Perhaps the oldest dilemma in the arts is the struggle between the desires of the artist’s patronage, and the desires of the artist himself. Many of the most celebrated albums in modern music history are a rare convergence of these conflicting forces, where an artist’s creative genius is simultaneously a work of the artist’s inner passion, as well as exactly the product demanded by market forces at that very moment in time. Sometimes, in the case of “Escape” era Journey, or “Black Album” era Metallica, it can be argued that an artist adjusted their formula to capture what their audience truly wants.
And so it is for Iron Maiden in early 2020 as they sequester themselves into a Parisian studio to record “Senjutsu,” their seventeenth and certainly most secretive project, in an attempt to wrestle as all artists do with the balance of vision versus commercial success. Since Eddie the Cat was allowed out of the proverbial bag recently, with not only the revelation of this album in hiding, but also with a well-produced music video, the band’s rabid never-say-die fan base has wondered what wickedly this way comes. Will it be a juggernaut like “Powerslave” or the “The Number of the Beast”? Polished like “Somewhere in Time,” or “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son”? Rough and real like “Killers”? Or destined for the discount bin like “Virtual XI”? We have been abusing our powered monitors with our advance copy of “Senjutsu” and we have much to impart.
Produced by longtime partner Kevin “Caveman” Shirley, bassist Steve Harris remains the both navigator and mariner, steering the band’s sonic direction and paying appropriate heed to mix and albatross alike. Legendary Bruce Dickinson remains in firm control of the microphone as well as his own voice, despite a previous battle with cancer, a severed Achilles’ tendon during fencing while recording “Senjutsu”, and even a subsequent titanium hip replacement. If old “Arry” is the navigator, Bruce is most certainly the trooper. Nicko “fuck me ole boots” McBrain remains on his throne as one of the most solid drummers of all time, and power duo Dave Murray and Adrian “H” Smith are also joined by vestigial guitarist Janick Gers.
If you are a die-hard Maiden fan, you are not looking for the “it’s awesome” or “it sucks” one-liner reviews which will explode all over the internet on release day. You want the meat. So rather than leaping to overall impressions, let us slice into this dish one bite at a time. The first thing to note is that we have several courses for our enjoyment. For the CD crowd, this means two CDs, or three records for the vinyl crowd, or ten beefy tracks for the MP3 world.
The album opens strongly with the self-titled track, promisingly penned by Steve and Adrian. We haven’t really seen a strong grab-you-by-the-lapels opener like this since “Brave New World” and “The Wicker Man.” Nicko and Arry have set aside their trademark galloping percussion to instead deliver a primal drums-of-war approach, drive forth by Adrian’s perfect rhythm guitar chords. What stands out, and unfortunately not a good way, is the keyboards floating over the chorus. It’s debatable whether keyboards help or hinder the sound, but it certainly stands to reason that if keyboards were deemed necessary, a better sound or player or mix or something could have been attempted. These keyboards sound like how the “Dance of Death” cover artwork looks. In continental Europe, where one cannot swing a French Baguette without hitting a prog-metal band, it couldn’t have been hard to locate a Tuomas Holopainen or some comparable keymaster to add the right sort of atmosphere. As it stands, the keys on the finished “Senjutsu” album are like some sort of Paul O’Neill demo tape about the meaning of Christmas. Keys aside, “Senjutsu” is a cool track. The verses and the chorus feature layering of Bruce’s still powerful vocals, and the overall mojo of the track will generate thousands of neck injuries for some huge Brazilian crowds on the tour to come. Although the track weighs in around nine minutes, it does not qualify as an epic in parts, like songs about desert planets or Macedonian conquerors, but the unrelenting fury of the rhythm make for a good time, for a long time.
The second track, “Stratego,” already teased as a single prior to album release, is a Harris–Gers collaboration, and one of the shorter and simpler tracks of the album. It has a fairly fast tempo for 21st century Maiden, with a conventional song structure more like “Can I Play with Madness.” It seems that Janick’s lead parts double as the guide melody for Bruce’s vocals, which creates a novel effect, although the damnable keyboards plague the chorus of this track as well. As a whole, the track is average as Maiden songs go, but perhaps this makes it the logical choice for a teaser, since it does not show all of the magician’s tricks prematurely, since the next track is also teased, and may be the strongest of the album. “Writing on the Wall” is a Bruce–Adrian product, and reminds us why “Accident of Birth” and “Chemical Wedding” remain two of the best albums Iron Maiden never recorded. Evidently initial feedback from fans was that the track has country-western influence happening, and “H” had to clarify, saying he considers it more traditional folk in its roots. All we know is it does have a very cool Southern-fried blues rock vibe, and maybe Adrian’s time with Richie Kotzen inspired this departure from Maiden’s usual beaten path, most particularly if one listens to “Scars” from Smith/Kotzen. From the almost Spaghetti-western acoustic guitar intro, to the percussive down-home blues rock, the whole song feels like the grim reaper has traded in his scythe for a pair of six-shooters on his hips, and there will be hell to pay. Bruce’s vocal performance is one of his strongest, the drumming is exactly right for the track, and the layers of guitars are perfect. Most of the guitar leads are so meticulous, musically sound, and perfectly executed that they can only be Adrian, and it’s heartwarming to see him in the spotlight like it’s 1986 all over again.
