• Sammy O'Hagar

IRON MAIDEN’S THE FINAL FRONTIER (SAMMY O’HAGAR’S TAKE)For me, the foundation of metal is a five-sided structure (A pentagram? Nah, too obvious. A pentagon!), with each side being represented by Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Pantera, and Slayer, respectively. Though the last two are debatable (but not THAT debatable), the first three are, to borrow a term, unfuckwithable. And of those three, the band that’s aged the best is Iron Maiden. Judas Priest, while still retaining most of their firepower, also dabble with overstuffed, convoluted concept albums about Nostradamus; best to stick to the Halford lineup’s original masterpieces. And while Sabbath have managed to impress on a number of reunion tours with their most cherished singer (one Ozzy Osbourne) and their most underrated (one Ronnie James Dio, RIP), I find it hard to believe the band have one more great album in them, let alone another classic to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their first six records.

Iron Maiden, by comparison, have a good thing going, even up through their latest, The Final Frontier. They’ve weathered lineup changes — even managing to keep the best parts of their tumultuous years (guitarist Janick Gers in addition to the return of Adrian Smith a decade ago) and one of the most integral parts of their classic lineup (vocalist/famously not-Blaze Bayley individual Bruce Dickinson) — and Ozzfest-related controversies, all while still managing to put out surprisingly decent late-period work. Most of The Final Frontier is yet another great example of that streak. Even despite being a very flawed album, it’ll make you glad that Maiden is still around, instead of seeing new material as a technicality so they can keep touring. They’re still a band that belongs together, and hopefully will remain so for the foreseeable future.

However, if we’re going to equate Maiden’s latest to space (as its Star Trek-inspired title so begs), The Final Frontier’s liftoff is on par with the Challenger in terms of botched starts. “Satellite 15… The Final Frontier” is just confusing: half-tribal/industrial compression-fest, half lazy latter-day Maiden rawking. “El Dorado” is as confoundingly “meh” as the internet found it to be; the band’s trademark galloping-steed rhythm is more akin to Heart’s “Barracuda” than their own mighty “The Trooper.” “Mother of Mercy” and “Coming Home” both have their strong points, but ultimately feel tired and by-the-numbers (the former featuring some of Dickinson’s most grating wailing). The album’s first half hour isn’t terrible, but good Lord does it have no interest in inviting you back.

But then, with the Killers-esque boogie that opens “The Alchemist,” Maiden redeem the album’s shaky first half with the sort of ballsy, triumphant jaunt that the band have always been known for. From there, things get epic and (pardon the pun) spacey, but in a surprisingly great way: “Isle of Avalon” finds them dabbling in the proggy inclinations of their late-80s work, complete with an odd-time signature groove in the middle to provide framework for ample guitar wankery. “Starblind” is built on a great, elastic riff, and features some impressive singing on Dickinson’s part. And the classic Maiden riffing in “The Tailsman” more than makes up for “El Dorado”’s dullness. It may be a bit much to declare that they’re all classics on par with their genre-defining work, but the best stuff on The Final Frontier stands confidently on its own, even in the admittedly unfair context all the band’s post-Blaze Bayley material exists.

The Final Frontier’s main problem is that the band doesn’t know when to rein it in: “The Man Who Would Be King” as well as “Starblind” and “The Tailsman” have pointless, multi-minute intros, and closer “When the Wild Wind Blows” spends most of its running time not going anywhere particularly interesting, despite having the hilariously non-distinguishing honor of being Iron Maiden’s third-longest song. But it’s in the band’s insistence on experimenting this late into their career that shows why they’re the most viable of all of metal’s OGs: they still have more of worth to say. There’s still enough life to them to warrant new albums, and I certainly wouldn’t roll my eyes when hearing “Isle of Avalon” or “The Alchemist” live alongside “Sanctuary” or “Caught Somewhere in Time.” While they may not have the doom-y prowess and heaviness of Black Sabbath, the gang-of-thugs sneer of Judas Priest, or Pantera or Slayer’s benefit of hindsight, Iron Maiden have lost the least of what made them great. Even with Dickinson’s voice more husky than before and Harris’ choices in concepts growing increasingly more dorky, the same rush of hearing the band is there when they’re on. Though on the whole quite uneven, The Final Frontier manages to redeem its less appealing qualities with flashes of their signature brilliance. Even if it means shaving almost half the album off, great new Maiden is certainly preferable to no Maiden at all.


(3 out of 5 horns)


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