REVIEW: Iron Maiden – The X Factor (plus singles,1995)

Part 21 of my series of Iron Maiden reviews!

IRON MAIDEN – The X Factor (1995 EMI)

A lot of fans confidently proclaimed that you can’t replace Bruce Dicksinson.  To some degree, they were right, but Iron Maiden refused to pack it in.  Steve Harris was going through dark times, particularly a painful divorce.  It was Dave Murray who fired up the demoralized band:  “Why should we pack it in just because he quit?”

They began the audition process, eventually calling Wolfsbane vocalist Blaze Bayley.  Wolfsbane were once the new proteges of none other than Rick Rubin, who signed the band to Def American and produced their first album.  Regardless of Rubin’s involvement, Wolfsbane made little impact.

Bayley turned up at the audition and they played roughly seven numbers including “Hallowed” and “The Trooper”.  The personalities meshed and after listening back to the tapes, it was Nicko who declared, “There, now that sounds like Iron Maiden, dunnit?”

With the resulting album, The X Factor, as the only evidence before us, one might wonder just what Nicko was hearing.  I remember being quite surprised when I listened for the first time:  “This guy doesn’t have any range!”  His voice fit in better with the darker tone of the 1990’s than Bruce’s did, but would it work?

As an album – disregarding the live shows, stage presence, or what happens later – I think The X Factor is damn fine.   Perhaps it’s not a fine Iron Maiden album, although Steve ranks it among his top three.  It’s decidedly darker, softer & slower and sparse, but it is also deeply personal.  Characters on all songs are tortured souls, reflecting Steve’s inner torment.

Also important to note:  This is the first Iron Maiden album since the first one, not to be produced by Martin Birch.  Now, Steve Harris and Nigel Green were producing at Steve’s home studio.

The band made no bones about the new direction, starting off with the 11 minute epic “Sign of the Cross”.  A new sound, Gregorian chanting, begins this tale based on The Name of the Rose, specifically the torture part!  Blaze ominously warns that “Eleven saintly shrouded men have come to wash my sins away.”  The song was written solely by Steve Harris and it follows in the mold set by Fear of the Dark:  long, soft, bass-driven sections backed by soft keyboard beds.

It suddenly lurches into a slow march around the 2:45 mark, sounding much like Iron Maiden, but slowed down, more precise, and with a lower, rougher voice spitting out the words.  It is similar to past epics in that it goes through different sections and dynamics.  Although a soft epic, it is one of the best songs of the Blaze era.  Indeed, the band continued to perform it even on the Brave New World tour.

As if to allay your fears that Maiden has gone soft, “Lord of the Flies” is next, retelling the old story of the boys stranded on the jungle island .  It stutters forward at first before breaking into a solid groove.  This Harris/Gers winner was chosen as the second single.  Once again, Maiden continued to perform it even into the Dance of Death tour.  Blaze growls his way through the words, his solid baritone carrying the catchy verses and choruses.  Davey’s familiar guitar stylings in the solo are vintage Iron Maiden.

The third song on the album to be based on a book or movie is next, the manic “Man on the Edge”.   Blaze’s first writing credit with Steve, it’s based on the excellent (and my personal favourite) Michael Douglas film, Falling Down.  Lyrically though…this one is pretty poor:

The freeway is jammed and it’s backed up for miles
The car is an oven and baking is wild
Nothing is ever the way it should be
What we deserve we just don’t get you see

A briefcase, a lunch and a man on the edge
Each step gets closer to losing his head
Is someone in heaven are they looking down
‘Cause nothing is fair just you look around

Really guys?  “The car is an oven and baking is wild”?  What does that even mean?

Even though the band continued to play this one into the Ed Hunter tour, it’s not really a standout Maiden track to me.  While it serves as a fast manic number to bang your head to while singing along, it’s simply not that great a song.

Maiden wisely sequenced these three songs first, three songs that wouldn’t alienate fans or critics even with the change at the microphone.  It is only now that The X Factor begins to show its true dark face.

“Fortunes of War” is a slow, mournful ballad, a beautiful song, perhaps the sequel to “Afraid to Shoot Strangers” lyrically and musically.  There’s Steve’s bass, backing the soft sections with faint keyboards.  As if you couldn’t tell by the bass being one of the lead melodic instruments, this one was solely written by Steve.  I like this song.  Reading between the lines you can hear Steve’s pain, and you can definitely hear it musically, before the song kicks into a triumphant upbeat section with guitar harmonies at 4:35.