The fourth track, “Lost in a Lost World,” has some interesting production angles to it. Beginning with clean guitar strumming (and unfortunately keyboards have returned after thankfully leaving “Writing” alone to be nearly flawless), the track has delay and layering on Bruce’s vocals to lend a unique flavor someplace between Pink Floyd “In the Flesh” and Sabbath’s “Planet Caravan.” This track may be the first of the Steve Harris ten-minute epics of the album. It certainly has most of his compositional hallmarks in it. The interactions between drums, bass, and guitars bear many similarities to the structure of “Infinite Dreams,” and that is not a bad thing. Really, weirdness only happens in the last two minutes of the track, when Bruce goes on a wandering vision quest tempo rubato, which you can only really get away with if you are Bruce Dickinson, or if you are Charlie Day proposing marriage in the most awkward way possible.
“Days of Future Past” comes in with jarring, almost atonal guitar chords being chopped out on the strings, setting a “wrong” sort of atmosphere, before a signature Adrian “Wicker Man” sort of riff takes us straight into Bruce’s verses. Aside from the unwelcome keyboards photo-bombing us again during the chorus, it’s a neat little rocker of a number, complete with a tidy Adrian guitar solo in the middle. Worth noting is the interesting outro, going back to Adrian’s dystopian guitar chords and some creative jazzy drumming from Maestro McBrain. The first disc (for CD folks) ends with “The Time Machine,” a Harris–Gers creation which takes some creative risks with unusual vocal structure and melody, dare we say even a bit on the proggy side of things. Once the first three minutes of the song’s standard structure conclude, the Gers influence becomes evident with one of his standard guitar lead melodies a la “Afraid to Shoot Strangers.” However, just when it seems like the song is done with tricks, it has a crazy little meltdown around 4:30, with unusual riff structure and even some wild guitar leads going all Kirk Hammett on a pitch shifter pedal. Somewhere in the five-minute range it goes back into something resembling the usual Iron Maiden, with some well-executed guitar solo tradeoffs, before Bruce sings us to the disc’s conclusion.
Before the band relentlessly unloads three Harris epics upon us, Disc 2 opens with a slightly more traditionally modest piece from Bruce and Adrian, entitled “Darkest Hour.” The song begins with clean guitars, and Bruce presumably singing lyrics referring to events following the Battle of Britain and the Blitz of 1940. Structurally, there are several parts of the song which seem to invoke elements of “Wasting Love.” The highlight of the song may actually be where it sounds like Adrian takes one lead, and then trades off with Dave, like the very best of the golden age.
The first of the three Harris-penned epics is “Death of the Celts,” beginning with the now-familiar bass-guitar plus clean guitar intro style which was explored in tracks like “Run Silent Run Deep” and became more of a staple with “Sign of the Cross.” After a minute or two of Bruce singing matching vocals to follow with a guiding melody provided by bass, clean guitars, and unfortunate keyboards, the drums and distortion kick in and the verses carry on with a bit more energy. Not to confuse Celts with Scots, but nonetheless there remains an unavoidable feeling of kinship between this track and “The Clansman” from “Virtual XI.” The rising and falling of the vocal melody is similar, although perhaps a bit more stately with a more conservative tempo. The verse structure continues until what seems to be an Adrian lead section before the song structure changes completely, to go into an instrumental section like the very best of Maiden multi-part epics, although there is definitely a fun Gaelic sort of lift to the melody, combined with some of the feel found in “Losfer Words.” All in all, that’s an apt summary of the track. A few minutes of “Clansman” verse structure, a few minutes of “Losfer Words,” and a couple more minutes of “Clansman”action to close out the track. None of this is to diminish the song; it is a great composition, but we do what we must to give the reader an idea how the song is laid out. Consider it a “Losfer Words.”
The penultimate track, “The Parchment,” starts with more Steve Harris bass. When they talked about Harry locking himself away in a little closet to write these last tracks, they were not kidding. Some clean guitar comes in to intermingle with bass for a minute before drums come kicking down the door to lay the foundation for a very cool, hard-hitting riff structure. No more comments about keyboards. Promise. When Bruce comes in, we are treated to a stimulating interplay of vocal verse and lead guitar. When Bruce ducks out to take a quick break, the bass and guitars launch into an impressive instrumental portion, that while may not be “Hallowed” or “Seventh Son,” remains an interesting adventure for old school Maiden fans. When Bruce rejoins to bring back the vocals, the melody actually starts to feel like a familiar friend, always a hallmark of good ear for songwriting. Ten minutes in, Bruce takes another break so the band can do some more rocking in fashion that really wouldn’t be out of place for bringing “Hallowed” to a close, complete with really nicely harmonized guitar parts.
