Thursday, September 30, 2010

Talkin' Eds - Virtual XI (1998)

Okay, I'm going to keep this brief. In my opinion Virtual XI is the worst Iron Maiden album so far. Unlike The X Factor I don't think its reputation can be saved by calling it a side-project for Steve Harris and his friends - this one is just not a great collection of material. Collectively it's the sound of five pairs of eyes being taken off the ball, to borrow a football metaphor - and why not, as of course Harris himself decided to here

But first, a matter of catching up. Iron Maiden haven't been idle since album number ten, having put out The Best of the Beast - my re-entry into their canon, as it were, and with it the non-album single Virus. Virus is Harris’ answer to critics of the band’s recent direction and despite a rather rough video is a pretty decent song for this era, recalling bits of Edge of Darkness and Metallica’s One in the intro. The main guitar again has the weird, thin overdub sound referred to in The X Factor, and it returns on Virtual XI, a number of songs from which sadly don’t meet the standard set by Virus or the album before it. Did Harry burn himself out with that one song, I wonder?

XI certainly starts reliably enough, with the pre X Factor quickfire opening track reinstated. Futureal is one of two songs here which survived the Bayley era for a while and still goes down well. It’s an energetic, spiralling song which doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s immediate successor does, however, and is probably the biggest, ugliest nail in the album’s coffin. The Angel and the Gambler is Iron Maiden doing a crowd opening stadium song, years after they perfected such tracks. The result is a plodding, hackneyed and overlong mess with a really really really repetitive filler trio of lines (‘don’t you think I’m a saviour, don’t you think I can save ya, don’t you think I can save your life” – around 21 times in succession). It’s simply too much, and its Superbowl keyboard stabs punctuating the verses kill any attempt at ‘rock’. Oh, its video references the sleeve for Stranger in a Strange Land, by the way. Dave Murray’s Lightning Strikes Twice is mostly good, with the main weaknesses being the verse to chorus leads in and a dated guitar rhythm. Plus the song is about… lightning striking. It’s not asking too much, but in the wake of outside criticism of a new lead singer I’d imagine that a reasonably decent composition like this with a gift of a song title could have had farther reaching lyrics to match – maybe, I dunno, thematically addressing the possibility that another great frontman for the band could be a possibility? Instead it, like Angel, is detached from the album at large – it’s the second filler song in a row. Things pick up with The Clansman, another ‘epic’ song based around the story of William Wallace, probably. Well, based on the recollections of someone who once saw Braveheart perhaps. There’s more lazy songwriting here with harks to ‘the land of the free’ and biscuit tin Highlands ‘they’re taking our land/that belongs to the clans’ – the sort of thing Irvine Welsh called ‘Jocksploitation’. It’s a shame, because Bayley clearly believes in the song and it served him well, as it did Janick Gers’ rather soulful into. Clansman is the second survivor of the album, and has probably aged better as a live song for it.

I’m coming down hard on the lyrics and composition of Virtual XI mainly, but I have to say I’m not impressed by the production either. The album was made using Pro Tools, and it has a shallowness to it that exacerbates the impression that for a lot of the songs there seems to be only one guitar really working. I’m not sure what’s going on, but Maiden’s signature twin guitars have fled the studio by this album, and the result means that these track in particular sound overlong and over linear. I mean absolutely no pretence or ambition in saying they sound like something I could have composed in my band days – and I was a rubbish composer. When Two Worlds Collide is a prime example – maybe the worst song on the album for boneheaded lyrics (it’s about an approaching asteroid, not a planet) and very straight structure that again does Bayley no favours. The Educated Fool is where Harris opens up a little more and has become a highlight for me. It’s still not great in all, but does have a variety in touch that makes you forget the songs before. Don’t Look To The Eyes of a Stranger is a Killers-era theme which could have been shorter and would have been better for it. At last, and the last song of Blaze’s days, is Como Etsais Amigo, co-written again with Gers and after nearly an hour’s inane plodding it serves to end the record on a dignified note. Initially about the Falklands War (though not actually about the war but the need for rebuilding friendship afterwards), I can’t hear it without imagining it as a fitting farewell to Bayley himself as frontman. Probably the best song on the album.

