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The Final Frontier


Reviewed by : Dom Lawson
Rating : 9.5

By now, of course, you will doubtless have taken the opportunity to listen to The Final Frontier. More popular than ever and globally revered in a way that no other metal band has ever come close to achieving, let alone sustaining for three decades, Iron Maiden continue to inspire debate because what they do matters to the metal community as a whole. The last decade saw the band capitalize on the momentum generated by that much-anticipated reunion with singer Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith by releasing three exceptional studio albums and embarking on the kind of grueling tour schedules that most bands of this vintage would avoid like the plague. The fact is, Maiden do things differently, with an intense work ethic and respect for both their fans and their own art that makes them largely unique, and whether you have stayed with them for all these years or lost interest somewhere along that long road, it’s hard to imagine a world without a new Eddie, a new stage show and some epic new songs every few years. This time round, however, things seem even more feverish and hyped-up than usual; a testament to the fact that Maiden seem to be defying age and logic by getting bigger than even in their '80s heyday. With a new generation of fans eagerly accepting the Brits’ status as metal’s acknowledged kingpins, the excitement surrounding the release of 'El Dorado' as a free download and the server-crashing race to see the full, sci-fi grandeur of the video for this album’s title track were monumental in their intensity.
Consequently, The Final Frontier really needed to be, at the very least, the equal of 2006’s A Matter Of Life And Death, an album that split the vote to some degree but which most fans agreed was one of the strongest Maiden albums in 20 years. The bad news is that if you didn’t particularly enjoy AMOLAD or the two albums that preceded it, The Final Frontier is unlikely to restore your faith in your one-time favourite band. The good news (for everyone else, that is) is that the fifteenth Iron Maiden album is a stunning piece of work that expands on the band’s recent progressive explorations, takes them into new textural and melodic areas and does new and intriguing things with that instantly recognisable compositional formula. From the unexpectedly bizarre whooshes and robotic clatter of 'Satellite 15', the album’s opening four-minute intro, it should be abundantly clear that compromise has once again been left firmly off the agenda. Interestingly, some people seem a little confused as to whether they want Maiden to repeat themselves ad nauseam and whip up a quick 'Aces High' Part 2 or two or to keep pushing the heavy envelope. The Final Frontier suggests that you can have it both ways. For those hankering after the short, sharp slaps to the forehead that made the band such a huge worldwide phenomenon in the '80s, the muscular hard rock of the title track, the propulsive rumble of the banker-baiting 'El Dorado' and the snappy, Fear Of The Dark-era spring of 'The Alchemist' all get to the point quickly, delivering the kind of honest but exuberant thrills that have long been a Maiden trademark. Better still, gloriously overwrought quasi-ballad 'Coming Home' is simply the best lighters-in-the-air anthem the band have written since 'Children Of The Damned', replete with a joyously bombastic chorus that packs a giant emotional punch without ever seeming mawkish or cynical. The only other tracks that clocks in under the six-minute mark, 'Mother Of Mercy' is the most intricate and obtuse of the shorter songs here, but as Dickinson edges towards the top of his range and his band mates stir up some brooding, war-torn menace around him, this album’s dark but daring heartbeat is clearly audible.
It is, of course, the more overtly progressive and extravagant end of Maiden’s recent output that has bred the most dissent from hardcore fans who, despite all the nostalgia tours and chances to hear those hallowed old songs, will not be satisfied until Martin Birch is brought out of retirement and Eddie heads back to 'Acacia Avenue'. But this album is not intended to placate anyone but the men who created it, and with songs like 'Isle Of Avalon' and 'Where The Wild Wind Blows', Maiden are proudly proclaiming the bloody-minded determination that has enabled them to survive with dignity in tact after so many years of active service. 'Isle Of Avalon' is plainly Adrian Smith’s baby, with its chiming, left-of-centre chords and tantalizing, slow build-up, but it’s also a sublime demonstration of Dickinson’s ageless vocal skills, as its colossal chorus erupts amid lengthy passages of elegant but forceful progressive metal that seem almost to mock the notion that Maiden have ever been stuck in a rut. Similarly, 'When The Wild Wind Blows', a Steve Harris composition from the opening seconds to a beautifully pitched denouement, contains enough familiar traits during its deceptively smart 11-minute duration to provide a link with the past while still pushing Maiden forward into atmospheric and harmonic territory that is as new to the band as it will be to the fans. With comparable acts of bravery being played out during the trippy surges of 'Starblind', the bold pirates’ tale of 'The Talisman' and the gorgeous tangential shifts and dynamic flashes of 'The Man Who Would Be King', this is a long way from sounding like a closing chapter in a grand saga. Instead, for all the rumours of this being the last Maiden album and other such speculative balderdash, The Final Frontier sounds like a stepping stone to a few more years of business as usual and, in all likelihood, yet more creative endeavors to come. It won’t please everyone and nor should it. Maiden gigs will remain a celebration of the past and present, but fittingly for an album adorned with such galaxy-bound imagery, this is a thrilling and deeply satisfying glimpse into a brave new future for the people’s metal band.