Andrew Edmund’s take:
Since there will never be another Queen album, there is no band whose new records I await with greater anticipation than those of Iron Maiden. Maiden was the band that first brought me to metal, and though I arrived just in time to witness the end of the classic era, I patiently weathered the storms of lost singers and new guitarists and the subsequent stretches of mediocrity. Through it all, I remain a flag-waving fanboy. I suspect that I shall be one forever.
It was a triumphant day for me, some ten years ago, when Bruce and Adrian came marching home, and the Brave New World that followed was a brilliant one, opening up before me in wonder equally familiar and unexpected. Iron Maiden had always embraced progressive elements, even in their most NWOBHM-charged moments, but Maiden In The New Millennium put an increased emphasis on the epic, the grandiose, the textured. Whereas the expansive natures of “Rime Of The Ancient Mariner” and “Alexander The Great” had always been highlights, on their respective albums, those tracks were counterbalanced against more immediate numbers like “Aces High,” “Wasted Years,” “Sea Of Madness” and so on. Picking up where the original line-up left off with the heady conceptualism and intricate arrangements of Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, Brave New World effectively flipped the Maiden formula – no longer were they a galloping, fist-pumping metal band underpinned by intelligent and lofty songwriting ideas; now they were becoming a progressive band who forged their compositions from the fiery metal of themselves some twenty years earlier.
And now, a decade later, with the holding pattern of Dance Of Death and the moody prog-metal of A Matter Of Life And Death behind us, I’m faced with the daunting task of putting fingers to keys and telling the tale of my exploration of The Final Frontier.
And the truth is, to give the answer in short form, I’m torn.
While I certainly enjoy this record, and while I have no direct intention of chaining Iron Maiden to their past or short-changing their output since Brave New World, there is a significant part of me that would very much like to see the balance restored a bit more in favor of the hell-yeah-and-fist-in-the-air punch of “The Trooper” or “Hallowed Be Thy Name.” I’d gladly trade the nine minutes of “The Talisman” for one “Where Eagles Dare” or one “Flash Of The Blade” or even one “Tailgunner.”
But what I have here, this Final Frontier, is a group of ten tracks, half of epic length (a seven-plus minute average running time), a set that opens with two of its weakest numbers. After the Hawkwind-leaning spaciness of “Satellite 15” gives way to the title track and then the acceptable-but-not-exceptional “El Dorado,” The Final Frontier begins to take shape in the soaring war-torn “Mother Of Mercy,” this album’s nod to the running theme of combat that stretches all the way back to the band’s earliest days. From “Mother” to the sing-along pseudo-ballad “Coming Home” through the harmonized riff of “The Alchemist” and into the stellar tandem of “Isle Of Avalon” and “Starblind,” The Final Frontier succeeds resoundingly before succumbing to its own grandeur on the back end. The final three tracks—at nearly a half-hour combined—push me into overload, and it’s here that I’d love to insert a simple, good ol’ Maiden rocker like “Die With Your Boots On.”
At seventy-six minutes and backloaded with its lengthiest tracks, the entire listening experience of The Final Frontier is no easy feat. Proper ingestion necessitates multiple spins and a decided focus, particularly in the disc’s latter half. While that’s all well and good (and Iron Maiden deserves both focus and multiple spins), the Maiden I truly love, the Maiden I’ve always loved, demanded multiple spins not because I wasn’t sure if I loved what I heard but because I was unquestionably certain that I did.
And there’s where I’m torn.
The Final Frontier does rock, albeit in a more mature manner, and it’s a commendable and well-constructed effort from a band that knows few equals. Maiden’s musicianship is top-notch, of course, and always has been—Dickinson’s voice is showing a bit of wear, but not enough to cause concern—and Kevin Shirley’s production is serviceable but not amazing. (The album art, however, is second only to Dance Of Death in sheer awfulness.) Where The Final Frontier loses a point is that I don’t quite feel the immediacy, of either the classic days or Brave New World—this one’s a grower, I know, but it’s the third grower in a row from a band that once knocked me down right out of the gate. By comparison, when I first heard “Rime Of The Ancient Mariner,” even with it at 12 minutes long and me at 12 years old, it hit me like a freight train, and I damn well got it the first time and every other of the approximately seventeen million times I’ve played it since.
Take all of that for what you will—those fans who love the progressive tendencies of modern Maiden will find this every bit as rewarding an album as the Irons have released since Brave New World because it is. Those tired of Steve Harris’ tendency toward excess will rate this one below Maiden’s best because it is. The Final Frontier is an album defined by its epics, and it is regrettably devoid of a single “Wicker Man”-esque contender to the arena-bombast heights of Maiden past. Even being somewhat overcome with the second half of it, I’d still place it on par with A Matter Of Life And Death, and it will make my year-end list because it is a grand record from a brilliant band. I got one hell of a record, even if it’s not exactly the one I wanted.
