How do four albums of prime Maiden from a tricky, transitional period shape up today?
Four slabs of prime Maiden from a tricky, transitional period.
The third instalment in Iron Maiden’s studio album remaster series takes us through the 90s, that tumultuous decade when, as legend has it, heavy metal’s wheels fell off. The advent of grunge and a downturn in commercial fortunes certainly made the 90s a tricky period for Maiden, but the music they were making continued to resonate with the diehards, precipitating a somewhat inevitable comeback and the frankly ludicrous triumphs of the last 20 years.
Bruce Dickinson’s supposed last hurrah, Fear Of The Dark (8/10) has maintained its allure since 1992, largely thanks to the singalong brilliance of its title track. The rest of it ranges from the swashbuckling fury of Be Quick Or Be Dead and underrated anthem Judas Be My Guide, to war-torn live favourite Afraid To Shoot Strangers and fretful power ballad Wasting Love, with only the prosaic From Here To Eternity standing out as an obvious clunker. Under the watchful eye of producer Martin Birch for the last time, Maiden still sounded thoroughly up for it, Bruce included, but the times were definitely a-changing.
Post-Bruce, a newly Blaze Bayleyfronted Maiden were always on a critical hiding to nothing, but 1995’s The X-Factor (7/10) stands up far better than the naysayers would have us believe. Brooding bookends Sign Of The Cross and
The Unbeliever are two magnificent epics, Man On The Edge and Lord Of The Flies are rampaging crowd pleasers and the pitchblack Blood On The World’s Hands is one of Maiden’s great unsung gems. Admittedly, the album sags horribly in the middle, with the plodding likes of Fortunes Of War, but its treasures are many and varied nonetheless. Three years later, Virtual XI (6/10) was a decent attempt to sustain momentum. Blaze sounded great on Futureal and the ballad Como Estais Amigo, and few Maiden fans would question the rabble-rousing majesty of The Clansman. But coupled with a noticeably anaemic production job that made Maiden sound old-fashioned, arguably for the first time, songs like the absurdly overlong The Angel And The Gambler and the sprightly misfire Lightning Strikes Twice really did sound like a band running out of ideas.
Fortunately, Maiden’s next move couldn’t have gone much better. Bruce and Adrian Smith returned, and Brave New World (9/10) sounded exactly as everyone had hoped it would: thunderous, epic and utterly, gloriously Maiden-esque. From instant classics The Wicker Man and Blood Brothers to the progressive hues of The Nomad and The Thin Line Between Love And Hate, Maiden’s twelfth studio album remains one of their very best.