A Matter of Life and Death
ron Maiden is old. This is the English band's 14th studio album; its self-titled debut came out in 1980. Six live albums, innumerable compilations, and 26 years later, the band could have succumbed to the nostalgia circuit like so many of its contemporaries. However, the mighty Maiden is not only still productive, but also influential. No Maiden, no Swedish melodic death metal—and thus no modern metalcore. No Maiden, no power metal (e.g., Dragonforce, Hammerfall, and so on). Any heavy band with twin harmony guitar leads owes a debt to Iron Maiden. Black Sabbath may have patented the tritone, but Iron Maiden made melody a permanent part of metal.
At one point, the band's legacy seemed in doubt. After a run of seven undisputed classic albums, including Killers, The Number of the Beast, and Somewhere in Time, guitarist Adrian Smith left. Thus began the band's decline; singer Bruce Dickinson left two albums later for a solo career and occasional stints as an airline pilot ("Aces High," indeed). Blaze Bayley replaced him for two miserable albums, The X Factor and Virtual XI, and the band seemed out of gas. However, Dickinson and Smith rejoined the fold in 1999. Smith's replacement, Janick Gers, stayed on, and the band found new life with a three-guitarist lineup. Brave New World and Dance of Death followed, both solid, if long-winded, efforts.
In 2005, the band co-headlined Ozzfest with Black Sabbath. The tour's last date, August 20 in San Bernardino, CA, was one of the most disgraceful moments in metal history. Evidently, tensions had been simmering between the headliners' camps. Iron Maiden was pelted by eggs and debris during its set, and suffered multiple power outages. A tape-recorded chant of "Ozzy, Ozzy!" played over the PA; angry Iron Maiden fans drowned it out with their own "Maiden!" chant. Despite all this, the band played harder than ever. At one point, a man with "Don't f**k with Ozzy" scrawled on his body stormed the stage with an American flag (irony!), but was promptly dealt with by Iron Maiden's crew. An angry Dickinson waved the Union Jack and said, "These colors do not fucking run!" Afterwards, Sharon Osbourne freely admitted to causing the power outages and buying eggs and recruiting others to throw them.
Of course, this galvanized the band. A Matter of Life and Death is easily Iron Maiden's best album since 1988's Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. It's no storming of the ramparts, though—it’s more of a post-battle body count. The album begins with "Different World" and "These Colours Don't Run," two strong, memorable anthems. Then the album settles into a darker, more contemplative groove. The specter of war hangs heavy here. "The Longest Day" vividly describes D-Day; "Lord of Light" bemoans "the slaughter of the brotherhood of man"; "Brighter than a Thousand Suns" calls nuclear armament "a race to suicide." Even a rocker like "The Pilgrim" has moody flatted seconds. Atmospheric clean tones abound, like on the heavy, mid-paced "The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg." At over seven minutes long, the song is an odd choice for a single, but it's an epic in the grand Iron Maiden tradition. The songwriting throughout is assured, with confident transitions between often disparate riffs. Dickinson's operatic voice is in fine form, and Steve Harris' bass lines are as fluid as ever.
Much has been made of the fact the album wasn't mastered. However, the result isn't worlds apart. Sure, it's a shade quieter than most current albums, and looking at waveforms confirms that one is hearing all the music's peaks instead of artificially maxed-out levels. But this is hardly a Steve Albini production. Nicko McBrain's drums are compressed to begin with, and synths and backwards vocals betray big-budget production. This album is slightly warmer and more natural-sounding than before, and that's about it. The gesture is meaningful, though; the band is still concerned with quality. It's a testament to metal's health that not only are some of its hoariest geezers (Cannibal Corpse, Deicide, Motörhead, and Iron Maiden) not on pacemakers - they're still pace-making.