Part 43 of my series of Iron Maiden reviews!
IRON MAIDEN – The Final Frontier (2010, EMI)
Iron Maiden had a hell of an album to live up to when they recorded The Final Frontier. 2006’s A Matter of Life and Death was a total triumph, a complex driving metal masterpiece. Witness: Not one but two 5/5 star reviews here on LeBrain’s Blog alone.
The Final Frontier begins daringly, with an incredible piece of music unlike anything Maiden have ever attempted before. The rhythmic intro “Satellite 15…” begins sounding like an improvised piece, but knowing Steve Harris and Adrian Smith who wrote it, it was anything but. It has a looseness that sounds like improvisation, but then Nicko’s persistent drum patterns ground it. Bruce’s plaintive vocals speak of “drifting way off course now” and trying to contact Earth, without success. The piece is loaded with tension, which is released only as it breaks into the first actual song, “The Final Frontier”.
Continuing the lyrical theme, Steve writes of drifting through space, alone, unable to bid his family farewell. Musically this is anthemic Maiden as Steve and Adrian have been known to write before, with a catchy riff and chorus. Some of the guitar work is reminiscent of 1986’s Somewhere In Time. I find it daring to team such a catchy metal tune with an abstract intro like “Satellite 15…”
Without letting up for a second, the lead single “El Dorado” gallops through the speakers. And yes, it’s an actual vintage Maiden galloping start! Written by the triumvirate of Steve, Adrian, and Bruce (who have written so many classics in the past), “El Dorado” careens through multiple sections all tied together by the effortless playing of the band. Adrian’s catchy yet exotic solo is a highlight. It’s not an obvious single at almost 7 minutes long, but this length is necessary to contain all the different riffs and sections. None of them are extraneous; every bit of this song is as good as the last, although it sounds like Bruce is reaching for notes too high on the chorus.
The heaviness lets up briefly for the start of “Mother of Mercy”, a brief but epic sounding track that could have fit happily on the Brave New World CD. Yet it’s even more riff laden than anything on that album, continuing The Final Frontier‘s tendency to cram awesome guitar after awesome guitar into one song. It’s a mere five minutes long, written again by Steve and Adrian, with another catchy chorus delivered with power by Bruce. A song like this proves that Maiden can be brief yet still cram all of their power and talent into a catchy five minute number. The lyrics question the deadly combination of war and religion.
How much more epic can you get? None more epic than the chorus of “Coming Home”. A Smith/Dickinson/Harris epic, the lyrics reflect Bruce’s love of aviation within one of the best choruses they’ve ever written. By any other band this might be considered a “power ballad”, but at no point in its six minute length do I really consider it as such. This is surely one of the best songs on The Final Frontier. There’s even a bluesy guitar solo (probably Davey) to fit the melancholy mood of the song.
“The Alchemist” is the shortest song on the album, but the first that is a traditional fast Maiden scorcher. It has a solid Janick Gers riff (who co-wrote it with Bruce and Steve) and Bruce spits out the quick verses. Janick’s solo is his typical manic style, but as a song, this is the weakest on the album thus far. It’s not as memorable or impactful as the four previous, but a fast one is required to balance out the more progressive material elsewhere.
And speaking of more progressive material, “Isle of Avalon”, written by Steve and Adrian, takes us back into that territory. Nine minutes long, it is very different lyrically from anything Steve’s done before: Celtic legends and mythology and all that. And of course, it has multiple riffs, time changes and melodies to keep the listening entranced through the whole length. It’s an effortless listen despite its complexity, simply because it’s loaded with great guitar parts.
One of my favourite tunes is next: “Starblind”. It’s another Bruce/Steve/Adrian masterpiece, and not too brief at almost eight minutes long. It starts slow, but the main riff kicks in at 50 seconds. Be prepared to be pummeled! Bruce delivers an epic chorus, while the lyrics seem to be another condemnation of corrupt religious figures (a traditional Maiden topic). Nicko’s drum patterns are anything but simple; this is one more progressive Maiden masterpiece.
The heaviness of “Starblind” is replaced by the acoustic intro of “The Talisman”. Yet another eight minute epic track, “The Talisman” was written by Steve and Janick. 2 1/2 minutes in, you’re assaulted with the next in what seems like an endless stream of incredible Maiden riffs. Bruce wails away of a treacherous ocean journey. Steve has written some of his catchiest melodies yet, with plenty of twists and turns. Yet another classic.
“The Man Who Would Be King” also starts slow, before moving into a classic sounding Maiden guitar harmony riff. This one was written by Steve and Dave Murray. Again, it’s not brief: Over eight minutes of riffs, melodies and changes. Lyrically, it doesn’t seem to have any great connection to the book or movie, The Man Who Would Be King. Musically, it’s another complex amalgam of amazing parts acting as a whole. Songs like these, there is no way to fully appreciate them after just one listen. Even now I’m finding new appreciation for “The Man Who Would Be King”. It has some sections that sound more “vintage” Maiden than anything else on The Final Frontier, but they’re over in a blink and onto the next section! This is a hell of a song to digest, must like the rest of the album.
Finally, the end of your journey into The Final Frontier: the epic track “When The Wild Wind Blows”. This is my personal favourite song, ten minutes of non-stop drama. This is the Harris album epic; the song that lives up to the legacy set by previous epics such as “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”. Lyrically, it’s an end-0f-the-world scenario, as they huddle in their bunkers waiting for apocalypse from the sky. When the world doesn’t end, they are found dead anyway, having consumed poison. Once again, the song has many different sections, each one more powerful than the last, all wrapped in those trademark Maiden guitar melodies.
There is no denying that The Final Frontier is a challenging listen. It is also a rewarding listen, a complete journey with a start, middle and ending. Very few bands can manage an album like this fully 30 years into their recording careers. Maiden have managed to do so, and not only that, but with their strongest lineup intact strong as ever. With the production talents of Kevin Shirley, the band managed a crisp sound that strikes a balance between polished and live.
Melvyn Grant has returned to do the cover; easily his best cover with Iron Maiden. An alien Eddie searches a derelict alien vessel for some kind of key. I don’t get it, but I don’t care. I’m a sucker for the alien motif. Two of my favourite things combined at long last — Iron Maiden, and aliens!
For the first time ever, there are no B-sides to discuss. There was only one single, which was “El Dorado”. Dan Slessor from Kerrang! magazine sent me a promotional copy of the single, a really nice collectible in a 7″ sleeve (with even printed “wear marks” to make it look like a vinyl single is inside)! It can be seen below for your enjoyment. Disappointingly though, it is merely a CD-R, not an actual factory pressed CD. I guess the old days have finally passed. Why send out an expensive promo single when everybody else is simply sending electronic files?
Lastly, there was a deluxe “Mission Edition” of this album made available with interview footage conducted by Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen; unfortunately this content was not compatible in Canada so I never bought it. My copy did come with a cool Final Frontier sticker though.