I don’t know much about Virtual XI’s creation, but I’m guessing it wasn’t good. The album was launched alongside a themed video game (never a good idea) Ed Hunter and images from that litter the booklet along with the aforementioned football shots and merchandise offers. We’re a long way away from the young chancers posing in the London Dungeons or in the sun-drenched Barbados. Distracted, tired, and maybe looking for an escape clause, I just don’t think Maiden were trying hard enough here, and it shows.

Cover Art

Mind you, it's not all bad. Melvyn Grant, the artist responsible for the cover art Fear of the Dark does a decent job here is bringing together the disparate elements of 'Arry's shopping list - here's Eddie in blood-red bestial glory, a virtual reality machine (maybe ten years out of fashion but hey ho), and finally some of yer actual football being played. The band feature in the liner booklet also in football strips, so this is an indulgence of the soccer-mad Harris clearly being played out. Interestingly Derek Riggs' name seems to have still been on Maiden's rolodex as he had a stab at the album cover too (look out for it next post), but Grant's does the trick well enough, and while Riggs' is reliably good, maybe it references his past work a little too much.

Album Tracks

The Angel and the Gambler
(4-minute version)
Lightning Strikes Twice (album version)
The Clansman (album version, bad fan art?)
When Two Worlds Collide (live , and better for being faster!)
The Educated Fool (live, Canada)
Don’t Look to the Eyes of a Stranger (album version)
Como Estais Amigo (album version)

"Which will it be?"

I reckon that Generation X is to date the last generation to play Cowboys and Indians as children. Lots of elements probably fed the genre's popular demise - urbanisation and the urbanisation of its motifs and archetypes (perhaps most potently in the figure of The Man With No Name turning into Harry Callahan), the emergence of Sci-Fi as a popular cinematic genre in the Seventies, shifting cultural identity in an increasingly mutlicultural United States... and possibly bigger and more obvious reasons than those which occur to me now.

Consequently the Westerns of my childhood were largely from off the TV - shows like Gunsmoke, The Virginian, Bonanza, The Lone Ranger and their ilk. There were very few Western movies I recall watching with interest, and few which stuck with me. I properly discovered Westerns in my university Film Studies course, and only then realised what I'd dismissed or simply not seen.

Having said that, I still haven't seen a lot of Westerns, but I do count some of them among my all-time favourite movies. So I was really excited to hear that one of those, which I fondly recall watching around the age of nine or ten, has been remade by the Coen Brothers:

If you've not seen the original, hell, why not just watch its trailer below and have the whole thing pretty much told to you in hilarious style. I'm guessing the 2010 revision will be less on the lightness and a more ponderous piece, which isn't to discount the original at all. True Grit's a great story, and the Duke deserved the Oscar he got for bringing Rooster Cogburn to life on the big screen. Roll on, December...

And seriously, how cool is Wayne in that last confrontation?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Talkin' Eds - The X Factor (1995)

1995 In Heavy Metal

Heavy Metal is dead. Its Glam and Speed successors have similarly come and gone – Metallica and Anthrax have gone grunge and the future, it appears, is in Death, Goth, Industrial and Nu-Metal. In the same year of The X Factor Slipknot and Korn form, and Nine Inch Nails and Killing Joke are also on the scene, also informing some of the mood for Nineties heavy music.

The X Factor, Maiden’s tenth studio album is a reaction to the changing scene, and arguably the last time the band audibly change with the times. On a personal level it’s fed by events in Steve Harris’ own personal life (a divorce and the death of his father) and the world around him. With Bruce Dickinson having left the band, Harris seems to have drawn a line under the band of the past and sought a new sound with the enthusiastic and agreeable (and less fractious) Blaze Bayley as his helmsman. The resulting album is dark, less self-knowing than previous efforts, and inescapably introspective. The ‘X’ moniker is a useful peg on which to hand the whole project, offering as it does many interpretations – X being the Roman numeral ten of course, X the unknown, X the cross of suffering, faith and perhaps salvation. More so than previous albums I get the sense that The X Factor is actually trying to be something other than another set of songs for the band’s fans, and to a degree it works as that, however those same fans received it at the time. I quite like this album, but it’s not a party album, or maybe even one for company. Is it an Iron Maiden album? I still don’t know. It may be that it would have gone down better as a side project under a different name – in some corners it wasn’t received well at all, Kerrang! Magazine going as far as inviting a very real thrashing by Harris for blithely dubbing it ‘a novelty record’. Nevertheless, The X Factor is important Maiden history, and a significant album in the band's canon.

