the x factor

#463: The X Factor Failure

 

GETTING MORE TALE #463: The X Factor Failure

When Bruce Dickinson left Iron Maiden in 1993, the metal world was rocked yet again by another major defection.  First Vince Neil, then Rob Halford, and now Bruce!  It seemed the old guard of 80’s metal had suddenly fallen from the top of the world, to critical condition on life support.

Some fans gave up.  The loyal waited eagerly for news.  First were the rumours that Paul Di’Anno would come back (quickly shot down by Steve Harris).  Then Michael Kiske from Helloween had his name dropped in a few speculative magazine articles.  Finally in 1994, the identity of the new singer was released:  Blaze Bayley, ex-Wolfsbane.  In North America, the majority  muttered, “Who?”  The fans who still cared, anyway.  Those who did not cut their hair and moved on to Soundgarden and Alice in Chains.

Another long quiet year went by before new Maiden music hit the shelves.  When it did, in the form of the album The X Factor, it was clear that Iron Maiden had changed.  They were now a quieter, darker animal, with a singer to suit that sound.  The departure was not well received.  Fans were not impressed by the long, repetitive songs, nor the lower-voiced singer.  The album failed to make a significant dent in the charts, although it sold well initially in Quebec,  the last stalwart of metal in Canada.  One fan who did accept and embrace the changes was yours truly, Mr. LeBrain, but not without taking flak for it.

When the CD was released, I was already working at the Record Store, so I bought it immediately.  We didn’t stock enough copies to get it in early, or even offer a good price on it.  In other words, we ordered just three copies of the new Iron Maiden CD, with one of those being reserved for me!   That’s how far Maiden had fallen.  It took two or three good listens to adjust to the new softer Maiden, but certain songs jumped out fairly quickly, such as “The Sign of the Cross” and “Lord of the Flies”.  I enjoyed the darkly introspective lyrics on new songs such as “The Aftermath” and “Look for the Truth”.

The girl I was dating at the time was not into rock music; not in the least.  The last CD I bought for her was Much Dance ’95, featuring such hits as “What is Love” by Haddaway, “Saturday Night” by Whigfield, and of course, “Macarena”.  I even took a bullet and listened to it with her, the whole thing.  In turn, she tried to give my Joe Satriani a shot, but she wasn’t particularly interested.   I knew there was no chance she’d be into Iron Maiden, but since I was excited that they had new music out, I was talking about it a lot.  I tried to tell her how much I was enjoying the new lyrics on the album.

That’s when she said the words I will never, ever forget:

“Why are you even listening to new Iron Maiden?  You know they will never be popular again.”

 

Aye carumba!

Popular?  What true Maiden fan ever bought an album because it was popular?

I was deeply disappointed in her words, and even a little hurt.  I was trying to convey to her that the words and music were impacting me; I was feeling something and wanted to express that.  It is always good when music provokes thoughts and feelings.  I would have loved for the album to be successful, but that wasn’t the point.  I never listened to Maiden to be cool.

She dumped me shortly after I bought the new Lisa Loeb album for her.  Damn you, Lisa Loeb.  Then, she started banging an ex-girlfriend of mine, and her new boyfriend…at the same time.

Let me repeat that for you just in case you missed it.

Then, she started banging an ex-girlfriend of mine, and her new boyfriend, at the same time.  Both of them.

Henceforth, I dove headfirst into that Maiden album to drown my misery, and it became one of several discs that were my soundtrack to that miserable winter for me: Maiden, Ozzy’s Ozzmosis, and Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory.  If there is a reason I have a soft spot for The X Factor by Iron Maiden, you can blame that girl who said they’d never be popular again.

While all is forgiven today, I have not forgotten that remark (obviously), and the amazing thing is that she was 100% wrong.  Maiden are more popular today than they ever have been.   Their T-shirts have become fashion statements.  Kids who weren’t even born when Bruce left the band are buying tickets to see them live in 2016!  But much more important than that, they have achieved a level of artistic integrity and consistency that most bands should be envious of.

