[Artwork by Mark “The Tinkerer” Wilkinson]
Senjutsu is a wonderful album.
And with 30+ years of Iron Maiden experience under my belt, you can absolutely positively 100% take that statement to the bank.
Unless those decades of Iron Maiden fandom and service in Eddie’s court directly corresponds to why I believe Senjutsu is a wonderful album. For a great many of us, the reality of new music from one of the true trailblazers of heavy metal that still manages to operate under the same lineup (+1) we first encountered 38 years ago via Piece of Mind is reason enough to walk into any new experience with hearts crammed to the rafters with intense warmth and love. None of us really know how long they’ll keep going, but having this one glorious constant in our lives—an Iron Maiden we’ve been able to depend on for 40+ years through thick and thin—feels like one of life’s fortunate windfalls, so whatever else manages to fall into our laps as the members now glide into and through their 60s almost feels like extra credit. Glorious, golden, bonus extra credit.
With the record out for a week now, however, I’m guessing you are well aware of the realists looming in the shadows. Like hired assassins, these grim individuals are all too willing to rip away the fanciful element many of us attach to metal’s greatest storytellers (and listen to me when I say this: Iron Maiden has always been and remains metal’s greatest storytellers) in an effort to pin pragmatic and grown-up terms such as “rational assessment” and “hard truth evaluation” to all the fun. These assassins may not say “metal is a game that should be played by the young” outright, but that’s what they mean when they drag complaints such as “Maiden has forgotten where the gas pedal is” or “Maiden is doing little else but recycling outdated ideas” into the spotlight.
And you know what… Maybe they’re not all fools, these infernal realists with their buckets of icy water and cries of “these songs are too long” / “these songs are too slow” / “these songs are too…Iron Maiden.” Senjutsu—and point of fact, Iron Maiden circa 2015-2021—isn’t terribly suited for the bystanders, the casual fans, or those just deciding to dip their feet into the pool. This record is best matched to the incurable freaks, of which there happen to be millions. We are the cranks who love “we’re blood brothers,” despite the fact that it’s x 100; the screwballs who understand the significance of being a dental floss salesman from Montana; the left-of-center parents who dangle images of Eddie in various stages of adventure in front of our kids with hopes of tempting them into the game. We accept this. There is nothing patently wrong with this. If the new intern at work wants to find out more about Iron Maiden, our brains fight over whether to drop Powerslave, Somewhere in Time or Brave New World onto their laps, so we give them all three. If a museum curator wants to know which album should hang in the Louvre, we don’t hand over The Book of Souls or Senjutsu, we offer up Seventh Son as Rafiki offered up Simba.
What’s aggravating about much of the criticism for this record actually has little to do with the hard truths—the lack of self-editing, the overall pacing, its reliance on “shadowiness.” These are all valid criticisms, even to those who attach decades of fandom to the band. But the notion that Iron Maiden has suddenly forgotten how to write compelling music is not only designedly combative and silly, it’s simply untrue. Sure, that sort of thing is infallibly subjective, but if you can’t find yourself moved by and lost in the sort of decades-familiar melodic guitar interplay heard toward the close of “Darkest Hour,” then you are, in a word, unfortunate. But hey, maybe you find that sort of warm-heartedness when you eat a perfect cronut, or when Deranged Dickicker drops their fwumpteenth super-duper brutal breakdown. One can only hope. Furthermore, an epic and emotional closer such as “Hell on Earth” is not indicative of a band that’s simply providing “fan service”—these Maideners clearly still feel great about writing powerful songs, and Senjutsu finds interesting ways to pack its punches.
Which brings us to….
That positivity seemed to strengthen as things pushed into the night and across Saturday, with the initial awkwardness delivered by the album’s more experimental cuts—“Lost in a Lost World” and “Time Machine”—eventually settling in and providing those hoping for “something different” plenty to chew on beyond the western touch to “The Writing on the Wall.” The primary concern with “Lost in a Lost World” mostly seems related to the way the song suddenly turns a bit wonky when Bruce and a single guitar lick map a tricky little melody after transitioning from a brooding opening and a sturdy gallop. But once “Lost” kicks into a familiar (perhaps a little too familiar for some) post-2000 melodic Maiden gallop, the song becomes blissful and adventurous in an almost Seventh Son sort of way that eventually gives way to—who could’ve guessed—loads of very enjoyable lead interplay. Sidenote: One Discord visitor pointed out that Senjutsu feels like an album where Janick Gers’ talents as a lead guitarist gets a full and proper spotlight, and I am inclined to agree with that sentiment. Unfortunately, the album liner notes continue the career-long trend of not outlining who’s responsible for each solo.