If Iron Maiden were to issue a statement that their next album will be comprised solely of an hour’s worth of Nicko McBrain finger-drumming a table while Bruce prattles on about the history of Eilmer of Malmesbury, I’d probably still pick it up. Why? Because it’s something I’ve done blindly since 1985. Such is the way of the über-devoted fan. And thusly we have ridiculous things such as Metallica floor mats, Motörhead beach balls (seriously) and KISS Destroyer diaper bags ($32.95 + shipping). These groups of celebrities we grow up with become much more than just bands delivering music, they’re an integral part of our lives — catalysts for those “remembering the good ol’ days” moments, or simply help to transport us to a happy/happier place in life when we hear their songs, read their news, or see the image of an Eddie shimmering in the leaves of a neighborhood tree.
But this chummy familiarity doesn’t mean we no longer get anxious about a new release. And honestly, my asinine opening line admittedly contains one very important stipulation: I need the duo of Adrian Smith and Dave Murray in my life. Without these two axemen delivering those ambrosial leads, I’d be much more likely to switch my tune today to one of those “olden day only” fans of Iron Maiden. Luckily, the new era of these Englishmen still devotes well-enough time to the Smith/Murray team, and The Final Frontier is certainly no different. The duo’s enduring stamp strikes every tune here, saving some of the record’s more drab moments from utterly drowning (“Eldorado”, for example) and also launching personal favorites to the front of my playlist for the foreseeable future: the title track, “Mother of Mercy”, “Coming Home” and “Starblind”. If you’re a similar fan of the band and aren’t moved to holding a lighter in the air during the 4:34 mark of “Isle of Avalon”, it’s time for you to pack up your shit and leave.
That’s not to say Smith & Murray are the only reason I’m still around. I’m still happier’n a puppy with two peters that the band continues their adventurous spirit of melding heavy metal with luring storytelling and bold imagery (despite being more than a little disappointed with this album’s version of Eddie — bring back Derek Riggs, please!); Steve Harris, while oddly more buried this time around, is still my all-time favorite bass player; Nicko can still wallop and gingerly percuss with the best of them; Bruce is still one of metal’s most energetic and engaging front-men; and by Hell, the band is still very capable of crafting some infectious tunes. Apart from the strong cuts already mentioned — of which “Coming Home” is likely my current favorite (that slow, buttery delivery reminds me of the “Wasted Years” era of Somewhere In Time) — I’d also say I’m very happy with the way The Final Frontier closes out. Both “The Man Who Would Be King” and “When the Wild Wind Blows” manage to stretch a compelling, smoothly crafted tune over a length you’d think would get boring, but doesn’t, thanks entirely to the band’s Seventh Son penchant for melding plenty of engaging mellow measures with extended proggy jams that make the closing 20-minutes of this record some of the most compelling moments to be found on The Final Frontier.
The most palpable foible to deal with is the rather shoddy mix found throughout — surprising, considering the band’s extensive experience and proven track record. I’m sure we can agree Bruce’s range has indeed shrunk over time, but matters are definitely not helped by the fact that whenever his voice is present, which is obviously quite often, it’s blasting so hard into your personal space you have to constantly blink to keep his spittle from painting your eyeballs.
There’s some filler on the record to contend with as well. The aforementioned “Eldorado”, for example, along with a fair portion of song intro’s to boot. I’ve heard a few folks complain about the length of the songs in general, but I really do believe if Maiden had pared down some intro’s — 4:37 worth of “Satellite 15” and at least a minute off the openings of “The Talisman” and “Isle of Avalon” — that would’ve helped the cause a great deal. And as long as I’m being the asshole on the block, I’d also remark that if it weren’t for the tune’s rescuing mid-point, I’d say “Isle of Avalon” stands as The Final Frontier‘s strongest contender for “jump from your seats and hit the head and reload your beers.”
So, as if you really needed to read it to believe it, Iron Maiden fans will undoubtedly find things to like and love about The Final Frontier. This early in the game I’d still say Brave New World beats it out in a rumble, but I can already tell this baby’s got some strong legs. And in the end, that’s exactly what’s most important for a band that’s been kicking out releases for three decades and wants to remain relevant in a cutthroat genre. Yes, Iron Maiden are still 100% legitimate, and as a fan who could sit and listen to Powerslave today without even putting the bloody record on, I’d say delivering a record as strong as The Final Frontier 25-years later is a feat certainly worthy of a tip of the hat.
Lone Watie’s take:
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.