Maiden, never popular again?  File that under failed predictions from the 90’s, right next to the Y2k scare!  Up the Irons!

SAM_1037

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Part 208: Flashback 1995

RECORD STORE TALES Part 208:  Flashback 1995

November/December 1995 was freakin’ busy.  We sold a lot of discs that Christmas.  What we didn’t do was listen to a lot of discs!  No; our boss really, really liked Don Henley and TLC.  He played them ad-nauseum.  Like on repeat three times in a row.  I’m not kidding about that.  I distinctly remember the repeat.  Here are the Top Three Discs I Had to Listen to Until My Ears Bled, December 1995.

3. Boney M – Christmas Album

2. Don Henley – Actual Miles

1. TLC – CrazySexyCool

Trevor on the other hand was introducing me to Oasis and managed to get a few cool discs into rotation:

3. The Beatles – Anthology Vol. 1 (usually just disc 2)

2. Foo Fighters – Foo Fighters 

1. Oasis – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?

We were also working with this new guy, Donnie, and we let him pick Dance Mix ’95 a few times.  Unfortunately, the Big Shiny Tunes series hadn’t begun yet.

I didn’t get to pick as many discs as the others — the boss didn’t like my picks.  When I did, I chose the new Def Leppard – Vault (Greatest Hits 1980-1995).

Looking back, there were also a few albums that I found utterly disappointing that season.  They included:

3. AC/DC – Ballbreaker

2. Lenny Kravitz – Circus

1. Savatage – Dead Winter Dead

All three were albums that I was solidly looking forward to, but largely disappointed me.  I never did buy Circus.  I own the other two, but only because I’m a completest (and I got AC/DC for $3).

Finally there were three albums that really got me through that season.  I had just been dumped by my first serious girlfriend and I was really angry about it.  Away from work (my boss didn’t want these ones played in the store) these three albums totally spoke to me that Christmas:

3. Alice in Chains – Alice in Chains

2. Ozzy Osbourne – Ozzmosis

1. Iron Maiden – The X Factor

Let me tell you something people:  I still fuckin’ hate TLC.  I’ll never go chasin’ waterfalls, ever again.

Next time on Record Store Tales…

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

REVIEW: Iron Maiden – The X Factor (plus singles,1995)

Part 21 of my series of Iron Maiden reviews!

IRON MAIDEN – The X Factor (1995 EMI)

A lot of fans confidently proclaimed that you can’t replace Bruce Dicksinson.  To some degree, they were right, but Iron Maiden refused to pack it in.  Steve Harris was going through dark times, particularly a painful divorce.  It was Dave Murray who fired up the demoralized band:  “Why should we pack it in just because he quit?”

They began the audition process, eventually calling Wolfsbane vocalist Blaze Bayley.  Wolfsbane were once the new proteges of none other than Rick Rubin, who signed the band to Def American and produced their first album.  Regardless of Rubin’s involvement, Wolfsbane made little impact.

Bayley turned up at the audition and they played roughly seven numbers including “Hallowed” and “The Trooper”.  The personalities meshed and after listening back to the tapes, it was Nicko who declared, “There, now that sounds like Iron Maiden, dunnit?”

With the resulting album, The X Factor, as the only evidence before us, one might wonder just what Nicko was hearing.  I remember being quite surprised when I listened for the first time:  “This guy doesn’t have any range!”  His voice fit in better with the darker tone of the 1990’s than Bruce’s did, but would it work?

As an album – disregarding the live shows, stage presence, or what happens later – I think The X Factor is damn fine.   Perhaps it’s not a fine Iron Maiden album, although Steve ranks it among his top three.  It’s decidedly darker, softer & slower and sparse, but it is also deeply personal.  Characters on all songs are tortured souls, reflecting Steve’s inner torment.

Also important to note:  This is the first Iron Maiden album since the first one, not to be produced by Martin Birch.  Now, Steve Harris and Nigel Green were producing at Steve’s home studio.

