Part 26 of my series of Iron Maiden reviews!
IRON MAIDEN – Virtual XI (1998)
For the first time in a long time, there was this vibe of, “new Maiden? Meh.”
I recall seeing this listed in our distributor’s catalogue and ordering one for myself. We didn’t even order it in for the store. Think about that! The catalog had the title listed as Vartual Xi, which made me wonder what the hell I was buying.
Virtual XI is the 11’th studio album by Iron Maiden. It is the second with Blaze Bayley on lead vocals and second to be co-produced by Nigel Green. It is also the second to feature cover art by Melvyn Grant, this time an improvement on his Fear of the Dark work (but only barely).
You’ll notice the Iron Maiden logo was changed — the jagged bits lopped off! It is this logo that Maiden used almost exclusively going forward. I prefer the original.
I was living with T-Rev when the album came out, early ’98, and both of us were heavily into the Nintendo 64 classic Goldeneye. One Saturday night when he was out working his second job at the Waterloo Inn, I stayed home with Virtual XI, Goldeneye, and enough junk food to last the weekend. I was set. And my feelings on Virtual XI largely go back to that night and the great fun it was to play the Statue Park level whilst rocking out to “When Two Worlds Collide”.
As highly as I rate the two Blaze albums, I will be the first to admit that he was the wrong singer for this band. His voice lacks the range. As I argued in my review for The X Factor, I think Blaze’s voice suited the mid-90’s and the darker tones that Maiden were taking. I remember cranking Best of the Beast in my store, Dickinson wailing away, and two kids laughing. Context is important! In the 90’s, tastes had drifted and so had Maiden. And don’t lie to me — you owned one of these five albums: Ten, Nevermind, Superunknown, Purple or Dirt. I know you did!
I personally enjoy the dreadfully-titled Virtual XI. I bet Steve Harris wishes he could take that title back. It is not as strong as the powerfully dark X Factor album. This is Iron Maiden trying to relax a little more, be more comfortable in their new sound, and trying to lighten up a bit after an entire album of dark thoughts and suicidal tendencies. Witness “The Angel And The Gambler” which is as close to a good-time rocker as Iron Maiden get. Its problem (and the problem with a few songs on the album) is length: At 10 minutes, it’s not an epic, it’s too repetitive. I could also do without Steve’s boppy keyboard line.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The album kicks off with “Futureal”, a short fast rocker akin to “Man On The Edge” or “Be Quick Or Be Dead”, but with plenty of melody to spare. Harris wrote this one with Blaze.
Up next is “The Angel And the Gambler” which I guess Steve was hoping would sound like 70’s UFO or something like that. A classic Davey guitar solo keeps it in Maiden territory. It had a good video, very Star Wars cantina, funny with dated CG! The video however doesn’t do much to make Blaze Bayley’s case as a frontman.
Then, back to the darkness that marked the last album. “Lightning Strikes Twice” is a decent song with quiet verses and a powerful chorus. It takes a while to build unfortunately, since it’s only 5 minutes long.
Side one ended with “The Clansman”, continuing the Maiden tradition of basing songs on movies and historical events! This was the epic of the album, and one that they performed into the Dance of Death tour. You’ll be chanting, “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” by the end. This one sounds very traditional Iron Maiden, especially the fast parts.
Side two kicked off with a personal favourite, “When Two Worlds Collide”. Here’s Maiden’s take on the whole Deep Impact/Armageddon thing:
Now I can’t believe its true
and I don’t know what to do
For the hundredth time
I check the declination
Now the fear starts to grow
even my computer shows
There are no errors in the calculations
Kinda cheesy, kinda nerdy-cool at the same time. Have you ever seen the word “declination” in a heavy metal lyric before? This is the first and only collaboration between Steve, Blaze and Dave Murray.
Another dark and moody one is up next, “The Educated Fool”, another one I like quite a bit due to its delicate guitars. At this point Maiden were no longer trying to simply assault you aurally, now they were introduced in a smoother sounding guitar sound. But the song does kick in soon. There’s a line reflecting some of Steve’s personal inner pain, “I want to see my father beyond.”
This is followed by “Don’t Look To The Eyes Of A Stranger”. These songs are good tunes, but by this time we’ve already had several dark and moody ones with repeated choruses. The repetition was getting a bit much. Even the previous song, “The Educated Fool” suffers from repetitive chorus syndrome.
Last up is the closer “Como Estais Amigos”, translated as “How are you my friends”. It was written by Blaze and Janick. This one has an epic vibe to it as well, with its anthemic chorus of “No more tears, no more tears. If we live for a hundred years, amigo no more tears.” It is as if Maiden are saying, “We have been through some rough patches but better times are up ahead.” And yes, Maiden really did go through rough times, Steve Harris in particular.
And that is it, a mere 8 songs. Brevity this time unlike the previous two albums. No B-sides were recorded, either. The only B-sides were live. Let’s have a look at ’em!
“The Angel And the Gambler” was released in two parts, one with cover art by Derek Riggs, one from the forthcoming new Maiden video game, Ed Hunter. They wisely included a single edit on the second one. The B-sides were live takes of “Blood On the World’s Hands” and “The Aftermath”, which if you recall are two of the songs I ranked poorly on The X Factor.
“Futureal” was the second single, with more Ed Hunter cover art. Inside, a poster featuring Derek Riggs’ far superior artwork. The live tracks were were “Man On the Edge” (another one I’m not fond of) and “The Evil That Men Do”, from Seventh Son of a Seventh Son! This is one of the few official versions available of Blaze doing a Bruce song. My take? His “Come on! Come on! Come on!” intro fails to inspire me, but the band is playing it fast and great. Vocally this one is well suited to Blaze’s voice. He does an excellent job. (He does screw up the lyrics in the same place that Bruce used to, too!) It was recorded in 1995, which makes sense. Everything I’ve heard from that tour sounds great. Everything I’ve heard from the Virtual XI tour, however…
I think after this album the vibe was generally one of “Who cares what Maiden do next?” I still would have loyally bought it. I had just given up on the idea of Maiden being a huge band that mattered again. I didn’t expect albums that would impact me the way that Piece of Mind or Powerslave or even The X Factor did. Maiden seemed to be coasting, at a time that Bruce Dickinson was forging forward with superior solo albums. In general though, it seemed metal was done, Maiden pretty much with it, and all that was left were unremarkable studio albums and tours.
Oh, how wrong I was.