Iron Maiden
"The Final Frontier"

(UMe 2010)Iron Maiden - The Final Frontier

You can count on one hand the number of bands on this planet that are as popular as Iron Maiden, and go ahead and curl back some digits for the number of bands that make worthwhile music. The legendary Britons' continuing popularity is due in no small part to their constant need to gun their collective engines, rather than sit on an impressive (and lucrative) résumé. Ever since the return of Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith in 1999, thereby pulling the group out of the regrettable two-album Blaze Bayley "era," the grizzled Brits have been on a remarkable creative roll. Starting with the stunning "Brave New World," through worthy follow-ups "Dance of Death" and "A Matter of Life and Death," Maiden have proven that they're nowhere near ready for the senior band legacy circuit, and "The Final Frontier" displays ever more of the spark that keeps the Iron Maiden machine rolling.

The album begins with perhaps the oddest music Iron Maiden has ever recorded, a pounding industrial machine-beat that doesn't really go anywhere. But after a far too long five minutes, the title track proper begins, it sounds like good old Maiden, and all is right with the world. What follows is 76 minutes of heavy metal goodness. Yes, you read that right. "The Final Frontier" is 76 minutes worth of ten songs; which is to say that some of the suckers are long, long and long. Most of the 8-minute plus jobs are pushed towards the back, which leaves the front half of the album wide open for the "shorter" (i.e. 5-6 minute) tracks.

After the title track's comfortable familiarity, lead single "El Dorado" is one of the leaner n' meaner songs, combining a heavy gallop with some snarling almost-spoken verses from Dickinson not unlike "The Evil that Men Do." "Mother of Mercy" is a slow pounder on the level with "The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg," and "Coming Home" is an easy ballad with just enough crunch and plenty of solos to beef it up. But after straightforward barnburner "The Alchemist" is where the album becomes a web of growing track lengths, heapings of different parts per song twisting and turning on one another; and of course more ripping solos, glorious choruses, soaring Dickinson vocals, and serpentine guitar melodies than you can process in one listen. That is to say, the back half of "The Final Frontier" is where Maiden start to get a bit proggy on our asses, and while some of these songs probably should have been trimmed by a few minutes, listening to the band experiment and toy with their sound is worth the long-windedness.

So while "The Final Frontier" isn't as immediate as "Brave New World," it's also not as unsure with itself as "Dance of Death" and not as comfortable as "A Matter of Life and Death." This is anything BUT a safe album, and it's a pleasure to see a band of Iron Maiden's status (and age) continue to push themselves after 30-plus years in the biz. In fact, it's this willingness to mix things up that keeps the band from stagnating (paging Judas Priest) or becoming a parody of themselves (oh, hi Ozzy). The most worrisome part of this record are the implications of that ominous title; let's hope Maiden keeps blazing new territory, writing new chapters in their storied history, and upping those irons for years to come.

A-

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