The band made no bones about the new direction, starting off with the 11 minute epic “Sign of the Cross”.  A new sound, Gregorian chanting, begins this tale based on The Name of the Rose, specifically the torture part!  Blaze ominously warns that “Eleven saintly shrouded men have come to wash my sins away.”  The song was written solely by Steve Harris and it follows in the mold set by Fear of the Dark:  long, soft, bass-driven sections backed by soft keyboard beds.

It suddenly lurches into a slow march around the 2:45 mark, sounding much like Iron Maiden, but slowed down, more precise, and with a lower, rougher voice spitting out the words.  It is similar to past epics in that it goes through different sections and dynamics.  Although a soft epic, it is one of the best songs of the Blaze era.  Indeed, the band continued to perform it even on the Brave New World tour.

As if to allay your fears that Maiden has gone soft, “Lord of the Flies” is next, retelling the old story of the boys stranded on the jungle island .  It stutters forward at first before breaking into a solid groove.  This Harris/Gers winner was chosen as the second single.  Once again, Maiden continued to perform it even into the Dance of Death tour.  Blaze growls his way through the words, his solid baritone carrying the catchy verses and choruses.  Davey’s familiar guitar stylings in the solo are vintage Iron Maiden.

The third song on the album to be based on a book or movie is next, the manic “Man on the Edge”.   Blaze’s first writing credit with Steve, it’s based on the excellent (and my personal favourite) Michael Douglas film, Falling Down.  Lyrically though…this one is pretty poor:

The freeway is jammed and it’s backed up for miles
The car is an oven and baking is wild
Nothing is ever the way it should be
What we deserve we just don’t get you see

A briefcase, a lunch and a man on the edge
Each step gets closer to losing his head
Is someone in heaven are they looking down
‘Cause nothing is fair just you look around

Really guys?  “The car is an oven and baking is wild”?  What does that even mean?

Even though the band continued to play this one into the Ed Hunter tour, it’s not really a standout Maiden track to me.  While it serves as a fast manic number to bang your head to while singing along, it’s simply not that great a song.

Maiden wisely sequenced these three songs first, three songs that wouldn’t alienate fans or critics even with the change at the microphone.  It is only now that The X Factor begins to show its true dark face.

“Fortunes of War” is a slow, mournful ballad, a beautiful song, perhaps the sequel to “Afraid to Shoot Strangers” lyrically and musically.  There’s Steve’s bass, backing the soft sections with faint keyboards.  As if you couldn’t tell by the bass being one of the lead melodic instruments, this one was solely written by Steve.  I like this song.  Reading between the lines you can hear Steve’s pain, and you can definitely hear it musically, before the song kicks into a triumphant upbeat section with guitar harmonies at 4:35.

“Look For the Truth” is next, beginning ballad-like before going into a mid-tempo stomp.  This song featured the new writing triumvirate of Steve, Blaze and Janick.  Lyrically, it would be seem to be inspired by Steve’s personal struggles.  Musically, I think this is another strong number, and it has a great Davey solo.  If there is one thing that always grounds Iron Maiden to its roots on The X Factor, it is Davey’s solos.

This concluded the first side.  Side two begins  with another slow one, “The Aftermath”, written by the same triumvirate.  It is at this point that I began to tire of the slow pace.  Lyrically I don’t think this one stands up to anything on side one.  Another war song, it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table.  It was dropped from the live set after this tour.

Although it’s still the bass carrying the melody, “Judgement of Heaven” quickens the pace.   “I’ve been depressed so long, it’s hard to remember when I was happy,” sings Blaze on this obviously Steve-written piece.  Yet it’s a positive message, Steve trying to stay strong and look to the future.  Once it gets going, it’s a pretty good song, with the chorus being particularly catchy.  Blaze’s “yeah yeah’s!” are as close as we get to hearing Blaze trying to do anything in an upper range!

The worst song is up next, “Blood on the World’s Hands”.  A really dull Steve bass melody (guess who wrote this song!) takes a full 1:12 to introduce the damn song!  There’s nothing here that really makes the song memorable.