“Look For the Truth” is next, beginning ballad-like before going into a mid-tempo stomp.  This song featured the new writing triumvirate of Steve, Blaze and Janick.  Lyrically, it would be seem to be inspired by Steve’s personal struggles.  Musically, I think this is another strong number, and it has a great Davey solo.  If there is one thing that always grounds Iron Maiden to its roots on The X Factor, it is Davey’s solos.

This concluded the first side.  Side two begins  with another slow one, “The Aftermath”, written by the same triumvirate.  It is at this point that I began to tire of the slow pace.  Lyrically I don’t think this one stands up to anything on side one.  Another war song, it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table.  It was dropped from the live set after this tour.

Although it’s still the bass carrying the melody, “Judgement of Heaven” quickens the pace.   “I’ve been depressed so long, it’s hard to remember when I was happy,” sings Blaze on this obviously Steve-written piece.  Yet it’s a positive message, Steve trying to stay strong and look to the future.  Once it gets going, it’s a pretty good song, with the chorus being particularly catchy.  Blaze’s “yeah yeah’s!” are as close as we get to hearing Blaze trying to do anything in an upper range!

The worst song is up next, “Blood on the World’s Hands”.  A really dull Steve bass melody (guess who wrote this song!) takes a full 1:12 to introduce the damn song!  There’s nothing here that really makes the song memorable.

Although it starts very slow (again) with bass melodies carrying it (again), “The Edge of Darkness” is a much better song.  It follows the plot and quotes dialogue from Apocalypse Now:  “What I wanted a mission, and for my sins they gave me one.”  Musically, Nicko pounds this one into submission.  It stomps forward like a powerful beast, unstoppable, albeit slow and plodding.  But fear not, it picks up again at 2:55, going into a faster guitar-harmony based section.  Although the album certainly does not need more slower songs at this point, “The Edge of Darkness” is a win.

Less successful is the introspective “2 a.m.”.  It’s not dreadful, but it’s pretty pedestrian for Maiden, although I’m sure it was deeply personal to Steve.  It’s yet another slow song that goes into a powerful stomp, but that’s too many now.

The quirky “The Unbeliever” ends the album on a better note.  It has a neat slippery little riff, and it’s rhythmically very different. Written by Harris/Gers, it’s marked with a standout Janick solo.  Even though it’s fast paced, there’s no denying that “The Unbeliever” lacks the crunch and volume of Maiden songs of yore.

And that perhaps is one of the most surprising things about The X Factor.  Regardless of the change in direction, singer and artwork, it is the production that shocked me.  Clean, free of dirt and distortion, Iron Maiden had never sounded this clear on record.  But is that a good thing?  I desperately wanted a little more grit and grime in the guitars, not to mention volume.  The production is otherwise excellent.  The drums are like Bonham on steroids and the bass (of course) chimes perfectly on every cut.  I just wish there was more guitar.  It’s Iron Maiden, and I felt like I didn’t get enough guitar.

This being a new era for Iron Maiden, the band chose Hugh Syme (he of many Rush and Megadeth covers not to mention dozens more) for the new Eddie.  Going for a realistic look, the Eddie lobotomy cover was deemed too scary for some markets, and we received the less graphic electric chair cover facing front.

Now, onto the singles.

The first single, “Man on the Edge” had numerous B-sides.

“Justice of the Peace”:  A fast paced rocker about injustice in today’s “sick society”, again reflecting Maiden’s new darker, serious lyrical bent. This is Dave Murray’s only writing credit (with Steve). (Available on US CD single or UK CD single part 1.)

“Judgement Day”:  Manic and fast like “Man on the Edge”, relentless although not tremendously catchy.  (Available on US CD single, or UK CD single part 2.)

“I Live Way Way”:  Starts slow and chime-y like many of the album songs. Yet it launches up to speed after this intro.  Another fast B-side, I’m now wondering why Maiden chose to stack the album so heavy with slow songs and pseudo-ballads when they had all this stuff waiting in the wings?  Perhaps replacing two album songs with two of these could have changed the balance so much.   (Available only on 12″ single or Japanese 2 CD version of The X Factor.  The 12″ single comes with a massive poster.)

Parts 1 and 2 of the UK CD single also had a two part Blaze Bayley interview.   Essential only to the fan.

It also came with a box designed to house the album and future singles.  But even when I include my redundant US “Man On The Edge” CD in the box, there’s still room to spare.  This indicates to me that there were more singles planned but cancelled.

