REVIEW: Iron Maiden – Virtual XI (plus singles, 1998)

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…

Well, see for yourself.

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.

3.5/5 stars

Advertisements

9 comments

  1. This was one of the oddest experiences I’ve ever had with a new album. I got really annoyed with it and threw it in a bin! Usually I’ll give an album a chance to grow but I just thought this was absolute pish and the only thing that would make me feel better was to ritually throw it in a wheelie-bin. It felt right at the time but now I’m a bit perplexed as to why it might have annoyed me so much and I wonder if I over-reacted. I’m strangely tempted to hear it again and remind myself what all the fuss was about. So, from memory I’m going to give it 0/5 (hahaha) but I might revise that at some point…

    Like

      1. I appreciate the 0 might seem a bit harsh but I just didn’t like anything about it. I’ll definitely revisit the album at some point but I dunno… the tracks from X Factor and it that have been posted here don’t sound very promising! It would be nice to hear them again knowing that the band turned things around. At the time I was just so fed up with them. 4 albums in a row that just got progressively worse each time.

        Like

  2. HMO a 0??…hahahaha….good for u,may be harsh though I did not mind a few tracks off of this one. Like Mike said the UFOish Angel and the Gambler is pretty good and When Two Worlds are the two tracks I don’t mind theres some good tracks but yeah it’s a step back from the X Factor and really Bruce’s solo output is by far the superior of the two acts,surprising??…yeah for me it was but wasn’t …..

    Like

  3. Yeah for,sure..it just keeps going and going….there material was really starting to go south.
    Even back to,No Prayer,Fear of the Dark,so u can’t really blame the lead singer Bayley for all the faults…
    My 2 cents..

    Like

    1. Yeah, I totally agree Deke. Blaze didn’t have the greatest voice but I’m sure if the material had been better it wouldn’t have been that big a problem. His live vocals seem to leave a lot to be desired though which wasn’t great. The “Ripper” Priest albums weren’t up to much but he nailed the old stuff live.

      Like

  4. Alright, alright. I’ll put up with this again. Yes, I am a glutton for punishment.

    Futureal starts off with high energy promise. Now this sounds like Maiden. Still with the wrong singer, but at least it’s something. It’s also the shortest song here, by far. And they still crammed in great guitar riffs and solos and driving drums. Already I have hopes it could get better.

    The Angel And The Gambler keeps hopes high that we’ve got a rocker on our hands. Wait, an organ? Whoa. Aaaand that intro? Somebody’s been listening to too much Dire Straits mixed with the Top Gun soundtrack and ZZ Top on random in their CD changer. The verse bits are chugging barrom blues rock and then it inexplicably slows. This is gonna go on for ten minutes? Oh I hope it changes up. Haha at 2:30 “So why don’t you go, just leave well alone?” Buddy believe me, I’ve contemplated it. “Don’t you think I’m a saviour?” Hahaha no. No no no and no. At least there’s another rip-snorter instrumental section that saves the whole thing at 5:37. You know what I want? Less repetition! And a dollar for every time he used the words “saviour” and “life” in this song. I could buy everyone here a beer, for sure. This track? A good three minute rocker trapped in a ten minute bloater’s body.

    Lightning Strikes Twice. Does it? ‘Cos this is your second album with this bum, and I wouldn’t call it lightning strikes. We may wish we had been struck by lightning, but… Look. Would somebody please tell this asshole to stop singing? He’s terrible. No, I couldn’t do better, but I still don’t need to listen to him. What, did his grade 4 teacher tell him he was a good singer? So then he discovered metal in high school and he’s all full of himself, or something? The song takes off at 1:50 or so, at least there’s that. But it’s still not achieving lift off with his anchor of a voice wrapped around its ankles. Can they still not see it? It’s got thick chain and everything. Hanging right there. It’s gotta be heavy, don’t they notice? Guys! Look! LOOK!

    The Clansman I’ve heard on a hits collection, am I right? That riff sounds familiar. So far, it’s Winner of the Most Like Maiden award on their own bloody record. But when they start chanting “Freee-dommmm!” all I can see is Mel Gibson in Braveheart, strapped to a rock and being eviscerated. Haha ouch. Probably the best track here, at any rate. Even with that visual.

    When Two Worlds Collide… Hey, has anybody ever done a mashup of this one and Def Leppard’s When Love And Hate Collide? I mean, just the titles, it could work to smash the ballad and this rocker together. Heh. Can you tell my mind is wandering? This guy is really distracting. I know there’s great Maiden riffage going on in the background. I just can’t get my mind past Mr. Atonal. Like all songs here, the instrumental bits are far and away the best bits.

    The Educated Fool sticks to the formula, pretty intro that squashes any energy that the song previous may have made us hope would carry forward. Crap lyrics again. Look (and the same really applies to X Factor), if you want to sing about your feelings and your need for some form of therpy, go join Metallica. This is Maiden! Leave that crap in the diary you keep under your bed, Blaze. The one with the little key and lock. Yeah, the pink one with the rainbows and the unicorns on it. Anyway. This song’s middle section is typically awesome, but the rest could be OK if… sigh, I still hear Bruce doing all of this better.

    Don’t Look To The Eyes Of A Stranger, another gentle intro. Guys, seriously, this is two albums’ worth of this stuff. Mix it up more often! When this song takes off, after that repetitive stuff at the start, it REALLY takes off. Woo! And then… whuh? He’s got a whispering solo? Ah, now I see why this song is bloody 8 minutes long. And now I’m flashing on the Police. Why? “Don’t look to… don’t look to” could be “Don’t stand so… don’t stand so… close to me!” Sigh. OK boys, let’s go. Waaay too long on this bit. No, really. I’m gonna scan ahead if you don’t stop… I’m serious… 5:25 of whew. Lucky for them they cut that crap out and let it rip for a bit. And what a silly ending! Oh well.

    Como Estais Amigos is the only spanish in the song. “Shall we kneel and say a prayer?” What, that you’ll leave soon? YES! Wow this intro is bad. And look, ANOTHER slow-builder! But this one only achieves mid-tempo. An OK song, I guess. Not a keeper. And that’s that.

    Hm.

    In Sum:

    I will say this: the production is way better here than on X Factor, which was very fat and dark sounding. This one is lighter and clearer. That’s a relief. And at least the music sounds more like Maiden. I know I’m supposed to want a band to try new things, but that last record sounded like a bad Maiden cover band – when they could manage it. This one, at least, has their energy and verve. They just need to “accidentally” chuck this “singer” off the tour bus on a country road.

    If I had to choose between the two, I would take this one over X Factor, surely. Why? At least the music, for the most part, sound like Maiden. If they would re-release this as a karaoke album, sans vocals, it could be a decent instrumental record. But given broader range, I wouldn’t take either one. Comparing to their established discography, both of these are not worth mentioning. It’s a total shame. I know they are capable of so much more. I kow, because I’ve heard it, a few albums ago.

    Get rid of this singer, guys. Please. For the sake of us all.

    Like

Rock a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s