Although it starts very slow (again) with bass melodies carrying it (again), “The Edge of Darkness” is a much better song.  It follows the plot and quotes dialogue from Apocalypse Now:  “What I wanted a mission, and for my sins they gave me one.”  Musically, Nicko pounds this one into submission.  It stomps forward like a powerful beast, unstoppable, albeit slow and plodding.  But fear not, it picks up again at 2:55, going into a faster guitar-harmony based section.  Although the album certainly does not need more slower songs at this point, “The Edge of Darkness” is a win.

Less successful is the introspective “2 a.m.”.  It’s not dreadful, but it’s pretty pedestrian for Maiden, although I’m sure it was deeply personal to Steve.  It’s yet another slow song that goes into a powerful stomp, but that’s too many now.

The quirky “The Unbeliever” ends the album on a better note.  It has a neat slippery little riff, and it’s rhythmically very different. Written by Harris/Gers, it’s marked with a standout Janick solo.  Even though it’s fast paced, there’s no denying that “The Unbeliever” lacks the crunch and volume of Maiden songs of yore.

And that perhaps is one of the most surprising things about The X Factor.  Regardless of the change in direction, singer and artwork, it is the production that shocked me.  Clean, free of dirt and distortion, Iron Maiden had never sounded this clear on record.  But is that a good thing?  I desperately wanted a little more grit and grime in the guitars, not to mention volume.  The production is otherwise excellent.  The drums are like Bonham on steroids and the bass (of course) chimes perfectly on every cut.  I just wish there was more guitar.  It’s Iron Maiden, and I felt like I didn’t get enough guitar.

This being a new era for Iron Maiden, the band chose Hugh Syme (he of many Rush and Megadeth covers not to mention dozens more) for the new Eddie.  Going for a realistic look, the Eddie lobotomy cover was deemed too scary for some markets, and we received the less graphic electric chair cover facing front.

Now, onto the singles.

The first single, “Man on the Edge” had numerous B-sides.

“Justice of the Peace”:  A fast paced rocker about injustice in today’s “sick society”, again reflecting Maiden’s new darker, serious lyrical bent. This is Dave Murray’s only writing credit (with Steve). (Available on US CD single or UK CD single part 1.)

“Judgement Day”:  Manic and fast like “Man on the Edge”, relentless although not tremendously catchy.  (Available on US CD single, or UK CD single part 2.)

“I Live Way Way”:  Starts slow and chime-y like many of the album songs. Yet it launches up to speed after this intro.  Another fast B-side, I’m now wondering why Maiden chose to stack the album so heavy with slow songs and pseudo-ballads when they had all this stuff waiting in the wings?  Perhaps replacing two album songs with two of these could have changed the balance so much.   (Available only on 12″ single or Japanese 2 CD version of The X Factor.  The 12″ single comes with a massive poster.)

Parts 1 and 2 of the UK CD single also had a two part Blaze Bayley interview.   Essential only to the fan.

It also came with a box designed to house the album and future singles.  But even when I include my redundant US “Man On The Edge” CD in the box, there’s still room to spare.  This indicates to me that there were more singles planned but cancelled.

The second single, “Lord of the Flies” had two awesome B-sides!  Covers.  Covers of “My Generation” (The Who) and “Doctor Doctor” (UFO)!  And let me tell you, Maiden is one of a few bands that can do “My Generation” properly.  Steve ably handles the backing vocals while Blaze spits his way through the lead.  This sounds very live off the floor and perhaps it was.  “Doctor Doctor” is one that I actually prefer to the UFO original.  Blaze nails the vocal, the band are solidly in the groove, and Nicko nails it home.  Surely, this must be considered one of the best Maiden covers of all time!

Conclusion and final thoughts:

As always, context is very important.  When The X Factor came out, I was working at the store, and I had been waiting three long years to hear it.   It was the mid-90’s, and most bands chose to get “darker” or “more serious” or “modernize” in order to stay relevant.  It was true from Bon Jovi to Metallica with varying degrees of success.

For me, The X Factor was one of the few things that had come out worth listening to that fall, and I listened to it non-stop.  It was largely the novelty, and partly the lack of other new options, but I grew to really like most of The X Factor.  It took three listens, I do remember that much.  But in the 1990’s, all things considered, it really wasn’t that bad.