The Album

The album opens strongly, as most Maiden efforts do, but eschew the standard fast-paced potboiler for a long narrative, The Sign of the Cross, wrought around a condemned man during the inquisition and musically recalling the slow build-up of Somewhere in Time's Alexander the Great. As I indicated in that review, this is the version I prefer, with some new and uncharacteristic sounds adding great atmospehere - Gregorian-styled chant for one, with bayley's opening vocals not appearing until well into the second minute. It's an impressive start and an immediate highlight with some of Dave Murray's best lead guitar in the hird acts and, rouding things off, bayley closing the song and the instruments fade around him. It's a fantastic gesture of faith by harris in his new vocalist to allow him to carry the most important track of a new album alone, and it pays off. The following two songs are more traditional in style and tempo - Lord of the Flies once again takes its cue from literature, in this case William Golding's novel, while Man on the Edge is lifted directly from Joel Shumacker's cinematic tour de force Falling Down. And then the album begins.

As said before, if there's an overall theme to The X Factor it's an internal one, Maiden's darkest album to date being far-removed from the cartoon bogeys of Number of the Beast and its ilk, and set most often in the mindset of its songs' protagonists - prisoners, soldiers, doubters, unbelievers and loners. There's melancholy, particularly in the beautiful and simple 2am, outrage in Blood on the World's Hands (informed by the Balkans conflicts), and even horror, as effectively conveyed in the album's clear nod to Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Edge of Darkness.

Throughout Bayley's voice maintains a level growl, an early indicator of his range, certainly, but very much suited to the atmosphere of the album. Compositionally the instruments favour the bottom-end - bass and drums (nicely recorded) are at the fore. Lead guitar is mixed – Dave Murray is strong, but if the rhythm duties are Janick Gers, then the thin, overdubbed treatment given here does him no favours. There's minimal keyboard, and ample use of simple guitar picking - lead-in arpeggios, an indulgent but well-times bass intro for Blood, and the aforementioned 2am's solo by Gers, recalling his work on Wasted Love, providing an effortless and expressive break mid-song. In the first of a couple of notable collaborations Maiden's two most recent members show that they are a great team.

Lyrically the album is a step up as well, with some sensible lyrics in comparison to come of Fear of the Dark's clangers - I particularly like The Aftermath's stab at the likes of Owen or Sassoon, and while Darkness pretty much makes a case for plagiarism from Coppola's script wholesale, it is what it is and isn't pretending to be anything but. In all I find The X Factor pretty strong as an album, despite some limited vocal range and two adjacent intros (Fortunes of War/Look For the Truth) that resemble one another perhaps a little closely. As a Blaze album it's his best - sensitively recorded and playing to his strengths. Sadly, it's downhill from here.

Unusually, The X Factor over-ran in its original compositions, resulting in three extra tracks being released as B-sides, two of which also appear on the Best of the B’sides collection.

Cover Art
A radical departure of course, being a photo of Eddie in verus vita to intents and purposes. But intent aside, this is a deeply unpleasant image both for striving to be lifelike, and in the unrelenting violence depicted. That might seem a slightly overwrought criticism – it’s a model Eddie after all, and therefore a model of a fantasy character; however the attempt to make Eddie ‘real’ succeeds too well in removing the cartoon aspect of the mascot (Eddie doesn’t even have his hellfire eyes, but human ones), and the result is just not nice to look at. Furthermore, I think rather than inviting listening of the album, it puts the would-be buyer off, either because the subject matter is too sensitive, or possibly because despite the aforementioned realism of the piece, it’s still cartoon enough to look juvenile at the same time. What a pity a black album cover had already been done so recently and recognisably by a more successful metal act.

Apparently an alternative ‘wide angle’ shot was made available to satisfy more squeamish markets. It’s the less provocative of the two, and the one I’ve opted for. I like the clouds in that version as well, and the crossed girders behind Eddie’s electric chair carry the ‘X’ theme effectively. Ultimately however, this is a failed cover to my mind – too realistic to dismiss outright as fantasy, yet too tied to its ‘metal’ roots to convey the true sense of departure. In all a painted Riggs-alike cover would be preferable, but that said, The X Factor still doesn’t have the worst Iron Maiden album cover ever!