At this point, as one might expect, the final track, “Hell on Earth,” opens with bass guitar and is joined shortly by clean guitar interaction. After a couple minutes of building atmosphere with a modest tempo, the drums come in and the traditional gallop forms, lead guitar playing actually sets the stage for Bruce to add matching vocals to follow with the existing melody. After a few rounds of verse, we are treated to a few exchanges of leads between Adrian, Dave, and Janick before everything drops out so bass guitar can once again take spotlight for a moment and clear the way for Bruce to deliver layered, almost hushed rapid lyrics, before the whole band comes crashing in again for a blistering instrumental section. Eventually the song reprises the clean and calm introduction, which eventually fades into the album’s end.
The album is long, and takes much to digest. Even diehard fans may need a few listening sessions to take it all in, and begin to bond with the melodies and choruses, or feel the rocking sections coming on. The real question remains, of whether the band was able to reconcile artistic direction with commercial fan appeal. In short, the answer is mostly yes. On the subject of the band’s artistic vision, that in itself does not seem to be a unified entity. There are as many opinions in Iron Maiden as there are people. While Nicko and Dave are content playing whatever material is written, Adrian and Bruce have always had their respective visions, reflected most in their solo and collaborative work, and Steve Harris has always had a little band called Iron Maiden to serve as the vehicle for his vision. Be that as it may, it does not seem any of these individual visionaries are pining for the good old days. Even when left to his own devices, “H” does not seem to be writing stuff like “Wasted Years” or his ASAP (Adrian Smith And Project) anymore. His solos are a little calmer and more mature than they were in the blistering 80s. Bruce has also matured as a songwriter, a fencer, a pilot, and whatever else he has somehow managed to find time to pursue.
However, if left to popular vote, fans of the band would likely love nothing more than another, well, anything from the 80s. “Killers”, “Seventh Son”, whatever. Unfortunately, this is not the vision of the band, and they are certainly allowed that. Many of the great acts from The Beatles to Rush have been subdivided (“Subdivisions?”) into periods to describe their work. Roughly divided, Iron Maiden through “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” could be considered the first act, “No Prayer for the Dying” through “Brave New World” could be considered the second and most turbulent act, and “Dance of Death” through the future (from here to eternity?) could be considered the third and final act. Taking the age and life experiences of the band members into consideration, the fact that the band still sounds like Iron Maiden and still captures most of the spirit of their best material is actually quite the testament. Most bands of this vintage have ceased to exist or are otherwise some unspeakable Lovecraftian abomination for no reason for being, and no resemblance to their previous form (we are looking at you, Metallica and GnR).
The album as a whole is good, all things considered. In light of the previous question about balancing needs of the artist versus wishes of the fans, this album strikes a compelling balance. It is mature and thoughtful and tries a number of brave new things, while still knowing how to rock, keep up the tempo, deliver impressive guitar work, and write sections of songs that will get fists pumping at arena shows in tours to come. The album showcases more variety than “Book of Souls,” which is welcome. Perhaps one or two tracks could have been put back on the shelf to make it a single disc, and then use those one or two songs on the next album, but what the hell. The more the merrier. When it seems like the whole world is crazy and you’re making metal albums at an age when most men are using their senior citizen discounts for lunch, why hold anything back? Let er rip, and Up the Irons.
Released By: Parlophone Records / BMG
Release Date: September 3rd, 2021
Genre: Heavy Metal
- Bruce Dickinson / Vocals
- Adrian Smith / Guitars
- Steve Harris / Bass
- Dave Murray / Guitars
- Janick Gers / Guitars
- Nicko McBrain / Drums
1. Senjutsu (Smith/Harris) 8:20
2. Stratego (Gers/Harris) 4:59
3. The Writing On The Wall (Smith/Dickinson) 6:13
4. Lost In A Lost World (Harris) 9:31
5. Days Of Future Past (Smith/Dickinson) 4:03
6. The Time Machine (Gers/Harris) 7:09
7. Darkest Hour (Smith/Dickinson) 7:20
8. Death Of The Celts (Harris) 10:20
9. The Parchment (Harris) 12:39
10. Hell On Earth (Harris) 11:19
Six seasoned veterans of original heavy metal have somehow delivered one of their strongest albums of the last twenty years. It is brave, it is ambitious, it is unapologetic, and it is most definitely Iron Maiden