Friday, September 3, 2021

Album Review: Iron Maiden - Senjutsu

Iron Maiden is one of the biggest Metal bands on the planet and any new album by them is going to create some trepidation among music fans. It's also inevitably going to be compared to the classics they produced in their mid-eighties heyday, and whether it is fair or unfair doesn't matter: it simply is. And let's be honest: in the eyes of the record-buying public, they are never going to recapture the magic of Piece of Mind or Powerslave.
Which isn't to say that their post-reunion albums aren't great: some of them feature some fantastic songs that deserve to be lauded in the same manner as the Trooper or Number of the Beast. But Maiden's legacy is already long cemented, and anything they add to their canon is unlikely to make the same impact as what came forty years ago.

This is the longest we've waited for new album by the English band, most likely because the pandemic has thrown a wrench in their plans like the rest of us. And again, they've decided to indulge and release a long, heavy double opus which isn't easily digested in one sitting. At eighty two minutes, it's only slightly shorter than its predecessor. Some people will complain that it's too long as if more music from Iron Maiden could be a bad thing.

The opening song Senjutsu is rather atypical in the Maiden catalog. It sounds like something a younger Power Metal or Symphonic Metal band would produce. The drums sound great and create an interesting tension. The melody is very epic, but never too obvious. and the chorus does offer a satisfying resolution to the verse. Bruce's double tracked voice on the chorus and the B section is a great effect. It's a surprising choice for an opener, and while I always love the comfort of hearing Maiden being Maiden, it's great to hear them shake things up somewhat.

Stratego is a more traditional uptempo galloping number, the kind of which they've been opening records (and concerts) with for the past few decades. While not as strong as some of its previous counterparts (Wicker Man off of Brave New World seems to be the template, and it's still one of the best songs they've put out since Bruce's return to the fold), it does boast an appropriately soaring chorus melody which lifts the whole song up after the by-numbers verse and pre-chorus.

The first single Writing on the Wall has a surprising Spaghetti Western feel to it and even features a country-tinged guitar riff halfway between Bad Company and Bon Jovi. Thankfully, there is no further ressemblance and the songs eventually morphs into traditional Maiden, complete with twin guitar harmonies and operatic vocals.

Lost in a Lost World starts like an acoustic sea chanty, but clocking in at nine minutes it has more than enough twists and turns to keep the listener's attention. Unfortunately, not all parts are all that memorable, and some of it sound regurgitated. In fact, that is a complaint that can be made about most of their post-reunion material. But they're Iron Maiden and it's the style they've created. When the songs are great, that's an absolute treat. But when they are mediocre, it comes off a little generic and that's the problem with this song, although the quiet ending is absolutely gorgeous.

Days of Future Past is another typical Maiden uptempo with an anthem-like chorus and driving guitar riff, again very reminiscent of Wicker Man. The quiet middle part is a little superfluous and the whole thing would pack a bigger punch if it were even shorter but it's a small complaint: this is Maiden being Maiden.

The Time Machine starts off rather quietly, with pretty guitar arpeggios and hints of synth strings behind Bruce's declamatory vocals. Of course, we know what to expect and the band eventually kicks the song into high gear. However, it is surprisingly "mellow", for want of a better word. In fact, the melody is very reminiscent of the pastoral prog of Gabriel-era Genesis. Until they go back into Maiden mode with a Celtic guitar line over a galloping rhythm section. Then a heavy riff breaks the song down and paves the way for a couple of solos. Bruce's voice is double-tracked again on some parts, and again it's a great effect.

Darkest Hour is the first song off of dic two. It starts with a pretty atmospheric intro which leads into a dark, moody verse. It's a great showcase for Bruce's vocals, which I'm happy to report are still very strong. His voice has changed, and perhaps lost some of the grit it had in the early nineties but it sounds fuller and more mature. The song is very reminiscent of Final Frontier's Coming Home but is a lot broodier.

Death of the Celts is another epic that's over ten minutes long. The acoustic guitar riffs and keyboards in the intro are somewhat reminiscent of Pink Floyd circa The Wall but after one minute things get decidedly Maiden. In fact, this sounds like a re-write of Blaze-era classic and concert staple the Clansman. Unfortunately, it's just not as good, and given its running time, there aren't enough interesting parts to sustain the listener's attention. There are many changes, but none of them are all that memorable. This is Maiden by-numbers. It sounds great, and it's cool to hear them play in the style we're so fond of, but they've done this way better before.

The Parchment has a mid-Eastern feel and of course one's mind can't help but race to the iconic sleeve of the Powerslave record. The song has a slow, heavy, serpentine crawl and Bruce's mid-range is particularly ominous. While there aren't that many changes in the song, in never overstays its welcome despite being the longest song on the record, clocking in at almost thirteen minutes.

The album closer Hell on Earth is another long epic that sounds like an amalgamation of several Maiden songs. It's pretty good but very derivative of their past catalogue.

Like every album since Fear of the Dark, Iron Maiden gives us pretty much what we expect from them. The little surprises that pop up here and there are a nice touch, but fundamentally Maiden remains Maiden. It's both a good and a bad thing. Obviously no-one want to them to go electro or to hear Bruce experiment with Death Metal growls. But this means that they are bound to forever tread the same waters. Sometimes the familiar formula works, and sometimes it's too much of the same.

Bands like Iron Maiden can't win. They have pioneered a signature sound and an instantly recognizable style: If they stray too far from that sound and style, they will provoke the ire of their fans. And if they stick too closely to their identity, they're bound to repeat themselves. It's a balancing act that succeeds more often than it fails. When it works, when the songs are good, they are every bit as good as the band that recorded those classic albums all those years ago.

Genre: Heavy Metal
Release Date: September 3rd, 2021
Label: BMG
Rating: 7/10

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