The year is 2000. Amidst the popularity of Nu-metal and metalcore on the verge of crossing over into commercial viability, one of the most significant and influential bands in history is poised to make one of the greatest comebacks in history. Iron Maiden, who had dominated heavy metal during the 1980s, returned with a new album. Aptly entitled Brave New World, the release sees complex and progressive numbers with the type of energy that no one has seen in years. Their return to prominence is signaled upon releasing the group’s newest single, The Wicker Man. It’s a fitting metaphor. The towering structure from years ago meant to bring balance and fulfill an ancient prophecy is exactly what Iron Maiden has done. With the return of both guitarist Adrian Smith and vocalist Bruce Dickenson, the specters of old seem to have risen from the past to cast a shadow over the current landscapes.
Two years later, a double-live album of the band highlighting the Rock in Rio music festival was released, accentuated by a home video release. Both the album and DVD are everything a longtime fan could want. Iron Maiden has never sounded better. Performing tracks from the new album alongside the classics that fans know by heart, there’s no question that they’ve returned to prominence and glory. If there’s a single moment during the performance that leaves audiences spellbound, it’s Sign of the Cross. The eleven-minute anthem harkens to some of the band’s celebrated catalog epics, such as Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Hallowed Be Thy Name, and Phantom of the Opera. Dickinson’s vocals make the song soar and take on an almost operatic tone.
There’s a justifiable irony in the performance and presentation. While Brave New World and Rock in Rio are seen as formidable returns, Sign of the Cross is part of the group’s history that invites polarizing debate, even today. First appearing on the 1995 album, The X Factor, the album is notable for not being well received by both fans and critics and the debut of vocalist Blaze Bayley, who came in to replace Dickinson’s following his departure in 1993.
Fans often malign Blaze Bayley’s tenure in the band. A period where Iron Maiden went from torch-bearing icons of the genre to an awkward vehicle, lumbering about with songs material that failed to live up to the accomplishments of the past. We ask ourselves if this opinion is justified, or are we simply unable to look past any incarnation of the band that Dickinson or Paul Di’Anno doesn’t helm? This experiment should have worked on paper, as it was a matter of history repeating itself. Dickinson had come in to replace Di’Anno and had previously established his craft as a vocalist during his tenure in Samson. Bayley was more or less following the same career trajectory as he had honed his craft in Wolfsbane. If we believe in Nietache’s theory of eternal recurrence, this should have been a success that took the group further.
There are perhaps a few mitigating factors in why lightning doesn’t strike twice. While it’s human nature to blame Bayley because he was the man in front and his voice was on the recording, it’s another personal change that impacted the group more than Dickinson’s departure. The X Factor would be the first album since their 1980 self-titled debut that wouldn’t have producer Martin Birch at the controls. The mastermind who had engineered the formative years of Fleetwood Mac, the Dio-fronted era of Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple was one of the genre’s greatest minds, and his retirement following Fear of the Dark had certainly left a void.
Perhaps the title of The X Factor is a self-diagnosis of this era. While the X corresponds to the Roman numeral and the band’s tenth studio release, it’s almost impossible to listen to the album and not think there’s a crucial element missing. The cover of the album appeared to be a sign that the group was moving into new territory. Eddie, the group’s easily identifiable mascot, was depicted as being vivisected by machinery, almost as if to hint that this album would itself be a dissection of the group themselves.
As for the material on the album, the only way to properly describe it is a conglomeration of the old world that Steve Harris was so fond of exploring on previous releases, merged with a sort of social commentary that had been present on the group’s last effort, Fear of the Dark. Truth be told, The X Factor appears at odds with itself regarding musical direction and lyrical content. That’s not to say that there is a genuine ambition on the part of the group to put forth an effort indicative of a new era. Opening the album with Sign of the Cross is a step back from the typical formula used in previous releases. That’s not to say the placement is bad, but the long, epic anthems such as Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Hallowed Be Thy Name have always been at the conclusion and not the beginning.
Sign of the Cross, easily the high water mark of the release, sets a standard that the rest of the album attempts to reach but never quite manages to. This brings me to my main criticism of Blaze Bayley during his time with Maiden. There are moments when his vocal style is perfect for the album’s direction. That being said, live recordings show his limitations, and it’s obvious during some songs that he’s being placed into a role he’s not suited for.
