It’s some weeks now since Iron Maiden released A Matter of Life and Death, the third album since Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith returned to the band. I’ve held off writing a review of the record for a few weeks so it’s not full of initial release excitement and takes a more honest appraisal of the work.
That said, in my opinion this is the best collection of songs from the band since 1988’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. All members of the band are firing on all cylinders and they are aided by a clear and dynamic production by Kevin Shirley. Steve Harris made the decision not to master the album and this has really allowed the music to breath, with quiet sections that a genuinely quiet and let the powerful passages shine through. The mix is just as good, though Dickenson does seem a little buried until you turn up the volume a little – that’s when this record really hits its stride.
So what of the songs? While Maiden have said this is not a concept album, there are clear themes running through A Matter of Life and Death in similar way to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Much of the lyrical concern here on AMOLAD, as the title suggests, is about the sacrifices and injustices of war, the lying politicians who send boys out to die for their country and the religious themes that are blamed for war and are salvation against it. You could say simply the theme is finding life and light amidst the death. There’s only one song that doesn’t fit exactly into this thematic framework and that is Lord of Light, but musically it feels perfectly at home with the other songs and is one of my favourites from the album. And as I’ll explain alter, somehow it seems just the right song at the right time.
What makes AMOLAD such a good album is the total lack of filler tracks. The album opener, Different World, which you can hear via the video at the top of the page is a real barnstormer with a terrific lead break from Adrian Smith. I’ve often found the opening track from recent Maiden albums the weakest of those on offer and didn’t like Wildest Dreams that opened Dance of Death at all. Different World almost seems like the kind of song you’d open a concept album, it sets the scene for what is to come.
And the tracks that follow are some real killers. These Colours Don’t Run is a very very jingoistic title, yet the track itself is about self sacrifice by those who fight on our behalf. It’s not a song about violence or glory, but about doing your job when called upon. It’s followed by Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, a song about the development of nuclear weapons and makes reference to physicist Robert Oppenheimer. Like many of Iron Maiden’s songs it’s anti-war in nature and concerned with the horror of the things mankind unleashes on itself.
Next we have The Pilgrim, one of my favourite tracks on the album. This is a very interesting song and one of two real crackers that guitarist Janick Gers has brought to the table for AMOLAD. This anthemic track features a surprisingly delicate middle eastern riff combined with some powerful vocals from Dickenson. The chorus is unapologetically spiritual and rousingly catchy, one can already imagine thousands of concert goers arms aloft joining Dickinson to sing, “Spirit holy life eternal, raise me up take me home.”
For the following track, The Longest Day we return to the classic Maiden historical song, this time as the title suggests looking at World War 2. This is a dark and brooding song that doesn’t try to find glory in the events of sixth of June 1944. Instead it talks of the fear as the moment to attack the beaches of Normandy builds.
If The Longest Day is something of an emotionally downbeat way to end the first half of the album, then Out of the Shadows is the antidote. The track finds the band in their most Jethro Tull moment, with a wistful lyrical homage to birth and childhood. Musically it feels the successor to Wasted Love, the vastly underrated track from Fear of the Dark.
From this point on we are treated to four of the strongest songs Maiden has ever run together. The Ballad of Benjamin Breeg, a tale of madness and probably the back story of band mascot Eddie, begins this four part assault on the sense. It’s powerful and brutal with a brilliant solo from Dave Murray.
Breeg is followed by perhaps the best track on the record, For the Greater Good of God. It’s as contemporary a piece as the band has ever recorded and in its nine and a half minutes really draws you in with its theme of religion and 21st century war. This is clearly a song about the folly of fighting over religion and obviously heavily influenced by the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The album seems adept at drawing on historical conflicts in songs like The Longest Day to show us the horrors that await in continuing conflicts around the world such as in Iraq. For the Greater Good of God does just that and also features some of the strongest musical performances from this line-up of the band. The music is vibrant and sweeps from light to heavy. The final lyrics are powerful and simple, “He gave his life for us he fell upon the cross, To die for all of those who never mourn his loss, It wasn’t meant for us to feal the pain again, Tell me why, Tell me why.”
Sandwiched between two of the album’s most powerful and progressive songs Lord of Light seems right at home. Musically it is a thundering old school Maiden gallop that is one of the most exciting tracks the band has recorded in a while. It also signals a very interesting vocal performance from Dickinson that segues stylistically into the strange and compelling introduction of the next song.