3.75/5 stars

Part 116: IRON MAIDEN’s Gonna Get Ya…No Matter How Far! (The first 10, in 2 CD picture discs!)

Alright folks, strap yourselves in and get ready for the ride.  After the positive feedback from my series of Kiss reviews, I’ve decided to go with popular demand and do all the Iron Maiden next.  We’re going to talk about every studio album, every live album, every compilation, and every rarity that I have access to.  But why not start off with a Record Store Tale?  Here’s how I acquired rare editions of the crucial first 10 albums….

 RECORD STORE TALES PART 116:

IRON MAIDEN’s Gonna Get Ya…No Matter How Far!

My love of Maiden is well documented.  The very first blog here at LeBrain’s Record Store Tales, Part 1, was called “Run To The Hills”. It describes the first time I ever heard the band.  I don’t need to explain to you why I love Iron Maiden.  If you’re reading this, chances are that you already understand.  Iron Maiden are more than just a band.  They are a passion.  With a band like Maiden, the fans strive to own everything.

The setting:  Early 1996, when we still carried new CD stock.  One of our suppliers dropped off a brand new catalogue.  Inside, was a new listing.  An exciting new listing!

Iron Maiden were reissuing their first 10 albums in 2 CD editions, with a bonus disc of B-sides!  Picture discs!  Iron Maiden, Killers, The Number of the Beast, Peace of Mind, Powerslave, Live After Death, Somewhere In Time, Seventh Son, No Prayer, and Fear of the Dark!  Knowing that Maiden usually released a minimum of two singles per album, with a minimum of 2 B-sides per single, this was a MUST for me.  I didn’t have all the Maiden singles.  Not even close.  Some of these songs, like “Burning Ambition” and “Invasion”, I’d never even heard before!  Now I was going to have the chance to own them on CD.

The discs were expensive, even with my staff discount.  But there was absolutely no way I was missing these.  As an added incentive, I didn’t even own all the Maiden albums on CD yet.  Most of these albums I still only owned on cassette or vinyl!  So really, it was a win-win situation.  Not only was I getting the B-sides, but I was also getting all the Maiden albums on CD with a minimum of overlap with my existing collection.  Plus, these were picture discs with Derek Riggs’ singles artwork.  Picture discs were something of a novelty at the time.  Today, most CDs are picture discs and nobody cares if they are.


My boss warned me:  “If you order these, you better make sure you buy them all.”  There was absolutely no question of that, I’m surprised he even mentioned it, knowing what a collector I am.  It’s too bad we didn’t order more, for stock.  The rarity of these discs has shown that we could have sold them quickly, or better yet, hung onto them for a couple years and jacked up the price once they were out of print.

The supplier we were ordering from, the name of which escapes me, was a small-time supplier, and usually couldn’t get everything we ordered.  They had about a 50% success rate.  Yet he listed all these European imports that our main supplier usually shied away from.  The Maiden reissues were all from Europe.  I crossed my fingers.  I wanted all 10.  Not “some”, but all!  “Some” would not do it!

A week later, the first five Maidens arrived!  The following week, another chunk of Maiden shipped!  They only failed to get me one disc: Fear of the Dark.  Resolving to get it somehow, it turns out I didn’t need to worry about it.  Two weeks later, even that one arrived.  Total expenditure:  About $300 with taxes!  I had all 10.  My Maiden B-side collection:  almost complete!  [Note:  When I go through the Maiden reviews, we’ll cover all the B-sides, including songs that are not on these deluxe editions.]

I settled in for some long, long nights of listening.  I made a compilation tape of all the B-sides that I had (including up to the current album, The X Factor), and it ended up being 3 tapes, 100 minute cassettes, which I still have.  To knock so many songs off my wishlist in one fell swoop like this was the kind of thing I lived for.  This was the perk of working in a record store.  What a score!  Today, I don’t know anybody else who has the full set of 10.

Be sure to check back in the coming days and weeks for all the reviews, starting with The Soundhouse Tapes, to the present day…