The Trooper,” but it’s a damn cool song and it keeps us Maiden fans satisfied. They’re not exactly throwing out half-assed shit here.
It’s pretty simple: If you love Maiden and you’ve liked a few songs off of the last two albums, you'll be just as enthralled with A Matter of Life and Death. It’s not every day or even every year that we get treated to an event as special as a new Maiden release, so take this in and appreciate it for what it is; another gift from the metal gods. While time will tell whether or not I can place this album above Brave New World, which I believe to be the better of the previous two, it will certainly be a close competition.
If you’ve read through the reviews above and have made it this far without suffering from Maiden overkill, then allow me to add a bit more to your reading experience concerning this celebrated band’s new release. But first I have to share a little story about a short conversation I had with my eight year old son the other day. First of all he’s been listening to Maiden since he was about two and has been hooked ever since, much in the same way I became immediately engulfed when I first heard Live After Death many, many years ago. After hearing the songs from the new album a few times my son goes to me, "I’m just not sure about this, Dad. They just don’t seem to be writing as good of songs on this one. Where are "The Trooper" and "Flight of Icarus"? Where are "Hallowed Be Thy Name" and "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"?". Kind of profound considering these words came from the mouth and mind of an eight year old, yet we as longtime fans have been asking these same questions for years, haven’t we? I have always tried, though not always successfully, to stay away from comparing the material from Bruce’s second term with the band against their golden run of albums starting from The Beast up to and including Seventh Son, in many minds thought to be their best stretch ever. And that could very well be the reason I was so floored by Brave New World and its presentation of modern day Maiden when it first graced my ears. I made sure I didn’t go into it expecting my world to change nor did I expect it to match the brilliance of that renowned run of amazing releases. And in the end it did exactly that for me.
Alright, if you’re still with me here then let’s get on with the show. A Matter of Life and Death starts out promisingly enough and much like the band’s two previous albums with a couple of rockers in "Different World" & "These Colours Don’t Run" that do well to start off this ride. But where Brave New World and Dance of Death kept things going with songs that spiced up my listening pleasure keeping my level of enjoyment on the rise, this album takes a lull in the early going with songwriting that reminds me of the band’s work just before Bruce left the band in the early 90’s, which as we know was simply not very good. After several listens to the record as a whole, the first half of the album is average modern day Maiden, but it just leaves me wondering what happened to the catchy hooks and mesmerizing anthems that were on the two previous offerings. The second half of the album brings a ballad-esque song to the fold and has "Out of the Shadows" completely reminding me of "Wasting Love" from the Fear of the Dark album. Although a good song surely showing Bruce sounds as stellar as he ever has, it still had me growing impatient continuing to wonder when I was going to feel the magic I was longing for and almost expecting to hear by now. And then bam! It hit me with full force, and as weakly as I feel this album starts off and continues through the first six songs, "The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg" and "The Greater Good of God" with their golden day feel finally made my ears perk up and are receiving the most airplay of any of the ten tracks on this journey. With many songs on A Matter of Life and Death being longer with standard verse and chorus sections that don't stand out much but still offer enjoyable extended middle sections, these two songs flourish with great melodies, both vocally and from the three guitar attack, and are the two most complete compositions in the entire mix. Some of the previous songs are very repetitious and probably would have come across in more satisfying fashion if they’d been shorter, but these two epic tracks keep me in tune from front to back and show that Maiden hasn’t completely lost it this time around. "Lord of Light" and "The Legacy" continue this display of excellent songwriting and in the end the album is like night and day as it finishes ten times stronger than it starts out. Don’t get me wrong, the first half the album isn’t bad, but it is not nearly as strong as its other half. And it's that weaker half that has me questioning how much is left in the tank of this machine. Only time will tell.
When it comes to Maiden I’m a huge fan and have stuck by them throughout the years and have never written them off, and I don’t see that happening anytime soon even with what I feel to be a slightly lackluster effort. Although this is the weakest of their three albums since Bruce and Adrian rejoined the band, it’s still a solid enough Maiden record to be added to my collection. There will be Maiden fans out there who are so accepting of anything put out by the band that will scoop this right up and will love it. But there will be other fans that are certain to be disappointed with much on this album and rightfully so. I’m kind of torn in between the middle of the two sides with one side of me happy to have another Maiden album come my way, but my other side has me somewhat disappointed with the end result.
That Iron Maiden continues to be one of the biggest bands in metal (some would say THE biggest) is a bit of an anomaly. If any other band out as many disappointing albums in a row as they have, they’d be relegated to obscurity. Instead, Maiden headlines huge festivals, sells out huge venues, and has a huge fanbase that would die for their favorite band. Accordingly, the prospects of a new Iron Maiden album are also huge, with the metal world scrutinizing every detail from songwriting to preproduction to artwork to final release date. The latest product of the Maiden machine is now upon us with the release of A Matter of Life and Death, and . . . well, it’s definitely an Iron Maiden album.
