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Iron Maiden – The Final Frontier

on August 20, 2010, 8:00am
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Not much time, hear my call
Please get through, I am here…”

Iron Maiden marches to the beat of their own drum. The music is still very much heavy metal with some prog-rock touches. The hair (sans lead singer Bruce Dickinson) is still very long. Band members still wear shirts on stage with “IRON MAIDEN” stitched on, like the majority of the fans attending the shows. Dickinson’s over-the-top stage presence still doesn’t have a place in today’s popular music, where if a lead singer opens his eyes for more than two seconds, he may be having a stroke.

The fantastic news is that all of this is fairly irrelevant. The band is still an enormous act across the planet, with predicted sales for their latest album, The Final Frontier, set to send Maiden to number one in record sales in the United Kingdom. Not bad for a band playing in its fifth – count ‘em fifth – decade. Of course, album sales don’t equal quality (see any Britney Spears album), but in the case of The Final Frontier, the success is very much deserved.

The remarkable case of The Final Frontier is how the proceedings create a sense of urgency, showcasing the speed and agility of six band members whose average age is about 54. The rhythm section, courtesy of bassist/leader Steve Harris and drummer Nicko McBrain, still kicks your teeth in. The triple-guitar attack of Adrian Smith, Dave Murray, and Janick Gers continues to share and trade off riffs with great precision. Dickinson’s vocals have held up remarkably well. He may not be able to reach the vocal heights of The Number of the Beast, but that doesn’t mean his range is no longer where it needs to be. From the lower-register storytelling of The Talisman to the fearless belting of “Starblind”, Dickinson’s pipes are in no danger of expiring.

Opening track, “Satellite 15…The Final Frontier” is a two-parter, with the first-section dominated by McBrain’s thudding percussion and Dickinson’s doomed lyrics. The two-second break between sections should cause quite a commotion live, considering “…The Final Frontier” features a classic Maiden riff to start things off. The repeated chorus of “The final frontier, the final frontier!” should have audiences challenging Dickinson for vocal supremacy (a waste of time, naturally).

The mention of urgency demands mention of “The Alchemist”, a last-second inclusion on the album. It’s the shortest song here, at a “mere” four-and-a-half minutes. It’s a buster of a song, with galloping music and vocals that call to mind classic Maiden, specifically “Aces High”. The chorus here, simply put, kicks ass, and the album is better off for having it. “Starblind” is another powerful number, with an equally soaring chorus. Dickinson’s range is absolutely on full display here, arguably the best technical vocals for an over-50-year-old doing what he does today.

Disagree? Check out the vocals on the closest Maiden will ever get to a power ballad, a track by the name of “Coming Home”. Convincing without ever being cheesy, it’s a story of coming home knowing you will inevitably have to leave again. Great stuff, and hopefully an upcoming live staple.

Most songs on The Final Frontier clock in at more than six minutes. If the album title didn’t give a sense of epic grandeur, then the twists and turns these epic tracks take certainly will. “Isle of Avalon” starts with a great guitar line over the ticking-time-bomb-drums, before the bridge takes off at the two-minute mark. Great riffs and time signatures follow before it all culminates with Dickinson’s cry of “Isle of the dead!” Rock on, children.

It is this epic quality to so many tracks, however, that prevents the album for becoming a metal classic. The best way to compare the album’s shortcomings is to take a look at Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. It’s a great movie, with about three endings too many. Those multiple endings on their own are fine, but having several tacked on one after the other affects the pacing and overall quality of the film. The same happens to The Final Frontier, with the one-two-three finales of “The Talisman”/“The Man Who Would Be King”/“When the Wild Wind Blows”.

Any of these tracks would have served well as the eighth and final track on the album, but it becomes too much after awhile. So there’s the fault to The Final Frontier: too much quality. It makes sense once one’s heard it, though. Producer Kevin Shirley should have encouraged a bit of editing here and there.

Iron Maiden’s The Final Frontier is easily the best from the six-piece since 2000’s Brave New World. Where does it rank overall? For a career this long with a lot of quality, it wouldn’t be fair to throw it amongst the pack. Despite protests from band members, The Final Frontier is not designed to be the final studio album. If it is, no apologies are needed from the group, only thanks from its loyal fanbase. Up the irons!

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