Part 39 of my series of Iron Maiden reviews!
IRON MAIDEN – A Matter of Life and Death (2006 CD/DVD)
“Majestic” is the best word I can think of to describe A Matter of Life and Death, the 14th studio album by Iron Maiden (and 3rd of the “reunion era). That, and “classic”! This truly is classic Maiden: Most songs running between 7 and 9 minutes long, recorded virtually live off the floor, raw and epic. I truly believe that this represents the absolute peak of Maiden’s creativity. While not a concept album like Seventh Son, it does indeed follow themes: war, religion, humanity.
Anybody who thought Dance of Death sounded tired had better get ready to be blown away by a revitalized band. This is the best album of the reunion era, my favourite from the sextet period, and a shining moment in the Maiden canon. 10 songs, over an hour of music. If you’re not a fan of long-winded Maiden, then perhaps this one’s not for you.
While “Different World” starts the show in a fast and furious way, similar to “Wildest Dreams” from Dance of Death, this is no re-tread. This time, melody is at the forefront, especially when Bruce lets rip in the chorus. To boot, there’s a great dual guitar solo before Adrian (the master of melody) takes one of his own. This one was written by Steve Harris and Adrian Smith, which almost always proves to be a ferocious, melodious combination. But it is also the shortest number on the album, and not in any way indicative of the challenging songs to come!
As if the opening was not good enough, “These Colours Don’t Run” is next. Going through multiple tempos, from that slow-burn Maiden opening that they’d become known for, to a pounding march, this is another winner. It is a seven minute epic with many changes, never getting dull, dueling guitars and complex rhythms, always sounding like Iron Maiden. Producer Kevin Shirley says that Bruce laid down all his vocals live off the floor. If that’s the case, it explains why there is so much magic in his voice. This is incredible. The lyrics reflect an older, wiser Maiden. No longer satisfied with simple war epics, there is a sadness here now.
Far away from the land of our birth
We fly a flag in some foreign earth
We sailed away like our fathers before
These colours don’t run from cold bloody war
“These Colours”, and the next song, “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns” were written by the triumvirate of Bruce, Steve and Adrian, which has produced so many Maiden classics in the past. The lyrics for “Thousand Suns” reflects religion, war and the atomic bomb. I’m a big fan of Bruce’s lyrics. There is even a subtle reference to Robert Oppenheimer:
Whatever would Robert have said to his God?
About how he made war with the sun
E equals MC squared, you can’t relate
How we made God with our hands
This song is not as immediate as the first two, and the chorus still has that repetition that had plagued previous albums, but its melodic quality and epic solos allow it to rise above. It’s 9 minutes long, probably could have been shorter, but aside from a couple repeated lines of chorus, I don’t know what I would cut. I like it all.
A shorter one (but still over 5 minutes), “The Pilgrim”, was written by Steve and Janick. Religion and war are the themes here, seen through the eyes of Steve. Musically it starts with a stomp, similar to a section of “Afraid to Shoot Strangers”, but then they release the brake and accelerate, culminating into another melodic chorus. Short songs like this help balance the longer material, although the previous songs are superior.
“The Longest Day” begins ominously, like a landing craft gliding quietly through the water. Once again, Steve, Adrian and Bruce have written a war classic. Something about Bruce’s lyrics, they’re never simple. They always have layers to them, and “The Longest Day” is like that. He spits the words out like a rifle, and the song is spellbinding for its entire 8 minute length, guitar harmonies intertwining with Nicko’s relentless war march. And that ends side one.
“Out of the Shadows” begins side two on a somewhat mellow note, acoustic guitars mixed with electrics, and a slower tempo. Bruce wrote this one with Steve, a rare pairing. It is probably a good thing to sequence a slow song somewhere in here, as the relentless pounding of the previous five may well have left your brain nothing but mush. Fortunately there is an epic chorus here to keep us firmly in Maiden-land.