Album Tracks via YouTube
The Sign of the Cross
(bonus: fan video with Dickinson vocals based on The Name of the Rose)
Lord of the Flies
Man on the Edge

(bonus: fan video based on Falling Down)
Fortunes of War
Look for the Truth
The Aftermath (live B-side version)
Judgement of Heaven
Blood on the World’s Hands (live - Sao Paolo?)
Edge of Darkness
(bonus: fan video based on Apocalypse Now)
The Unbeliever

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Corellian Job

More than likely this is everywhere at the moment, and thanks to Dave for sharing it with me, but if you haven't already, you must check this out:

It's an animated Star Wars that is true to the originals! The colour palette, the sounds, the music and even the dialogue just sing Seventies Star Wars - and it's a beautiful thing.

I'm not a big Star Wars fan. I'm really not. But aged seven it was the biggest thing in my world, and even this many years later I can see and hear the in-jokes and visual references to the original trilogy and in particular the first movie here. It's not overdone, no-one's trying to push an agenda (the last shot is a bit of fun, and why the hell not?), and you can see how easy it would have been to have taken all the talent here and ruined it by going too far, too fannish. But they didn't, and that's really cool.

Lando has to appear in the next one though, guys!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Talkin' Eds: In the Days of Blaze

For years I wasn’t aware that Iron Maiden had a third vocalist. In fact, it was only on properly inspecting the booklet of The Best of the Beast that I saw him – a (then) young man with sculpted sideburns and long black hair, named Blaze Bayley.
Blaze Bayley was born Bayley Cooke in 1963 and made his name in music as the lead singer in Brummie (well, Tamworth) act Wolfsbane. Like Bruce Dickinson’s Samson the band had a bumpy history and a few stabs at the big time – a handful of albums, some music videos and promise of US exposure, but their profile wasn’t high, and it’s probable that after Dickinson’s departure Bayley might not have become the new Maiden frontman but for the good fortune of Wolfsbane supporting Maiden on the No Prayer on the Road tour. Here’s what they might have sounded like, a little more polished for international release:

I think I can see why Steve Harris might have encouraged Bayley to audition. Audition he did, and the rest is history, albeit a diminishing part of Maiden’s growing story. Nevertheless, despite his brief time with the band he leaves as his legacy two albums, a handful of original B-sides and a tenure that lasted a good six years; he outlasted Di’Anno and was nearly in the band as long as Adrian Smith’s first term. Granted, his voice doesn’t compare well to Dickinson’s – it’s deeper; deeper than DiAnno’s in fact. But that doesn’t matter if you consider the direction Maiden were taking at the time – longer, more ponderous songs, less of the spitfire Eighties composition. To that end, Blaze was a pretty good fit.

Unfortunately it seems now that the fans simply wanted Bruce Mk II, and more to the point, they wanted an unchanged Maiden. The band’s development continued, but took faltering steps in doing this, with the ultimate effect of giving Bayley one good album for his voice, and one where his vocal limitations could not save struggling compositions. Furthermore both album tours were hampered by an apparent on-stage allergy Blaze suffered from (oddly not to manifest in his later acts), which compromised his vocals and, combined with a pretty static presence unlike Dickinson’s hyper one, gave mixed performances. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. For what it’s worth, I like Blaze Bayley, and I think at least half of his material with Maiden not only has legs but is well suited for the band at the time. Bruce’s return may have saved Maiden’s reputation with the headlines it garnered, but the band’s fall from grace isn’t just down to this one man, at all.

As a final taste, here’s Bayley with the band gamely struggling through The Trooper, a song that few vocalists could do justice to, and which was plainly unsuited to a touring baritone. Performance-wise it’s a near disaster, with a member of the crowd spitting at the singer while he gets more and more worked up by the insult directed at him. Keep watching to the end and you’ll see that bandleader Harris doesn’t leave his frontman to wear it alone but stands alongside him, ready to unleash some serious aggro on the audience himself. Amidst a pretty ugly scene, there’s a solidarity that wasn’t as evident in Maiden’s fanbase at the time.

Bayley’s Wikipedia entry reads as you’d expect it might – a real rollercoaster of fortunes peppered with mismanagement and personal tragedy. His solo career went well enough, and recently he’s toured with a reformed Wolfsbane, seemingly happier and in a better place for it. Good on him, and godspeed, Blaze.