January for me is always about both starting into a new year of releases and finishing up the last with some notable albums that I missed for some reason. Usually the latter means what gained a lot of notice but passed me by. However, I lost a couple of months of 2021 to events and September in particular had a few key releases I never quite caught up with, starting with this one, which I've been looking forward to ever since I saw the video to The Writing on the Wall back in July. So here is the latest from the first rock band I called my favourite, their seventeenth studio album and the first from them in six years, since 2015's The Book of Souls.
The first thing to highlight about this album is that there's a lot of it. It's a double album, with ten songs that rack up over two hours of running time between them. When I was growing up with the band, they tended to wrap up each album with an epic track, with the thirteen minute The Rime of the Ancient Mariner being my first. This one wraps up with no fewer than three epics, every one a ten minute plus song, and there are only two tracks under six minutes. It may be telling that those two may well be my least favourites, which probably says a lot about me.
The title track starts things out well, with huge drums from Nicko McBrain that successfully aim to sound like Japanese taiko drums, but there are flaws on display. It's is a decent opener, but over a few repeat listens it feels like it's slower and less energetic than it should have been. Stratego is faster but it also feels slower than it should have been, which sets a real precedent here. It's one of those shorter songs and it's not a bad one but it feels more like a rehash of old ground rather than something new to get our teeth into. The oddly muddy production job from Kevin Shirley doesn't help, because it buries Bruce Dickinson in the mix in favour of the lower end, without making the bass of Steve Harris particularly audible.
Fortunately it picks up from there. The other single, The Writing on the Wall, is much more like it from my perspective, even when not accompanied by that memorable video. I like this one, which feels just like classic Maiden without reminding of any particular classic Maiden song, and, I like it more with each listen. It's a story song for Dickinson, but it's also an instrumental workout for the whole band and any Maiden song that does both of those things has the opportunity to become a great Maiden song. If this one isn't as great as some of what follows, it is at least a very good one.
The standouts for me begin with the next song, Lost in a Lost World, a nine and a half minute epic that's the first of the epics on this epic album. Like The Writing on the Wall, it starts of with a very memorable intro, introduces a strong riff with a folky melody and builds with lots of dynamic play. Again like The Writing on the Wall, Bruce gets plenty to do here and with much more versatility to add nuance, but there are plenty of neat instrumental sections too. Songs like this one are why an array of sources have rated this album so highly and featured it so prominently in end of year lists. Lost in a Lost World is up there with Fear of the Dark for me and for many of the same reasons.
The Time Machine does a lot of the same things, with an especially solid riff, though it's not as long as it feels it is. This feels like another epic, but it only just makes it past seven minutes. All of that holds for Darkest Hour too, while Death of the Celts, which has the length, matches Lost in a Lost World as a classic Maiden epic. I need to listen to this album a few more times to see which of the last three behemoths I like best. Right now, I like all of them, with Death of the Celts nudging out The Parchment as the best of the three and Hell on Earth not far behind them, but I'm sure that I will change that order, probably more than once.
The point is that these are really good songs and there's a lot of them to enjoy. I've heard a lot of albums that are shorter than these three songs in isolation, which aren't even the entirety of the second disc of this album. I've also heard a lot of albums that don't contain as much fun as a single instrumental section during the second half of Death of the Celts. This hearkens back to To Tame a Land in my book and The Parchment does too. Hell on Earth, on the other hand, aims at the classic galloping tempo that is such a huge part of their sound. It's not far off the four minute mark when Bruce shows up.
With four classic epics totallying around fifty minutes of music, it's clear that this is an 8/10. I'm going to hold back from a 9/10 though, because not everything is up to that standard. Stratego is a little better than I thought it was on a first listen, but it still fades compared to the rest. Senjutsu is another good but lesser track, as is Days of Future Past. Most of all, I'm not a fan of the mix, an obstacle to the music which should be clean and crisp and, I'm sure, will be on stage. So, 8/10 this is but it's also features more great Maiden songs than any Maiden album since maybe Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. That's why this album is so important. Now, time to listen to it all again.