IRON MAIDEN
"The Final Frontier"

(Universal)

01. Satellite 15... The Final Frontier
02. El Dorado
03. Mother of Mercy
04. Coming Home
05. The Alchemist
06. Isle of Avalon
07. Starblind
08. The Talisman
09. The Man Who Would Be King
10. When the Wild Wind Blows

RATING: 9/10

Okay, so despite giving everyone shivers with the title, and invoking some goofy predestined band plan Steve Harris made up when he was a lad, this fifteenth effort is not intended to be the last IRON MAIDEN album. It's also not the mad leap into reinvention and experimentation some would have you believe, either, although they've unbattened the hatches and let in a welcome blast of fresh air into what was again becoming a stale franchise. With some minor adjustments and what sounds like a boost of energy for all hands, IRON MAIDEN have turned in their best post-reunion album since "Brave New World" in 2000, and an album destined to rest near the top of their hallowed discography when history makes its final tally.

That opener would throw anyone off — the "Satellite 15" portion of things is an atypical, drum-heavy, four-minutes-and-change intro to the whole record, a pounding, tribal, dark and unexpected wallop. From there, the title track is a strong entry into the MAIDEN "singles" canon, a simple verse-chorus-verse rocker with the obligatory "repeat the title a bunch of times" chorus. A good start, to be sure — but the real treasures of this record lie ahead.

"El Dorado" brings a darker, lower-tuned, more sinister element to the typical MAIDEN midtempo jam. Bruce Dickinson sounds a little rougher here, leading some to question his pipes, but I submit that it's all in the service of the song — this is a grittier tune, with a slithery, live, organic feel, and his tone fits it perfectly. For that matter, he's got a little bit of that solo-album swagger and sneer in places here -- he sounds fully engaged in the material, arguably more than he has since reuniting with the band.

"Mother of Mercy" is another dark entry, with a "Stranger In a Strange Land" feel — Bruce does seem to be straining a little here, and it's worth noting he's not credited with writing on this one. He seems most comfortable on the lyrics he wrote, as on the next track, the epic, autobiographical hail-to-England ballad "Coming Home" (a song that could easily fit on Dickinson's later solo albums). "The Alchemist" is the first real galloping raveup to be found, and while it's a fairly by-the-numbers song, it's got some great guitar flourishes at the end, and unstoppable energy -- a song like this would be a dud if the band was phoning it in, but everyone seems to be thoroughly enjoying themselves here.

And what to make of the killer midsection of "Isle of Avalon", with its almost prog-metal riffing and amazing soloing? It's gratifying to hear MAIDEN, a band with so many megawatts of guitar power under the hood, stretching and flexing their muscles a little bit — this is one of three songs that passes the nine-minute mark, and you won't mind at all. We get all the way to "Starblind" before we find a song that's less than awesome, and even it's not terrible - just a bit bland, especially given the high quality of the tracks that have come before it.

Here's where we might expect things to go south, indulging Steve Harris's latter-day penchant for multitudes of long, repetitive war anthems that make the eyes glaze over. And "The Talisman", while decent, also rests pretty heavily on the familiar. Both of these songs, given a more lackluster performance, would conspire to sink the second half of the record altogether. But even here, the troops are rallied and the band sounds hungry and self-assured. And "The Man Who Would Be King" just knocks it out of the park, with plaintive guitar lines and a driving rhythm, and a wholly unexpected midsection with simply gorgeous guitar work. It's one place on the record where you could drop a needle and not instantly know it was IRON MAIDEN, and that sort of thing — in moderation — seems to be exactly what the band needed.

Rounding it out, of course, is "When the Wild Wind Blows", a song that's all Harris — ten minutes and change, with an almost nursery-rhyme vocal pattern, a long slow-burn intro, and the kind of melody that sounds like a heavy metal version of something that kilt-bedecked Irishmen would have marched onto the field of battle to. And again, in moderation (a funny word to use in the context of the longest record in IRON MAIDEN's history), this sort of thing is awesome. Throwing an entire album side of stuff like this at us would induce narcolepsy (and has in the past), but after the adventure we've just been on, this is a welcome, stirring coda, closing out the album with majesty and class.

Forget what I said above — "The Final Frontier" is better than "Brave New World". This is the reason Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith rejoined the band, the fulfillment of a decade of promise, and arguably the first time that Steve Harris's post-"Fear of the Dark" cinematic vision has been backed up with consistently strong songwriting, spot-on production, and a fire-in-the-belly performance from the whole band. This record kicks ass, plain and simple, and if the band did choose to go out on this one, they'd be leaving the hall with heads held high, reminding all in their wake of why they are heavy metal incarnate.

Superb!

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