Of course, no one really thought they would make some kind of drastic change here. But with tracks averaging 6-8 minutes in length, it makes one wonder if they’re trying to mask a lack of creativity with these longer, drawn-out tracks, or if they are in fact just too brilliant to be contained in anything shorter. At least we know they aren’t afraid to expand on an idea. Mostly I regret that there are no tracks here with the urgency of classics like “The Trooper” and “Aces High”, or even the more recent “The Wicker Man”. The material here has been well thought out and crafted accordingly. If you’ve been a fan of Maiden because of their epicness, this may well be the album you’ve been waiting for. “The Longest Day” goes through multiple mood and tempo changes to tell it’s tale, while “Brighter Than a Thousand Suns” relies on a heavy verse-chorus combo to drive it’s point home, while making room for the appropriate solos and introspective moments. There’s some cool acoustic-electric layering going in “Out of the Shadows”, something I’ve more often heard in solos but here it serves as the backbone. The first single, “The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg” you’ve most likely already heard, but for what it’s worth, it reminds me a little bit of “Hallowed Be Thy Name” in structure. “For the Greater Good of God” doesn’t sound like something the average metal fan would be into, but damned if some of Bruce Dickinson’s strongest vocals aren’t found here, and the utilization of an orchestra may never have been more appropriate, and is followed by some killer solos to boot. Meanwhile, “Lord of Light” is making me eat my words about urgent tracks, as its base moments are about as heavy as Maiden gets, and “The Legacy” is simply epic perfection, and the perfect close to this album.
Herein lays the problem of doing real-time reviews: your opinion is likely to change by the end of it. My introductory words were based off of early, casual listens, but as I started listening more critically, I was much more impressed with this. Still, it is definitely an album for Iron Maiden FANS, not scenesters, hipsters, posers, or even newbies. Of course, the band has never been about those types anyway. They make heavy metal albums for people who love heavy metal, not people who wear it as a fashion statement. So, perhaps consider this their "Fuck Sharon Osbourne and fuck Ozzfest!" album. Was it Bury Your Dead that supported the egg incident? Fuck them, too, in that case.
I was really on the fence about whether or not I should throw my hat in the ring for this review. I’m what some folks would call an Iron Maiden fanboy, so while I certainly enjoy jawing about ‘em, I definitely had my doubts as to whether or not I’d be able to be objective when it came to reviewing their latest album. Folks, Iron Maiden is ‘The One’ for me. They hold that sacred place in the core of my being known as “my all-time favorite band”. They’re the top of the metal food chain. The undisputed Kings of the Metal Jungle, as far as I’m concerned. The day I bought, brought home, and poured myself into my vinyl copy of Powerslave (which I still have today, by the way), is the day I decided to devote my life to heavy metal, and I haven’t looked back since. If that sounds corny to you, well, that’s because it is pretty damned corny, but what the hell, right? In the end, my desire to jaw about my favorite band won out. So, without further ado…
As far as the serious fans out there should be concerned, A Matter of Life and Death is a solid record. For comparison’s sake, let’s only look at the trifecta of the new age of Iron Maiden - Brave New World, Dance of Death, and now, A Matter of Life and Death – otherwise my head will likely explode. During my sunny afternoon at the Iron Maiden race-track, it’s Brave New World by a full length, followed immediately by Dance of Death just barely beating out A Matter of Life and Death by a nose hair. B.N.W. wins not only because it’s Bruce’s triumphant return to the fold, but because of weighty, incredibly memorable tunes such as “Mercenary”, “The Fallen Angel”, “Nomad”, and the kingly “Blood Brothers”. D.o.D. squeezes into the second position at the very end of the race based on the last-gas-effort and sheer strength of the albums’ ending four songs. Now, this isn’t to say A Matter of Life and Death is a third-rate record devoid of the kind of songs that make the Bruce era of this band so great. In fact, right at the heart of things there’s an incredibly strong one-two metal-punch. “The Longest Day” and its follow-up, “Out of the Shadows”, represent some of the best material this band has written since 2000’s Brave New World. Both songs bleed classic, melodic Iron Maiden and feature the kind of epic, triumphant songwriting and incredibly heartfelt singing that’ll make you want to throw open a window and scream, “YES!! (with fist in the air) HOLY SHIT YES!! IRON MAIDEN YOU BASTARDS!! IRON-FUCKING-MAIDEN!!!”. And it’s this amazingly mighty one-two punch that’ll land this record in my heavy rotation pile for a long time to come. But that’s not it. Sealing the deal for this fanboy is the extraordinarily epic, “For the Greater Good of God”, which, when coupled with the aforementioned one-two punch, makes this record easily worth any Iron Maiden fans’ hard earned cash. Hell, these three prodigious cuts alone make up 23-minutes of this incredibly long record.
