IRON MAIDEN’S THE FINAL FRONTIER (AXL’S TAKE)
Even if Iron Maiden were always pretty polished, there’s no denying that there was a punk influence on their work with Paul Di’Anno, and that said punk influence carried over to their earliest releases with Bruce Dickinson. A lot of the band’s most famous songs from those barely-separate eras — “Running Free,” “Wratchild,” “Number of the Beast,” “Run to the Hills,” “Flight of Icarus,” etc. — are under five minutes long. There was a lean and mean quality to those songs that the band gradually ditched. In fact, you can trace this progression pretty easily:
- Iron Maiden — Only three songs over five minutes, only one over seven minutes, total run time is 40:39.
- Killers — Only two songs over five minutes, only one over six minutes, total run time is 41:18.
- The Number of the Beast — Only three songs over five minutes, two of which are six minutes plus, one of which is seven minutes plus. Total run time is 40:22.
- Piece of Mind — Four songs over five minutes, two of which are over six, one of which is over seven. Total run time is 45:50.
- Powerslave — Four songs over five minutes, including “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which is more than thirteen minutes long. Total run time is 50:57.
Then the band got somewhat carried away with Somewhere in Time, which only has one song under five minutes and a total running time of 51:24, and then they reigned things in a little for Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (total run time: 43:50), No Prayer for the Dying (44:25), and Fear of the Dark (58:29). Then they made two albums I like to pretend never happened, and then Bruce Dickinson returned to the band, and, frankly, everything kinda fell to shit:
- Brave New World — Only three songs under six minutes, total run time is 66:57.
- Dance of the Dead — Only two songs under five minutes, total run time is 67:59.
- A Matter of Life and Death — Only one song under five minutes, most songs run seven to nine minutes, total run time is 71:54.
- The Final Frontier — Only one song under five minutes, total run time is 76:34, a full 35-36 minutes than any of the band’s first three albums.
Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being long-winded — assuming you have something to say that can’t be said any faster. But Iron Maiden generally don’t fall under that category; “Rime” is a wonderful song, but a lot of the band’s epics since strike me as a case of someone using twenty words when five would suffice. Or, put another way: Iron Maiden have become the boss who is holding up the meeting because he loves the sound of his own voice.
And The Final Frontier is no different. It Maiden’s best album since Brave New World, but without all the bloat, it probably could have been their best since at least Prayer, if not Seventh Son.
The problem begin right with the opening track, “Satellite 15… The Final Frontier.” The song starts off with an intro, which is atmospheric enough, and sounds like it’s building to something awesome… but then goes on for 4:35, more than half of the song’s total 8:40 running time. It doesn’t even segue naturally into the album’s title track; it has to come to a complete halt for the real song to begin. Here’s a hint, fellas: if your intro has to literally stop because there’s no way for it to flow into the song, then it stinks, and either needs to be turned into a separate (apparently droning, hookless) song on its own, or, better yet, be cut out altogether.
And it’s a shame, because otherwise, “The Final Frontier” is actually a really, really good song.
And this is is a pretty common problem throughout the record. Many of the best songs on The Final Frontier, like “Isle of Avalon,” “The Man Who Would Be King,” and the finale, “When the Wild Wind Blows,” could be 25%, 50%, 75% shorter, and would consequently be 100% better. Even the ballad-ish “Coming Home,” one of my favorite songs on the album and the third shortest track at a mere 5:52, feels like it could lose a solid minute.
Epic songs, like epic films, need to be constantly evolving, upping the stakes, heightening the drama. But these songs often feel like they’re going nowhere; it’s like The Godfather, if The Godfather consisted of only five scenes, each of which was thirty-six minutes long.
But there is some awesome stuff on here — the guitar solos on “When the Wild Wind Blows” alone were enough to wash the taste of A Matter of Life and Boring from my mouth — and the album does get better with each successive spin (as I type this, I’m on my sixth listen). And I guess we should be grateful that Maiden still have so much ambition — that they’re not embarrassing themselves with shit technique and a too-self-conscious desire to please others, the way, for example, Metallica are. If anything, it feels like Maiden need to be more conscious about pleasing others; if they’d stop equating run time with artistic achievement and just went back to being a meat n’ potatoes metal band, they’d probably blow every other group that’s come along in the past three decades right the fuck out of the water. The Final Frontier is a pretty okay album, but we haven’t all been loyal Maiden fans for so long because their best music is pretty okay.
(three outta five horns)