The second single, “Lord of the Flies” had two awesome B-sides!  Covers.  Covers of “My Generation” (The Who) and “Doctor Doctor” (UFO)!  And let me tell you, Maiden is one of a few bands that can do “My Generation” properly.  Steve ably handles the backing vocals while Blaze spits his way through the lead.  This sounds very live off the floor and perhaps it was.  “Doctor Doctor” is one that I actually prefer to the UFO original.  Blaze nails the vocal, the band are solidly in the groove, and Nicko nails it home.  Surely, this must be considered one of the best Maiden covers of all time!

Conclusion and final thoughts:

As always, context is very important.  When The X Factor came out, I was working at the store, and I had been waiting three long years to hear it.   It was the mid-90’s, and most bands chose to get “darker” or “more serious” or “modernize” in order to stay relevant.  It was true from Bon Jovi to Metallica with varying degrees of success.

For me, The X Factor was one of the few things that had come out worth listening to that fall, and I listened to it non-stop.  It was largely the novelty, and partly the lack of other new options, but I grew to really like most of The X Factor.  It took three listens, I do remember that much.  But in the 1990’s, all things considered, it really wasn’t that bad.

3.75/5 stars

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22 comments

  1. I just remember when his came out so did VH Greatest Hits Vol 1 and I was pumped over Me Wise Magic,but man the Maiden was one thing I really tried to get into and couldn’t as u know the singer change back in late 81 from Dianno to Dickinson was a positive but the change from Dickinson to Blaze was like ok,well there trying….I liked some of the songs,Lord of Flies was a great track but man I don’t know I gave it spins but it kinda got left behind and I kinda went back to spinning Me Wise Magic until the wheels fell off that first time reunion with Roth.
    2/5….

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  2. Been looking forward to this! Really interesting write-up and I love seeing all the collectibles. The gap in the box is intriguing… wonder what they had planned?

    I think I basically felt the same way about the highlights and low points of the album as yourself but I’m less enthusiastic overall. I remember my first listen, enjoying the first three songs and thinking I was in for a great Maiden album. And then, dull! Bass intro after bass intro after bass intro. I seem to remember enjoying the last track but it was too little too late.

    Listening back to your videos here, I’m even less impressed. Lord of the Flies is tuneless balls and that “baking is wild” lyric in Man on the Edge is hilarious! At this point in Maiden’s history it feels like Adrian and Bruce had left and took all the melody with them. I’m going to be a naughty boy and give this 1.5 out of 5. (The half is for Sign of the Cross)

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    1. Bass intro after bass intro after bass intro! I’m as big a Steve fan as anybody else but, as Martin Popoff once said, “It’s not that interesting an intrument, Steve!”

      I had access to a lot of Maiden stuff in the mid-90’s thanks to the record store. You’re going to see bigger galleries from here on.

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      1. Got to love Popoff! I’d imagine you weren’t exactly fighting people off to get your hands on this stuff either!

        Another thing I remember was Maiden playing a lot of unusual territories at this point. It was like they were playing places that were more appreciative to have a “big” band playing and therefore less critical of the line-up.

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        1. Yeah it was bad. I remember it went Top 10 in the province of Quebec, the only place in Canada where it did chart Top 10. And I remember the national music magazine, The Record, proclaiming that this was proof that Quebec were indeed a unique culture!

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        2. They’re called Quebecois :)

          I couldn’t quote you chart numbers, but I do remember being excited if I saw the new Maiden on the left side of the top 100 chart. But it would only hover there for a week, drop to the right side, and off.

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        3. Maiden were never massive over there though were they? For album sales anyway. Most their albums would go to the top of the charts over here but I get the impression they were never as big over in the US and Canada. Touring aside. Am I right?

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        4. Maybe Deke would be the right guy to answer that question because I really don’t remember how big Maiden were here in the early 80’s at their peak. I remember the mid to late 80’s. The albums charted, usually debuted in the top 10, but no real airplay or video play besides once-weekly specialty shows. Touring aside. They still did the massive shows here.

          If I had to guess I would say today they are more popular than ever. I mean fer cryin’ out loud, there’s a teenage girl at the post office who thinks I’m cool because I have an Iron Maiden hat! In the 80’s there wasn’t a teenage girl in TOWN who thought Iron Maiden hats were cool!

          I know because I wore an Iron Maiden button on my hat then!

          Something massive has shifted, everybody seems to love Maiden here now.

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        5. I think they are bigger now than ever. I think they’re just reaping the rewards of sticking to their guns for so long. They haven’t ever had a period when they sold-out or changed style. People might not remember the Blaze stuff too fondly but it was still the recognizable Maiden style. And, for such a veteran band, their live shows seems to just get better and better.