Speaking of Gers, he penned “Time Machine” alongside Harris, and most of the concern regarding its eccentricity seems linked to the way the song kicks off. A fairly unsettling cradlesong intro eventually gives way to a peculiar (read: off-putting in a “The Thin Line Between Love and Hate” kind of way) vocal rhythm that’s thankfully counterbalanced by the memorable chorus. It’s smooth sailing once the pace picks up around the 3:00 mark, though, and this tune additionally manages to throw down the record’s most memorable breakdown at 4:30—the most significant nod to the energy behind 2000’s Brave New World, outside of the record’s wise reliance on limitless bright leads.
Most of us walked into the game knowing CD 2 would shell out the most significant challenges; by far the loudest gripe from fans who cut their teeth on Maiden’s younger, punchier years has been the band’s (read: Steve Harris’) emergent animosity toward self-editing, and disc 2 packs three 10+ minute Harris epics in a row. Cries for abbreviation are well-grounded, but there’s something about the comprehensive flow of Senjutsu—including those final 30+ minutes—that’s more seamless and immediate compared to The Book of Souls. Indeed, there are fans balking at the need for another Celtic epic when “The Clansman” is already on the belt, but calling “Death of the Celts” a rehash simply because both songs are long and kilted is a stretch, but perhaps not as big a stretch as the actual song itself. “The Parchment” is a slowly coiling / roiling anaconda of a cut whose primary purpose is to slay the listener with leads on the back end, and as mentioned earlier, “Hell on Earth” delivers the sort of climactic, mightily emotional closure the band also nailed with The Final Frontier.
What the heck else could possibly get kicked about. As has been discussed fairly extensively in public, the production feels more earthy and open compared to TBoS, Nicko’s drumming (and his fills in particular) sound inspired and robust, and Bruce continues to defy the number associated with age by belting out the big notes with the sort of force you’d expect from a singer half his age. If I could change one thing with a snap of the fingers—and I’d almost like to pitch Last Rites very own Danhammer out the window for first pointing this out last weekend—it would be tackling the fairly tinny feel to the keyboard strings heard mostly on disc 1, but that’s just nitpicking.
I keep returning to a statement another Discord visitor offered up regarding Senjutsu: “Best doom record of 2021!” While I can sort of relate to that in a similar way that The X Factor felt like a doomy Iron Maiden record, I can’t help but think that given enough time and wholehearted consideration, the energy and revelry woven into Senjutsu will eventually become one of its most valued benefits. Those moments are there—bits of Brave New World and The Final Frontier and even Piece of Mind that go beyond the boundless lead-play, even if it’s buried within songs that feel deliberately extended.
Agreed, if you found yourself lost with The Book of Souls and have an aversion to the Iron Maiden interpretation that opts for doubling up corners over cutting them, your discontent in 2021 is clearly merited. Perhaps take solace in the overlooked clue that Maiden seems to enjoy doing things in succession of twos: two punkier Di’Anno-fronted records in a row; two more progressive records in a row with Somewhere in Time and Seventh Son; two rockers with No Prayer and Fear of the Dark; two Blaze-fronted offshoots; and now two double-CD marathons when it’s pretty clear they could’ve kept Senjutsu one by trimming a total of about 3 minutes. In other words, chances are pretty good the next record will find Maiden switching gears once again.
Have we moved past the version of Iron Maiden that’s perpetually raring to die with their boots on and into a variation that opts to orchestrate and survey from a battle-worn saddle on a sun-bronzed hill? As previously mentioned, if you were there for the recent Legacy of the Beast tour, you have a strong argument against that point. But even if that is what’s in store for the studio work (and by God, if anyone’s ever earned the rank of field marshal…), it’s still clearly Iron Maiden as delivered by Steve Harris, Bruce Dickinson, Dave Murray, Nicko McBrain, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers (with Rod Smallwood lurking in a foxhole), and so long as that remains true, we will be there with full hearts until the end.
No, Maiden does not exist in a realm outside of criticism, but the modern interpretation remains very worthy of fans’ hard-earned cash, and that includes Senjutsu. And if any media outlet or individual attempts to make you feel miserable—you devoted and ever passionate fans—for continuing to love and pledge fealty to metal’s most prominent storytellers, understand that those individuals are likely just miserable with themselves.
COME ON YOU IRONS!
Personal Senjutsu song rankings after living with the album for about a week, subject to change next week:
- “Hell on Earth” [Harris]
- “The Writing on the Wall” [Smith, Dickinson]
- “Days of Future Past” [Smith, Dickinson]
- “Darkest Hour” [Smith, Dickinson]
- “Senjutsu” [Smith, Harris]
- “Stratego” [Gers, Harris]
- “Lost in a Lost World” [Harris]
- “Death of the Celts” [Harris]
- “The Parchment” [Harris]
- “Time Machine” [Gers, Harris]