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Iron Maiden - The X-Factor CD (album) cover

THE X-FACTOR

Iron Maiden

 

Prog Related

3.26 | 216 ratings

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The T
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Honorary Collaborator
5 stars Even though this will be far from a popular opinion, I have to say it from the beginning: THE X-FACTOR is probably my favorite Iron Maiden album, and in my eyes, their most progressive to date.

The year was 1995 and The Beast had to face quite a challenge: they had to record and release an album without one of their most important and charismatic members: vocalist Bruce Dickinson, who left after the tour for FEAR OF THE DARK. If there was one member that every fan adored and regarded as, probably, the quintessential element for Maiden's true sound it was, (maybe besides Harris' bass), Bruce Dickinson and his over-powerful vocals. One of the most respected singers in the metal genre, right along names like Dio, Dickinson was surely quite a difficult act to follow, and quite a gigantic loss for the British metal machine. How could the group ever recover from the absence of their frontman? That question led many to believe that the immortal Eddie had finally been sent to Hell for good.

The solution to the problem was radical, no doubt about it. Instead of trying to find a Dickinson-sound-alike replacement, Harris and Co. chose a rather unknown vocalist with a very different style to that of the legendary front man, Wolfsbane's Blaze Bayley. With a far shorter range and far weaker throat, Bayley was a huge departure from the omnipresent thundering that Dickinson voice delivered for The Beast. And the fans were puzzled as to how would the experiment sound like, specially when the man chosen to fill their hero's shoes was not a big star nor was he regarded as one of the top performers in the metal world.

THE X-FACTOR, Maiden's tenth album, finally came out in 1995 and the response to it was mixed. Many loved the long songs, the dark mood, the amount of instrumental passages and more mid-tempo moments, while others vilified and hated the lack of more pure-metal, lightning-fast tracks, the generally weak voice of Bayley and, most of all, the absence of Dickinson. Ultimately, the album wasn't successful and many considered it the beginning of the end for Maiden. The next release, VIRTUAL XI (another favorite of mine, though not in the same level) helped only to confirm this idea, and it was only with Dickinson's return in the triumphant (and more typically Maiden-esque) BRAVE NEW WORLD, that faith in The Beast was restored again. That "resurrection" of sorts also helped, strangely, to somewhat restore the appreciation for THE X-FACTOR, as fans now viewed it without the fear that this was going to be Maiden's last opus, but more like an odd experiment that belonged to another era, long gone by.

I, for one, felt in love with this album from the beginning. Yes, Blaze Bayley's vocals are sub par; he just can't sing were lower volumes are need, his voice gets lost in the mix; yes, he has not much melodic creativity for the vocals, as they always seem to follow the guitar melody note-by-note; yes, even when he yells and sings at his best, he's nowhere near the level of crushing power that Dickinson is able to produce just by opening his mouth to speak; yes, there are no real lightning-fast, pure- energy songs in here (maybe with the exception of "Man on the Edge"). All of that is true. But I think Harris and the whole band chose a wise path to make up for their shortcomings in the vocal department. They wrote a more progressive album, darker, filled with instrumental sections, slower to differentiate it from traditional Dickinson-fronted Maiden albums; an album with a big focus on melody rather than on pyrotechnics; an album where the guitars get a chance to show their most atmospheric side instead of their most gravity-law-defying side; subtlety, tension over speed and energy. The album sounds so much different that any other by The Beast, but at the same time the usual characteristics CAN be found: great guitar melodies, good choruses, multi-sectional songs, Harris' superb bass-playing, that sense of "epic", of glory that some moments bring about. This is an odd Maiden album as much as it is a typical Maiden album. And I think, for that, it's a masterpiece, as it combines the elements of old with the new. In the end, Bayley' voice becomes less of a problem and more of another instrument, not a star but a participant, he joins the band in the back of the stage, leaving the front place deserted, integrating with all of them. In this perimeter-Maiden there are no stars. Out there they were like stones, immaculate (couldn't resist).

