Iron Maiden - The Final Frontier
Bruce Dickinson, unfailingly well-mannered to the core, once lied to a fifteen year old boy from a dank and dirty north Midlands town. “Yeah”, he said, giving my teenage quizzing gravitas it certainly didn’t warrant, “It’s probably our favourite gig on the entire tour.” A fortnight later he was saying the very same thing to a Kerrang! interviewer - but this time about somewhere else - and he popped the bubble of my school boy naiveté in an instant.
Stoke, Glasgow – from the back of a scruffy tour bus you can probably forget your own name let alone have a clue where you’re playing tonight. And, of course, it’s all so just so much blah blah these days anyway. Not only did Bruce renege on his oft-heard onstage promise to never play “the big barns”, Iron Maiden’s ultimate conquering of those nasty arenas and then the flippin’ football stadiums of the world (literally, for once – they follow the Irons everywhere) led to them buying their own Eddie-liveried 757 in which band, crew and equipment are jetted across continents by Captain Dickinson. Last time I looked, Hanley Victoria Hall was still lacking its own airstrip.
The prime movers of The New Wave of British Heavy Metal not only survived the decimation of heavy rock in the late 80s by indie pop, grunge and an emergent UK dance music scene, they rallied, kept their fanbase and went and threw the next generation of rock kids on top for good measure. Once it was embarrassing on a par with holidaying with Gary Glitter to admit to spending your teenage years dulling your senses to Powerslave and Live After Death. Nowadays, Maiden headline the Reading Festival, dizzy young bints accessorise with their t-shirts and critics offer them almost universal respect. Seriously, how the f*** did that happen ?
I think this is album number fifteen. Any act with less respect for their fans would have made it album fifteen and sixteen. It says a lot about the ethics of the 2010 version of Iron Maiden that, as they hit their fifties, they take the time and trouble to knock out an album that nudges 80 minutes. My god. (Back in the 80s, of course, this would have been considered a ‘double album’. Damn the CD, causing us to greedily expect this level of ‘value’.) But Maiden, whose clipped and economic take on the form defined the NWOBHM, got huffy with the notion of four minute songs round about the time Dickinson replaced original vocalist Paul Di’Anno for album number three (1982’s The Number of the Beast.) By the time Bruce had convinced them that historical exploration, romantic poetry and mutually assured destruction offered potentially more lyrical satisfaction than prostitutes, fighting and devil worship, Maiden simply stopped looking at the clock.
To their credit, these old hands know exactly what they’re doing, and what they’re doing requires much effort. You approach this album casually at your peril. It is not just lengthy but deadly serious and beautifully demanding. If you were gripped by its predecessor, 2006’s compelling A Matter of Life and Death, this one will do a similar job. It contains more invention, insight and ideas than many allegedly cooler acts will manage in 2010. A handful of listens is hardly basis on which to offer a proper appraisal but it is certainly enough to warrant continued and deeper investigation. ‘The Alchemist’ takes the riff from Rainbow’s ‘Spotlight Kid’ and, unless I’m very much mistaken, puts the life and times of sixteenth century magician, mathematician and madman John Dee to music.
The previously teased ‘El Dorado’ is sensational. It opens with ‘Wasted Years’-style fiddling before getting four to the floor and exploding about three different choruses and the kind of guitar solo swappery that Smith, Murray and Gers have simply made an industry. ‘Coming Home’ takes the crunching riffery of ‘Revelations’ and ponders the after effects of war. Thrill to ‘Isle of Avalon’’s almost psychedelic central instrumental section. Nod approvingly at the familiarity and the patented change of tempo on ‘Starblind’. And on it goes – that’s not even the first half hour. (I anticipate the closing ‘Where the Wild Wind Blows’ taking some serious hold once its dizzying topography starts to become clear.) Oh, and fans will expect this but non-converts simply must be told, the musicianship is at times breathtakingly accomplished.
If The Final Frontier doesn’t at first appear to have too many of the weighty hooks or quieter, pretty bits of previous albums, its absolute dynamism and uncompromising thrust make up for it. It contains enough energy (as opposed to just volume) to knock you to the floor. It will also, I suspect, need work. Good. Sometimes This Week’s Thrill is just too sugary for real and proper sustenance. To be absolutely honest, after a couple of listens, feeling a bit too battered and breathless, I very nearly gave up on it, struggling to hold it down, unable to reckon its size and shape. But it draws you in, makes you hungry, makes you stupidly greedy for its shrewd blend of enterprise and intelligence. As melodies emerge and lodge in the memory, the album’s uncommon density starts to become apparent. Their leader may once have told me a little porkie but these days his band operates on a level of truth and integrity that few can match.