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        6. I think most people tuned out the Blaze era. They don’t play songs from it anymore, I think it’s sort of like an elephant in the room now. We don’t talk about, we pretend it never happened :)

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        7. They should have seen it coming! It was a devastating time to be a rock fan! The only one of those bands that changed singers that really blew me away was Motley. The ST Motley album is awesome.

          With Priest and Maiden…as good as Ripper was…everybody wanted back the “real” singers. Nobody was going around saying, “Boy I sure hope they make a third album with Blaze/Ripper!”

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  3. Alright, so bring in the new guy and lets get this sucker started!

    Some chanting at the start of album opener, Sign Of The Cross. Haha ok, whatever. I see in my iTunes that this song is over 11 minutes long. Even for this band, that’s bloody ambitious. And then our intro to the new guy is barely a whisper? Mm hm… I was giving this until the three minute mark to do something or I was scanning ahead. Lucky they did! OK, not a bad song, really. Doesn’t really sound like Maiden, somehow, though? What’s missing? I mean sure, Blaze’s voice doesn’t even close to Bruce’s soar, even when he tries, in the chorus. But there’s something else… can’t quite put my finger on it. Anyway, were it me, as the new guy, I’d want my first intro to Maiden fans to be one of their trademark full-steam-ahead tracks, just put it all out there and say HI! Here I am! None of this half-tempo, chanting-monks stuff. OK, I get it, it’s atmospheric. Move along, boys. Alright the time signature shift is fun, for a minute. But even the guitar solo line is restrained. WTF! Ah, there we go, now at the FRIGGIN’ 8 MINUTE MARK we finally achieve liftoff! Yeah! That’s more like it. Also, this track has gone a long time without the dude singing at all, and I am not bothered by this. Some intro for the new guy. NOT! Wow I’m typing a lot for this song… because it goes for so bloody long and I’ve got all this time to type as I listen. Whoa, then at the ten minute mark, when he comes back in… unnecessary. Nope, sorry. He can’t cut it, here. Makes me wish for Bruce, he’d NAIL that. This guy didn’t. NEXT!

    Lord Of The Flies starts off more promisingly, nice chunky beat and distorted guitars building into a bit better main song (though still mid-tempo, for Maiden). The first two lines, “I don’t care for this world anymore/I just want to live my own fantasy,” man, I felt like saying OK Dude, go for it, buh-bye! He’s not lifting me up, here. I’m not feeling it. This sounds like another band. Not even a Maiden cover band, either. Just… middle of the road rock. I’m not even following what he’s saying. Should I be? Wow, this guy was not the right choice.

    Man On The Edge has a very pretty intro, as ever. This band has mastered those. And then boom! High energy! Yeah baby! And then… buddy starts his one-note “singing.” Great for punk, or a garage band somewhere, but for Maiden? Nope. This really goes to show how Bruce made this his own. All I can hear in my head is him singing this. He’d kill it. Great song, though. This is more like it, musically.

    So as the guitars solo away, here at the 2:30 mark (which is awesome), I’m reading the track list for the first time. Maybe I should be paying attention to what buddy here is singing. This seems to be an overtly religion-themed record. Meh, I can go call up the lyrics online if something catches my ear. Which means I probably won’t, because I don’t care. Anyway.

    Fortunes Of War kills the energy of the last track’s ending with another pretty intro. Dude does his monotone singing. Then the guitars come in! Oh, then they go away. But now they’re back! Now they’re down again (repeat). Too much up and down for too little pay-off. This is boring, and very repetitive. Alright, almost 3:30 and he’s singing again. Ugh. Ah! And 4:40 the band takes off. Finally. This is nice, one minute of full-on Maiden musicianship without buddy’s foghorn wrecking it up. Then he’s back. And really, “whoa oh oh oh?” Come on. And then it takes forever to die off. Yeesh.

    Look For The Truth, another pretty intro. Almost Metallica’s Unforgiven-like. Wow, this guy has been singing like any schlub they could’ve dragged in off the street. Sorry, but it’s true. Whoa, WAIT! He went above his usual note! Now we’re getting somewhere! Only 5 songs in and he’s finally letting it rip a little bit. OK, now we’re talking, this is better. Not great, but better. Why didn’t he do this on the previous tracks? I was already losing interest completely by the time we got to this. Most people wouldn’t have even this much patience, to sit through all that to get even this. So far, this is the best track here, and that is a little sad.

