Merry Christmas, Harrison!
I took some flak when I first reviewed this. “So funny, you guys bashing on a Maiden album,” said a disbelieving Aaron. “Compared to contemporaries, you gotta know they still kick ass and take names over any of the pretenders to the throne.” If only it were that simple. More recently, Blaze Bayley-devotee Harrison has questioned my 1/5 star score. It’s time to revisit the album after seven years and see if it sounds any better.
Ever wonder why Blaze only lasted two albums with Iron Maiden? Most people assume it’s because they were more popular with Bruce, which is true. But there was more to the story than that. The evidence is here on Virtual Lights Strikes Over France, a live bootleg from the 1998 tour. A handful of tracks aside, Blaze’s voice was in rough shape. He struggles to hit and hold notes, on his own material no less. He’s not as bad as Vince Neil, mind you. He sings all the words and gives it all he’s got. He’s just continually flat or sharp on key notes.
“Futureal” starts things in a promising manner, powerful and solid. The struggle begins on “Angel and the Gambler”, missing notes here and there. He begins “Lightning Strikes Twice” prematurely. He does OK through the verses, but the chorus is a lost cause. This is the tipping point.
“Man on the Edge” from The X Factor should be a slam dunk. The problem is when Blaze hits a bad note, he really commits to it. When the first Bruce Dickinson song is up, “Heaven Can Wait”, it’s all over. No matter how good Iron Maiden are, this version is as close to unlistenable as the storied metal band ever gets. Bayley recovers for a while on “Clansman”, but “Two Worlds Collide” must be tougher to sing. “Murders in the Rue Morgue” is a slaughter. Shame, since it’s a rarely performed Paul Di’Anno tune. “2 Minutes” is marginally better.
In general, Blaze fares better on his own songs, but that doesn’t mean they’re exempt from problems. You have to be a patient fan to listen to the entire set in one sitting, and you’ll absolutely wince multiple times.
The second CD has three bonus tracks from a show two years prior, from the X-Factour. On these, Blaze is tops! The difference is striking. Here, he’s got the power necessary to accompany Iron Maiden on stage. You can at least buy this CD for definitive live versions of “Fortunes of War”, “Blood on the World’s Hands” and “The Aftermath”. It’s clear Blaze’s voice had changed between the two tours.
Am I being harsh? Admittedly, yes, but for two reasons.
- Iron Maiden and Steve Harris have higher standards than this.
- I paid $60 for this goddamn thing.
The main point though is 1. Obviously this situation was not going to be sustainable and Harris made the necessary change. If he hadn’t, Iron Maiden might have risked being known as one of those bands who are hit and miss in concert, like Kiss and Motley Crue today.
I am going to revise the score higher. It is live, and it’s not all terrible. But few songs are free from some seriously sour notes, and for that reason, Virtual Lights will remain the least played Maiden CD in my collection.