This brings us back to history not repeating itself for a second time. The transition between Killers and Number of the Beast is almost seamless. Dickinson’s arrival allowed the band to progress in new territory, and his vocal style elevated many of the arrangements that the band would write over the following decade. Bayley was not only stepping into a role that any vocalist would have trouble filling, and conception among the fans would be hostile to just about anyone coming in to be the heir apparent to the position in question.
Lord of the Flies, named one of the most iconic books in the canon of British literature, suffers from lyrical content that could be best described as bland. Considering the book dealt with such heavy-handed subjects as fascism, the inherent nature of evil in humanity, and the blurring of the lines between civilization and savagery, vapid phrasings of “it brings out the animal, the power you can feel” make the song almost seem comical. Despite this low point, the following track, Man on the Edge, has an appeal and mirrors the social commentary present on the Fear of the Dark album, particularly the lyrical content of Be Quick and Be Dead. Based on the film, Falling Down, Bayley’s lyrics manage to meld with the song’s composition to paint the atmosphere of discontent brought to life through Michael Douglas’s performance.
Carrying on with some of the elements in Fear of the Dark, two songs, in particular, seem to carry on with the same themes in Afraid to Shoot Strangers. The aftermath and futility of war are compared to other works such as Threads. These songs accentuate Bayley’s strengths and play to them instead of against them. This formula is also expressed in Look for the Truth; again, Bayley’s vocal style best suits it. Slower than other material and introspective and melancholic, there’s a considerable amount of quality to be found in these songs. That being said, the same aesthetic carried over for three songs in a row shows the limitations of the group at this point. Not since No Prayer for the Dying had the group stripped down and slowed up the pace.
Another interpretation of art rears its head in Edge of Darkness, based on Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and better known to many for its theatrical adaptation, Apocalypse Now. AT times appearing to resemble Hallowed Be Thy Name at certain points, it’s an impressive showing of musical composition and lyrical content. However, something on The X Factor becomes apparent by the time we reach this point in the album. Bayley’s limitations are clear, and while it’s commendable that the group is exploring these themes of discontent and injustice, They’re focussing so much on these mid-paced songs that the album almost becomes repetitive. And that’s the last thing you’d ever expect from an Iron Maiden album. With such an extensive body of work and themes that explore so much, The X Factor finds a road and seldom deviates from it. And while it is limited in what it can accomplish, it certainly has some quality.
This type of atmosphere permeates the album’s last two songs, 2 AM, which echoes isolation, and The Unbeliever. The Unbeliever, which deals with the subject matter of introspection and existentialism in pondering the greater mysteries of life, almost feels reminiscent of After Forever by Black Sabbath. “Are you scared to look inside your mind? Are you worried just at what you’ll find?” has a very similar phrasing of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Is God just a thought within your head, or is he a part of you? Is Christ just a name you read in a book when you were in school?” Themes repeat themselves throughout decades of music. Even Angel of Death by Thin Lizzy can be comparable to Sympathy for the Devil by The Rolling Stones.
So, where does that leave The X Factor? Is it an overlooked gem or simply a failed experiment from a band that found itself trying to stay relevant when the music paradigm had undergone a seismic shift? Perhaps it’s both. Perhaps it’s neither. The X Factor is an album that conflicts with itself and can be described as a contradiction. It shows a band attempting to branch out in new directions with a new singer at the helm, yet once a formula is found, it borrows from older releases and sometimes becomes repetitive. It shows a willingness and ambition to progress and grow in a new era, yet capability limitations are almost impossible to overlook.
The ultimate verdict, I feel, is the differences between a band having good songs and having good albums, of which the gulf between the two is quite significant. Good albums can be played front to back with appreciation for every moment. Good songs entail that there are moments that deserve celebration, but they’re marred by the songs that diminish the quality of an album as a whole. Despite this, it should be noted that despite everything, Steve Harris did what he always did in the past—persevere in the face of adversity and not be hindered by it. Blaze Bayley’s tenure as Iron Maiden’s frontman might be polarizing, but some good came out of it.