Just a word about the recording: it's MAGNIFICENT. I don't know how many people would agree with me but this is one of my favorite albums in terms of sound. The bass is just SO clear, in-your-face, the guitars are so easy to distinguish, their sound pure; the drums sound perfect, one of the best drum sounds I've ever heard; and Bayley.For his kind of voice, the recording is also spot-on: he's raised above the rest when he needs help, and only in the beginning of the album and of a couple short tracks the production couldn't help him to hide his shortcomings as a singer in lower volumes.

Sign of The Cross (10/10) An epic, THE epic, my favorite track ever from Iron Maiden. It starts ominously, with dark choirs over low pedals and murmurs; the main theme of the song is announced by the guitar and the bass, while a synth provided background, everything in the utmost quietude. Bayley joins the declamation, almost whispering. The eerie melody somehow tries to get more optimistic, some tension is built, we think we're near explosion but we go back, and in the next try we finally get to the main verse, and the first time ever that Bayley showed his true color. The music seems like a quest, like a quest with not much future, more like a quest to find something that would bring more doubt. Everything sounds crystal-clear. The guitars adorn everything with short melodies. After what could be called the chorus, the guitars and the bass join for a desperate short instrumental section when they announce a pessimistic, powerful but dark theme. Suddenly we get to another land. The choral chants return, everything is calm, but the kind of peace that one doesn't want to feel. Another them, odd signature, all the string electric instruments playing the same theme, the drums mark the march, a march towards doom, oblivion, the underworld. The tension grows. A guitar tries to escape, she flies with melody over the cascade of fire that tries to engulf it, to swallow it. But in the end it emerges, victorious, and a fast, energetic, optimistic, glorious riff of those that Maiden only can produce unfolds. Speed, glory, melody, everything intertwined. Defeat was not unavoidable after all. And the guitars join in chants of celebration. Bayley comes back with a slowed-down version of the chorus, no longer sounding defeatist but just like reminding bad times. Those times are gone now. As is this superb song. My favorite epic, my favorite song ever from The Beast. And one of my favorite tracks from any band altogether. And if every Maiden album had been opened by a great track, this time they finally made the first song the best in the album.

Lord of the Flies (9.5/10) Exactly like we needed, the mood is different now. A guitar riff opens this fast, if not quite lighting- fast, powerful track. This time Bayley sounds like a man in a battle, in a battle that he CAN win, speaking about how the world is, while trying to view it as how it should be. A song full of hope, speaks of the darkness of the soul but at the same times carries a hidden message, we don't have to be like that. A great song. A great solo with a passionate ending, a cry for hope. Fantastic.

Man on the Edge (9/10) The more "classical Maiden" track in the album, this is also the fastest. Bayley's lyrics are good, as is his performance. It seems he sung better when he was singing his own words. Pure energy, we truly feel like a man on the edge, everything goes so fast that the man gets caught in a whirlwind that ultimately absorbs him and leaves him ready for schizophrenia. All the band is at it: the guitars climbing ladders, the drums marking the precise rhythm, the bass providing the safe net so that the falling man doesn't actually reach the ground after he falls from a very tall skyscraper. Excellent.

Fortunes of War (9/10) An acoustic guitar and the bass; atmospheric guitars sing a lament for dying souls; wars that needn't be fought; lives that could've been spared. Bayley sings well here. He dares to show emotion, something that he should've done more. A rare bass-solo moment leads us to the main verse, a mid-tempo rhythm marked by guitar melodies. Bayley gets angrier (and his voice shows its shortcomings from time to time), and then a sudden change occurs, a faster section with great melodies and a bass that throttles overpowering everything underneath. A mini-chant near the end like those of old bring this great track to an end.

Look for The Truth (8/10) This one begins even quieter. The guitars at the lowest volume, they seem like they are praying for some unknown gift from heaven. Bayley sings very well here, one of his best moments. The main verse starts, again a mid-tempo one. Another dark introspection, the chorus is not really brilliant but good enough. The instrumental section sounds somewhat awkward but it works. A good song, if not up to par to the preceding ones.

