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

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