Before I get into the music, it's important to note (okay, pretty irrelevant to note) that this is the first Maiden CD that has not featured the band's mascot Eddie on the cover. Rather, we get an Eddie-esque alien monster smashing the helmets of what appear to be vampire astronaut skeletons inside the fuselage of a burned-out spacecraft. Points for originality.
Other reviewers are claiming that this is Maiden's best work since "Brave New World," and perhaps their best since the classic "Powerslave." I won't go that far, but this album is definitely proof that the band has experienced an energy boost since recording "A Matter of Life and Death" in 2006. It sounds as if everyone involved has stepped it up a notch for this album, and it's clear that this band's not slowing down yet.
This is evident from the get-go, as the opening track "Satellite 15...The Final Frontier" kicks in with a lengthy, pounding drum section while a foreboding spacey atmosphere is built up in the background with wailing guitars. About 4 minutes in, the tone changes drastically to a classic Maiden headbanger with a memorable chorus that I'm sure will become a singalong favorite at live shows. Video's fairly cool too:
The next track, "El Dorado," is my favorite on the album; perhaps because I got to hear it live, complete with Adrian's backing vocals and Steve Harris pointing his bass bayonet-style at the crowd and sneering. Anyway, the track opens the way most 70s rock songs might end, with drums and guitar just going crazy for several measures before the trademark bass gallop kicks in. The song just rocks, plowing ahead at a quick tempo with dark-sounding verses and a melodic, soaring chorus that will get stuck in your head for days. A true gem.
The third track, "Mother of Mercy," is probably my least favorite song on the album. Bruce Dickinson's vocals sound really strained on this one, and his age shows a bit. It's got a decent beat and whatnot, but it sounds a lot like their last 2 albums, and as I said, Bruce's vocals suffer when he's made to strain his range.
"Coming Home" is more of a midtempo ballad, and Bruce is much more at home with this one. It's about well, coming home to jolly ol' England on an airplane and the feeling you get when you see the runway lights of your home coming up to meet you. A solid tune, not incredible, not terrible.
"The Alchemist" I found to be fairly forgettable. A pretty bland track, not lacking in riffage and well-sung vocals, but it's just not a memorable track for me. "Isle of Avalon" is one of three tracks on the album to break the 9 minute mark, and it's a pretty solid 9 minutes at that. With multiple changes in tone and intensity throughout, it keeps the listener engaged. This song seemed to be begging for comparisons to "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," but you won't find any here. It's not THAT awesome.
"Starblind" and "The Talisman" are both great tunes as well, sticking to the tried-and-true Maiden formula of taking slowly building artsy intros into galloping choruses and throwing in powerful, melodic choruses. "Talisman" is over 9 minutes as well, but I felt it could have been trimmed down a bit, it started to get repetitive towards the end.
"The Man Who Would Be King" ushers in the back end of the album with a driven, energetic tune that stands out because of its absolutely kickass solo section. There's about a 2 minute long section midway through the song that is purely instrumental, and features some of the best solos I've heard out of Maiden. The ending stands out as well, with its bluesy harmonized guitars driving the slow outro.
"When the Wild Wind Blows" is a fitting end to the album, a full 11 minutes of heavy metal done right. The vocals follow a pattern that is entrancing in its simplicity, and the harmonized guitars form a powerful melody that is reminiscent of The Trooper in places. It doesn't hit you as hard as "El Dorado," but "When the Wild Wind Blows" is an appropriate tune to close out another solid outing from Iron Maiden.
You have to really listen to this album to truly appreciate it. If you just play it in the background while you zone out doing something else, you'll miss a lot of the album's appeal. At the minimum, this is a great improvement over the last few albums. At the maximum, it's one of Maiden's best pieces of work in their 15 year history. I officially give it an 8.7/10.