On the asshole side of the fence, If you were to duct-tape me to a chair, break a number of my fingers, and point a 9-millimeter to my head while asking, “Which of these songs would you say doesn’t quite cut the mustard?”, I’d have to point one of my unbroken middle fingers towards you and whisper, “You unbelievable bastard…“Brighter Than A Thousand Suns” ...cough, cough…and “Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg”…but that’s it….that’s it, you bastards….Now go to hell. You’ll get no more information out of me….even if you do kill me.”
Is A Matter of Life and Death an essential record for every metal head out there? Probably not, but it still beats the shit out of most traditional metal that’s hitting the streets today. Iron Maiden is still a top player in the game, so I say get out there, put your money on the bloody counter, and let these guys know how much they still mean to us. Then we’ll all stand together and sing these songs and all the classics when Iron Maiden pulls through our towns in the coming year. I consider this another great achievement in an obviously immensely impressive body of work. Up the Irons!!!
First things first--it’s pretty remarkable that a new Iron Maiden album is once again so eagerly anticipated, a situation most had thought was a thing long past. Not just because these luminaries have been making albums for more than twenty-five years, but because the band had a decade to forget in the 90’s, releasing a handful of albums (both with and without Dickinson) that revealed the band as a shadow of itself. Guarded optimism was a prudent response to the announcement of a new album featuring the return of Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith, but Brave New World quite easily eclipsed expectations, and its follow up, Dance of Death, built on the successes of its predecessor, cementing the message: Maiden was back. True, the simple minded whined that new millennium Maiden didn’t spawn a Piece of Mind II, but the rest of us got it—these legends returned from the brink, and are once again producing relevant and rewarding metal. So now that we doubters have had our knuckles rapped for twice underestimating the mighty Iron Maiden, expectations are raised. Will A Matter of Life and Death follow the continuous upward trend? Yes. Err, I mean no. Well, maybe.
If “The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg” seemed an unlikely choice for a first single, one spin of A Matter of Life and Death explains a lot. There simply aren’t many choices, as nearly all of the songs are cut from a similar cloth. This album is full of lengthy, complex epics that, while accessible enough, are unlikely to have much commercial appeal as singles go. The melodic, radio friendly hooks of tracks like “Rainmaker” and “Wildest Dreams” are few and far between, and opener “Different World” is the only one of the ten songs here that would fit the bill as a traditional single. The catchy pro-troops “These Colours Don’t Run” seems the next best option, but like nearly every other track, it’s seven-plus minutes long. This probably sounds like good news, but don’t go expecting ten “Hallowed Be Thy Name”s. In addition to being short on the commercial, this collection is also noticeably shy of the fiery drama filled Maiden epic we’ve grown accustomed to. It’s not at all a matter of quality or ambition, but of design. The sprawling grandeur of recent tracks like “Dance of Death” and the phenomenal “Paschendale”, as well as the calling card galloping bass and air raid siren choruses are in large part sidelined in favor of a more mature (a word used without judgment), but quite intense collection of dark and thoughtful songs. On balance, these songs may very well be more consistent than anything the band has done since Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (a fantastic album that felt underwhelming at the time of its release, mind you). The only problem is that there aren’t really any true stand out tracks. None of these songs provide the transcending thrill that truly special Iron Maiden tracks have gifted fans for over two and a half decades. All are nearly equally (and formidably) impressive, but none actually stunning. Would you trade for the opposite?
All that said, A Matter of Life and Death seems to be the very definition of “a grower”. Its seventy-two minute length makes it a chore to fully digest, and the band’s more subtle (relatively speaking) approach affords less sweeping dramatics to grab hold of as highlights. But the fact that the quality of the songs is consistently high and that each boasts loads of twists and shifts bodes well for the lifespan and growth potential for the album. There’s not a one of these songs that I wouldn’t enthusiastically welcome on a setlist (although “Out of the Shadows” is probably the least effective), but it will take time for some true favorites to emerge. The early contenders include some of the longest tunes of the bunch, including the majestic, progish album closer “The Legacy”, “The Longest Day”, “For the Greater Good of God” and “Brighter Than a Thousand Suns”, one of the three tracks previewed on the band’s website. All three are enormously more effective when heard in the context of the album, which serves as another reminder not to rush to judgment. Similarly, A Matter of Life and Death seems very much like an album that will be viewed differently after it’s got some years on it. While it’s possible that the growth potential of the album may never actually pan out, my money is on just the opposite. It’s a mixed blessing that much of what is characteristic about this album comes at the cost of the loss of other cherished elements of the band’s sound, but it becomes dicey to claim that this strategy is for the better or worse. It’s simply a little different, and after all these years, that’s enough to make this album worthwhile. It’s a shame that so many metal fans are quick to either canonize or hastily discount metal’s surviving legends, rather than recognizing and enjoying them for what they are. While you may never prefer this album to their early work, A Matter of Life and Death is easily one of the best albums of its type this year.
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