    The Aftermath sucks away the energy again with yet another lovely intro before kicking in. Talk about over-using the formula. This one just plods. “Should we be fighting at all?” An anti-war screed, mid-point of a record that needs a whole lot more Maiden. What happened, here? Did they figure new singer, new approach? A clean slate? An interesting little instrumental bit that almost swings at the 3:30 mark. Cool, until he starts in the vocals again. Ah good, they’re off on one of their tears again. Now this I like. Let the great guitar solos wash away that guy. And then bring back the plod? Nope, should have let the soloing trail away and fade out the song. No need to bookend this track. Ruined it.

    Judgement Of Heaven’s lyrics at the beginning are terrible (or hilarious, take your pick), and it doesn’t help that this guy is delivering them in a brutally bad way. The song crashes away after a bit, but these vocals are awful offal. I’m scanning ahead a bit but I’ll bet I’ll just skip this.

    Blood On The World’s Hands’ intro is like being forced to listen to your college roommate noodle away on his bass. Come on, really? This is a Maiden record! At least it becomes better after the turn. I’m still not buying the new guy, but this song has interesting elements to it. Truly, this is a six minute song that would make a really great three minute song.

    The Edge Of Darkness (again!) takes away any energy the last song may have left with us, and flies in the helicopters and another pretty intro. Gotta be another anti-war song. Oh goodie. Did he just mention Heart Of Darkness? Oh man. But then about 2:15 it finally gets some life. Cool. But that guitar line… doesn’t that sound like another Maiden song? Hmmmm? Of course it does. At least the track has some energy to it, for most of it.

    2 A.M. AGAIN sucks away that energy. This isn’t an album that flows at all. Every song is an island unto itself, there’s no coherence between one song and the next. And the lyrics here are brutally bad. I cannot care. This one plods with no momentary energy blast. If I never hear this crap song again, I’ll be just fine.

    The Unbeliever brings things to a close. And I have to admit, any other Maiden record and I’d have had hope for an 8-minute track. It’ll be a cool, historical epic! But after all of whatever this record can be called, I’m not so sure I have the strength, or the belief that it’ll be that intelligent. Well, in the interests of finishing this thing, onward… There’s parts of this that were interesting, like the Wipe-out style drums at 3:40. But whomever wrote these words needs help making things fit a structure without trying to cram in extra syllables. And a whole new idea of what to write – are they serious, with this crap? Except for the bits where the playing is excellent, this track is a toss-away.

    In sum:

    OK, wow. That was terrible. I haven’t read Mike’s review yet, but I’m wagering it’ll be a 1/5. I can’t see it being very high, anyway. Ugh. The new “singer” is terrible. Sorry to those who like him, but he’s atonal and nasal. I didn’t care about the lyrics anytime I did pay attention. I’m sure Maiden fans were screaming for the return of Bruce, and some bloody energy, after this hit the shelves. What a let-down. The worst outing yet.

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    1. Trying to think of a response…clearly you’re not the type of fan that this album would have grown on, though. Steve Harris rates it in the top 3 albums he’s ever done.

      One comment that you did nail exactly was that Bruce would have made these songs that much better. Which he did. But we’re not quite there yet…check back next week.

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      1. That’s very nice for Steve Harris. There’s a long list of artists who claim that the most disliked record was actually their favourite. Trying to drum up sales, more likely. Or maybe it was a personal, artistic triumph. Yeah well maybe, so how do you explain the band that recorded all of those huge, amazing songs recording and releasing THIS TURD, Steve? Hm? Artistic triumph? I think not.

        Still need to choke my way through Virtual XI too. Man I hope they get better, as you say. This was terrible.

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  4. Great review – I agree wholeheartedly. Although a fan of this album, my frustration is that by using some of the tracks they used as B-Sides instead, and a different tracklisting, this album would be so much better – and have been received so much more favourably. Blaze really excelled at the high octane stuff, and the album leans too much towards the mid-tempo – surprising considering the quality of tracks they omitted. This, IMO, would have been a far better album. Ive left some pretty good tracks out – but think it flows better – give it go!
    1. Man on the Edge
    2. Lord of the Flies
    3. Fortunes of War
    4. I Live My Way
    5. The Aftermath
    6. Judgement Day
    7. Judgement of Heaven
    8. Sign of the Cross
    9. Justice of the Peace
    10. Edge of Darkness
    11. The Unbeliever

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hey! Thanks very much for this comment! I’m going to put your track list together this weekend and give it a spin. Some of the songs you omitted I can definitely live without. This looks to have much better pacing. And I like that you included those three B-sides.

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