The Number of the Beast was the first heavy metal album I ever bought (on cassette from Fred Meyer’s at Lloyd Center Mall in Portland, Oregon, during the summer of 1982). Even though Iron Maiden catalyzed my love of heavy metal, instantly and forever becoming the standard by which so many others would be judged, I never really got mad at them for apparently trying so hard to undo in the nineties the legacy they’d built the previous decade. I already had those eighties albums, after all, and who could blame them when so many other once great bands had already paved the road to irrelevance? Mostly, I just thought it was such a shame that the uncompromising progression shown through Seventh Son… seemed to have been abandoned. So, the band’s relative return to form with Brave New World was a welcome surprise but showed the band to have room enough to grow further yet. The continued expansion of the Iron Maiden sound has yielded albums that take longer to absorb, but only come close to capturing the durability of the early records. Despite being heavily back-loaded, The Final Frontier may have finally rediscovered Iron Maiden’s ability to build an album with real stamina.
I don’t like to, but I have to say from the get go that I don’t care for the first two tracks. “Satellite 15…” is interesting because it’s this band’s first real stab at that sort of spaced out sound. Beyond that, it’s only a little less boring than its rudimentary rock-and-rolly second part, “The Final Frontier,” and the transition between the two doesn’t work at all. The opener isn’t bad, it’s just way below the band’s talent and just doesn’t have the fortitude to sustain itself otherwise. There is ample growth from here on that begins with “El Dorado”‘s livelier gait, high octane chorus and dynamic soloing, even if its foundation is as maddeningly mundane as its predecessor’s. “Mother of Mercy” recovers some of the band’s epic spirit and the outstanding “Coming Home” gets deep with hushed introspection and wide with overt sentimentality. Then, following the classic guitar harmonies and revved up chorus of “The Alchemist”, The Final Frontier hits a natural point of separation from its latter half. In fact, the addition of one more directly composed, constrained number here would have made for a cohesive, if mostly unspectacular, first disc of a double album.
Aside from the direct, linear nature of the songs thus far, a few notes of observation are in order at this point. The production is a puzzler, to be honest. Muddy, grayish and a little weak, even. It’s easy to acclimate and let it slide after a few listens, but all it takes is a listen back to any of the early albums (or even the last few) to realize The Final Frontier is missing some serious fire and clarity, energy in the guitars, punch in the drums. And Bruce’s voice is showing a bit more wear, especially at what should be but isn’t quite a goosebump-inducing moment at 1:23 of the intro to “Mother of Mercy.” But this is certainly no death knell, as he sounds as incredible as ever on most of the record. Finally, there is a definite air of optimism and inspiration here, in contrast to the sometimes oppressive dark of A Matter of Life and Death.
The album’s second half shows Iron Maiden’s late-era dedication to expansion and exploration to be fully intact. The band’s willingness to indulge the talents of its members has been their saving grace, as far as I’m concerned, and they have embraced them fully here. My favorite Maiden songs have always been those that took time to set themselves up and fully utilize the instruments in helping Bruce to tell compelling tales, and they’ve done it throughout their storied career, from “To Tame a Land” and “Seventh Son…” to “Blood Brothers” and “The Legacy.” I have to admit that 45 minutes worth of just five songs is a lot of breadth and depth to absorb, but a fan of progressive heavy metal couldn’t ask for more, especially when the songs stoke the listener’s fire to explore the bounty of the band’s artistic sojourn.
Whereas the fundamental formula is familiar within each of these five songs (light intro, building verses, powerful chorus, proggy bridge and solos), variation in tone and texture between the songs is key to the second half’s vital connection with the listener, as well as the best indicator that The Final Frontier has life in it to last a long, long time. “Isle of Avalon” reaches back to Seventh Son… in stirring a sense of wonder into the inspired optimism of the album’s first true progressive break, while “Starblind” maintains the progressive slant with more aggressive tones and builds lively and insistent discourse between guitar and vocal lines. “The Talisman” is a great, galloping, headlong plunge into psychadelic swoon, and the fantastically uplifting bridge of “The Man Who Would Be King” features inspired solos sown from the hopeful cry of the third guitar. Even though “Isle of Avalon” is my current personal favorite track, I must acknowledge the Celtic pride of “Where the Wild Wind Blows” as the defining achievement of The Final Frontier, as this a truly progressive song in that it eschews convention without leaning on any of the common crutches of prog.
The first half of this record is as good a heavy metal album as might be expected from an act that’s been toiling as long as Maiden and its second half exceeds all probable expectation with songs that reach and explore and never cease to discover. I was a little surprised to find that The Final Frontier took as long as it did to get me where I wanted to go, but I was astounded when it finally did. Though my love of Iron Maiden’s music is steeped deeply in the band’s history, their best moments have always been eyes-forward and this warm embrace of the future bodes well for a journey that as yet shows no sign of coming to its unwelcome end.