And oh-my-God, if you happened to sleep through “Out of the Shadows”, then Benjamin Breeg has arrived to wake you from your slumber! I’ll say it again: the rare occasions that Dave Murray writes a song, it usually produces gold. “The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg” is a monstrous epic, and even though it starts slow, that riff will make the dead rise from their graves. “Benjamin Breeg” is certainly one of the most immediate songs on the album, no mean feat for a song that is 7 1/2 minutes long! That time goes by in a blur so quickly, you’ll want to hit the back button on your player of choice and see what you may have missed. Awesome song, and a very brave choice as first single. There is no question: This one would make any Iron Maiden mix tape that I put together, hands down.
And as if that wasn’t enough, almost 10 minutes of “For the Greater Good of God” follows. Another condemnation of the combination of religion and war, “For the Greater Good of God” is the only song written solely by Steve. That too is a rare thing, as in the past he usually provides half an album on his own. A Matter of Life and Death truly is a collaborative effort. Twisting and turning through many sections, light and shade, this song too would fight for space on any Maiden mix CD that I make. I have heard criticism that its flaw is Steve trying to cram too many syllables into one line during the choruses. After a few listens, you don’t really notice anymore.
If you still have any life left in you after that pummeling, then prepare to meet the “Lord of Light”. Yet another Smith/Dickinson/Harris composition, it too exceeds 7 minutes. Starting quietly, it soon turns into a relentless pummeling, the three guitars behaving as one, Bruce soaring overtop. Nicko and Steve drive the whole Beast forward, this is probably the heaviest song in many respects, with a great chorus and many changes in tempo.
And finally, “The Legacy”. Almost 10 minutes long, “The Legacy” is very different for Maiden. It is a Steve/Janick composition, mellow, and lyrically devastating.
Sent off to war to play little games
And on their return, can’t name no names
Some strange yellow gas
Has played with their minds
Has reddened their eyes, removed all the lies
As if the acoustic “Journeyman” from the last album injected a new dose of courage into the band, “The Legacy” is a daring way to end an album this heavy. It begins acoustically and takes a little while to start cooking. When it does kick into gear, it is a relentless rhythm, and a total triumph. One of Maiden’s more challenging but rewarding epics.
The sound of this album is the perfect mix of heavy and raw with just enough polish. The sound straight from the mix was so hot, the band and Kevin Shirley chose not to master this album. The CD on the shelves is straight from the mixing desk, an unusual choice in mainstream music. I can’t name another album that wasn’t mastered! But the sound is perfect, I can’t fault this choice. It has an immediate, lively, vital sound. Certainly Bruce’s vocals are a highlight, and if they were live off the floor then more power to him.
(Hey, what happens when they eventually remaster the Maiden catalogue? What will they call this album? Just “mastered”?)
As far as the direction goes, the tempos are more “march” and less “gallop”, and that’s fine. It’s not about repeating the past, it’s about making a great heavy metal album, and Maiden have done that. Did I miss “the gallop” on this album? No more than I did on previous Maiden platters like Brave New World. The album is riff laden, complex, and layered. You can’t “get” it in just a couple listens. A Matter of Life and Death demands that you devote a great deal of time to it, but when you do, it will pay you back a hundred fold.
Even the cover art is a vast improvement over Dance of Death. Even though Eddie is in the background this time, it’s a great piece of art, by Tim Bradstreet with Grant Goleash. It is evocative of the music and lyrics, and just a great picture to look at.
iTunes offered a bonus track, a live version of “Hallowed Be Thy Name”, but it is available on some of the singles that we’ll talk about later. Stay tuned and we’ll discuss all the bonus tracks and B-sides. There is also a bonus DVD, a documentary on the making of the album. Included is the “Benjamin Breeg” video, a photo gallery, and an in-studio performance of “Different World”.
In summation, I believe that A Matter of Life and Death is the greatest album of reunion era Maiden. I also believe it to be their best album since Seventh Son, perhaps even surpassing that lofty masterpiece in some respects.