Album Review: Is Iron Maiden’s Senjutsu a Worthy Addition to Their Arsenal or a Dull Blade?
Precious few genuine Big Event metal releases these days, and even fewer worth looking forward to. Like, new Metallica albums feel like latter-day Undertaker matches – you’re just kinda hoping they don’t ruin their legacy or hurt themselves. A few missteps aside (I know I’m in the minority here, but A Matter of Life and Death sure lacked memorable moments for something that long), Iron Maiden’s post-millennial work stands toe to toe with just about anything else released in the genre during that timeframe. Senjutsu follows the same 2 CD/3 LP template as 2015’s The Book of Souls. That prior album, while too long, contained some of the sharpest cuts of their second run with Bruce Dickinson at the helm. That katana-wielding Samurai Eddie on the cover is pretty terrifying, but does the album itself slice as deep?
No longer the young and hungry band behind neck-snapping classics like “Number of the Beast” and “Wrathchild,” Maiden have settled into their role as wizened old storytellers. As proven by their most recent albums, their interests skew more in the direction of musically complex epics that tell fleshed-out tales. Not that that hasn’t always been their modus operandi to some extent. It’s just even moreso now. Only three songs clock in at under seven minutes, and even then only barely.
They certainly know how to write long songs that click – “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Dream of Mirrors,” and “The Clansman” rank amongst their very best. Dickinson’s weathered voice fits the role of weary bard well, and the Adrian Smith/Dave Murray/Janick Gers guitar battalion lands every shot. It just makes it difficult for the epics to stand out when that’s all of them.
That’s not to say the record doesn’t have its highlights. They definitely made the right call on the singles: “The Writing on the Wall,” the best track here, mixes up the usual Maiden formula with the unexpected deployment of a Fields of the Nephilim-style gothic Spaghetti Western riff, and while “Stratego” feels the most “classic” Maiden, the upbeat riff helps it eke out a win. “Days of Future Past,” the requisite barnburner, continues their fascination with classic science fiction stories (see also: the title track from Brave New World, “Stranger in a Strange Land”).
As far as the longer Steve Harris compositions go (and there are a lot of them), the quasi-sequels stand out the most. “Death of the Celts” builds on the folky sing-along of “The Clansman” well, while “The Parchment” finds some undiscovered gold in the same tomb where they dug up “Powerslave.” “The Time Machine,” cowritten with Gers, gets a boost from the use of acoustic guitars. Otherwise, the songs feel a bit too interchangeable.
The problem here ultimately comes down to a surprising lack of two of the things Maiden does best: big hooks and big choruses. Their songwriting and musicianship is impeccable as always; Kevin Shirley’s dry production, synth underpinnings aside, will probably remain a sticking point for some fans. It’s a pleasure to listen to, and even at eighty minutes it flies by. Still, it’s Iron Maiden; their albums are usually good for multiple songs that get stuck in your head for days. That hasn’t happened with this one. Unfortunately, that puts it a cut below their best.