Aftermath (8/10) Some arpeggios that sound like if they were brought straight from the 80's. The mid-tempo verse comes immediately, Bayley not at his best. He doesn't create a good melody with his voice, he follows the guitar lines exactly. The song is not going that well up until now, but the second main-section, that attacks suddenly after the first, is much better; an instrumental part starts, everything gets better, the solos are good, Bayley sings better, too. Finally, the mid-tempo is lay aside and the metal machine strikes back. Full speed, full force; Gers and Murray fingering like crazy, showing their mastery of the axe; after the brief explosion, we go back to the second section. The song concludes. It became a good song after all.

Judgement of Heaven (9/10) An odd optimistic, almost happy (not the usual mood for 1995's Maiden) riff in bass opens this song. Bayley sings along. The energy grows. The vocals are not great, but the music supports them pretty well. The main verse is fast, is Maiden. The chorus is good, like a ray of light. The solo doesn't start that well but then the guitars join and we get a fantastic pure-Maiden moment of glimmering hope. Even with the sub par vocals, the song is fantastic, thanks to everyone else who perform at their best. Another success.

Blood on the World's Hands (8/10) Quite the most unique start ever from Maiden, Harris has a chance to show-off (?!?) with a good bass introduction that shows what we already know: he's a master of his instrument. It's not only dexterity: it's atmosphere, created just by the bass. Then the whole band joins him in another riff that sounds like fight, like the quest to overcome a problem, a huge one like the stupidity of men. The chorus, like mankind's skills for causing chaos and destruction, goes up and down but doesn't show any signs of ever stopping. The last chorus is more like a resignation, it will always be like this. A good song.

Edge of Darkness (7.5/10) Some helicopters. It feels like "One" from Metallica. The opening lines are as quiet and sad, expressing sorry for what has happened and worry for what it's to come. When the main verse attacks, it feels too much like the one from the last song, so we don't love it immediately. But then another faster section starts and we forget what happened, The Beast punches us in the head, telling us never to mistrust her. The solo is lightly chaotic but also sounds like a solo from earlier days. The least successful song in the album, it's decent, almost good, enjoyable.

2 A.M. (7.5/10) Another quiet, slow start just with guitars and bass. Bayley's lyrics again, and just as last time, he sings with more emotion. The main verse is good, not great. The alternation is what enhances the track and doesn't let it fail. But near the end the guitar solo is good, and has some beautiful melodies, so "2 AM" doesn't become the dark hour for THE X FACTOR but another pleasant moment.

Unbeliever (8.5/10) We change mood. We get energetic. A very progressive passage. Bass, guitars, the ride cymbal join in a great intro. Then the main verse starts, great. It feels like a man trying very hard to go out and fight, but someone holds him back, saves him from himself. The chorus, very melodic, is sung over acoustic guitars. We get a brief instrumental recapitulation and then the same chorus but more powerful strikes back. Bayley sings at the top of his capacity. After a second chorus, the drums and the bass join in like feels like the final attack, the final charge, all the cavalry facing the enemy now and going after it, with no fear nor remorse. A short fast section leads to the return of the phrases from the beginning, the first verse, and the chorus. A great closer.

All in all, after every word has been said, THE X-FACTOR would've been a perfect album, in my opinion, if it had been trimmed a little and the two enjoyable but not very good tracks near the end had been eliminated. But, as it is, it gets a 4.5 from me. And the way I do my reviews, as I don't think an album has to be 100% perfect to earn the highest rating, I give it a 5, and specially having in mind that this, even though many people may not agree with it, is Iron Maiden's most progressive album. Even though Bayley's vocals are definitely average, his performance doesn't hurt the music which suits him well.

Recommended for: Iron Maiden fans; fans of good metal and good progressive metal, with dark overtones; fans of Blaze Bayley (if there are any).

.At times I wonder how this could've sounded with Dickinson holding the microphone. Maybe it would've been even better, and maybe it would've been more respected by the fans (that's for sure). But something inside me tells me that this music would've lost its magic, and that, in the end, Blaze Bayley was the imperfect-perfect vocalist for the Tenth by The Beast.

The T | 5/5 |

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