It’s ironic, given the religious leanings of some members of the band (Nicko’s an evangelical Christian for example), and the ridiculous claims of Satanism made against the band in the eighties that it’s taken until now for them to write anything positive about Satan. Maiden is just not that type of band. But Lord of Light, perhaps taking it’s cue from Milton’s Paradise Lost is an unusually positive piece about Lucifer – at least at first glance. At this point of the record, faced by the madness of war, lying politicians and those who murder in God’s name it seems time to resign ourselves to hell. Dig deeper into the lyrics though and it’s clear there’s folly in this direction and with some hope left we’re swept on the the album’s closing track. If you think of the contrasts in the Michael Powell movie this album is named after (Maiden often take song/album titles from books & movies), then this little slice of hell makes a lot more sense.
A Matter of Life and Death’s final track is The Legacy. It begins as a twisted lullaby, “Some strange yellow gas, has played with their minds, has reddened their eyes, removed all the lies” sings Dickinson in a tone we’ve not much heard from him before. It’s creepy stuff and we know right away this is another song about the folly of the war in Iraq. This time the song asks questions of politicians, how they want to be remembered, especially relevant given the recent machinations at the top of the Labour Party.
Politics, other than anti-war sentiments, aren’t something you associate with Iron Maiden. But The Legacy is an angry political song. To me it seems aimed at a Prime Minister that is very concerned with creating his legacy right now. And in the following lyric you get a sense that the band is concerned with George Bush and his brand of evangelical doom that seeks to foster the end times with conflict in the Middle East. “You had us all strung out with promises of peace, But all along your cover plan was to deceive, Can it be put to rights only time can tell, Your prophecies will send us all to hell as well.”
The strong lyrical themes of A Matter of Life and Death are backed up by Maiden’s most powerful music in years. The production and performances are tight and professional. Despite not being mastered, the record features a polished mix that allows all the performances to shine. Nicko McBrain’s drumming is the highlight, he’s been given more space on this record and really uses it well and thanks to the wonderfully uncompressed production we can hear every snare hit and cymbal crash clearly without any digital distortion.
Nicko’s exuberance has rubbed off on Steve Harris too. Harris has always seemed in my mind to be the best bassist in rock music, yet recently he’s tended to play a more simpler chord based style on his new compositions. Here he works harder, enjoying some of the runs up the fretboard we came to expect from the days when he’d be running around the stage in striped spandex leggings. And as the band’s chief songwriter he should claim the bulk of the glory for the way it’s turned out.
Yet Harris’ compositions are becoming a little samey. Thanks to the strong efforts of the other band members this isn’t too apparent this time around – but the chord/song structures used by Harris on recent albums do sound rather too similar. And despite the great dynamics on show on this record, it’s not as progressive as the band would have you believe. For example, you won’t hear many time changes on the album or particularly complex compositions.
I’ve often been critical of Janick Gers’ approach to live performance. His often sloppy unplanned solos on old Maiden classics are not my cup of tea. I know he can perform beautifully constructed lead breaks and really showed that on Dickinson’s first solo album Tattooed Millionaire. Thankfully this record features the more measured Gers, his lead work is terrific and his song writing contributions some of the most important on the album. He shares the man of the match award for me with Nicko.
Adrian Smith and Dave Murray also put in very strong work. Smith’s songwriting, especially when working with Harris, is vital to the continued success of the group. And Gers, Smith and Murray play some wonderful lead breaks on A Matter of Life and Death. More importantly for me though is that we finally get to hear them rip into some crunching riffs. This is a side of Maiden guitarists we’ve not heard much since 1984’s Powerslave and it’s a welcome return to some fantastically powerful music. As befits an album with powerful lyrical themes we also get to hear some really powerful guitar, this is definitely the heaviest from Maiden to date.
Finally we turn to Bruce Dickinson, one of the finest vocalists and frontmen in rock. He really stretches out on this record. The dynamic production allowing him to move from near whispers and soft lullabies to his trademark air-raid siren holler. His lyrics are strong and performance epic. Lyrically Maiden may not be quite up there with Bob Dylan, but with Bruce Dickinson to sell you the concepts you believe every word.
In A Matter of Life and Death we have Maiden’s strongest performance for years. It’s not perfect, for example there are too many songs whose slow intros could have been shortened or omitted. You’ll also hear fewer of the trademark Maiden harmony parts here in favour of heavy riffing. But overall this is the finest rock record I’ve heard for a few years. When bands like Metallica seem to be floundering and metal magazines are full of wimpy indie-style rock, it’s great to hear metal’s elder statesmen show the young guns how it’s done. A Matter of Life and Death is a killer album for a band that is clearly enjoying its second life to the full and is set to rock on for years to come.