‘The Final Frontier’ does not begin like an Iron Maiden album.
Opener ‘Satellite 15’ is, quite simply, a little unusual. It’s relatively simple, it’s uncharacteristically atmospheric, and the low, chugging (and very much studio-engineered) bass line doesn’t feel like Steve Harris at all.
It’s not short either. For at least two minutes you won’t be certain that this is really a Maiden album at all. It doesn’t reflect their often grandiose live introductions, and certainly feels more suited to the progressive metal category. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, but it does take some getting used to.
It’s only when Bruce Dickinson’s distinctive vocals break through, initially with little in the way of accompaniment, that the album appears to be on the brink of exploding into the sort of album most fans were expecting.
But ‘Satellite 15’ keeps building. You can’t fault their commitment, but after four and a half minutes of introduction there had better be something special waiting at the end.
Instead we get the title track.
‘Final Frontier’ music video on Youtube:
‘The Final Frontier’ is a pretty good single, even if it doesn’t represent the character of the album. But a space-bound Eddie is hardly befitting of the sort of atmospheric introduction that was clearly the result of much careful composition, and which constitutes such a distinctive departure from the band’s established sound. You’d have thought it would introduce something a little more special. Even though ‘The Final Frontier’ does contain some heartfelt lyrics, the subject matter and song structure hardly ranks it up an epic like ‘Sign of the Cross’ (the opener from 1995’s ‘The X Factor’ album).
Also, whilst I’m all for listening to an album as an album, it’s still a little irritating that, when combined with the introduction, what is probably the album’s catchiest song becomes well over 8 minutes in length.
In my mind ‘The Final Frontier’ (the song) plays a similar role to that of ‘Different World’ (from previous album ‘A Matter of Life and Death’). It’s the radio-friendly second single/release that should be a highlight of the album. That it is, but the comparison with ‘Different World’ is indicative of the album as a whole: it’s simply not as good as its predecessor.
The album’s reception seems to suggest that I’m way off the mark, with ‘The Final Frontier’ chalking up Iron Maiden’s highest ever number of worldwide number one entries (30), and with critics giving the album an almost unanimous thumbs up. But I’m not looking to write a promo piece.
By no means is this a bad album. The drum sections stand out more than previous efforts, and there’s plenty of impressive guitar work to marvel at. But whilst there are some infectious sections that will have you humming for days, they are just that: sections. Too many lengthy songs, verses that don’t seem to add much the second or third time they’re repeated, and a few laboured bridge sections prevent the album from really seizing the imagination. As a whole, the pace is just too slow.
First single ‘El Dorado’ is symptomatic of this problem. It seems to take an age to reach the chorus, and when it does it then takes an age to finally break into the guitar solo. On the other hand, when the pace is purposefully slowed, as it is with ‘Coming Home’, the song structures seem far more accomplished. ‘Coming Home’ is a little more reminiscent of Bruce Dickinson’s solo work than it is Iron Maiden (so no surprise to see that he shares writing credits for that one).
‘The Talisman’ provides a much-needed sense of urgency with its galloping guitars and a soaring vocal performance. But it’s followed by ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ which, although it starts brilliantly, is a bit of an anticlimax.
The best is most certainly left to last. ‘When the Wild Wind Blows’ tells the by-now familiar story of impending disaster, but with an interesting and poignant twist at the end. It’s the sort of song that ‘Satellite 15’ really should have introduced. The atmospheric qualities are back, it boasts a repeated refrain that you’ll find yourself humming, and the bridge sections drive things forward rather than slowing the pace.
Add to that some of the album’s best guitar solos and a well executed reprise of the original refrain, and you have a song that stands on its own in a way that many of the previous tracks struggle to do.
‘When the Wild Wind Blows’ on Youtube (picture only):
No doubt the album will be a grower, but it’s difficult to imagine many of the songs becoming live staples. Like the vast majority of Iron Maiden albums none of the songs stand out as being unworthy of inclusion, but the main problem with ‘The Final Frontier’ is that it’s plagued by the absence of any really original guitar riffs. And that matters. Even if you are Iron Maiden.
The finality of the album title had given strength to rumours that this would be the final Maiden album. But now that the band have confirmed that they intend to write more material we can finally breathe a sigh of relief. With the departure of Black Sabbath’s Ronnie James Dio, the apparent unlikelihood of Ozzy rejoining the band*, and Judas Priest’s announcement of a farewell tour, we look to be reaching the end of an era for UK metal. Whilst I maintain that ‘The Final Frontier’ is still a worthwhile investment, it is far from the send off that we should hope for from the world’s greatest heavy metal band.
Long live Iron Maiden!
– Phil Henderson
*watch him announce it immediately now that I’ve said that…
Iron Maiden are:
Bruce Dickinson – Vocals
Steve Harris – Bass
Dave Murray – Guitars
Adrian Smith – Guitars
Janick Gers – Guitars
Nicko McBrain – Drums
Country of Origin: England