Music is meant to be a shared experience. My first encounter with the music of Iron Maiden was as a thirteen year old listening to my friend's bigger brothers' tapes, two of us huddled over a portable stereo listening, each track a revelation and needing to be discussed, compared, enthused over. This happened less and less as albums came and went, and I just went. There are other bands whose music I bought on the first day of their release, racing home or to a friend's place to play it in comany and turn the listening experience into a communal one, but it wasn't until this year that I was able to do this properly for an Iron Maiden record. Semi-regular commenter Tim is also, as is obvious, an IM fan, and so on the day of release we raced from our respective work desks to hit the road with the new album in the CD tray, sharing the experience of hearing Maiden's latest (possibly last) album 'live'. We parked overlooking town on a beautiful sunny day, chatting animatedly over the tracks as they played - it was a good lunch hour, whatever the outcome.
And so this is Album Number Fifteen, reaching the number Steve Harris said not too long ago that he would be aiming for with Maiden. Adding to this the ominous title you'd be hard pressed not to think TFF is the band's last outing. More recent press suggests this might be premature, and sales haven't hurt it at all - going to number one is several countries (including New Zealand). Perhaps there's life in the old dogs yet. In the mean time Frontier is apprpriately a rumination on that most final of frontiers, the death of the individual. It's not a complete overall theme, departing from time to time, but it's unquestionably there. The album opens unconventionally, with a barrage of reverbed drums and a shouted first person narrative by Dickinson about a stranded spacefarer low on life support and drifting towards a nearby sun. In a segue that is shared across the first three tracks (tracks one and two are technically the same) the album's title song kicks in, continuing the story as the man reflects on his lot:
"For I have lived my life to the full/I have no regrets.
But I wish I could talk to my family to tell them one last goodbye"
There's not a lot of space in the song for regret, however, and it's interesting to note that incomparison with earlier narratives of the damned (The Trooper, Hallowed Be Thy Name, Sign of the Cross) there's less of a sense of impending dread and more of peace with one's lot. The voice of an aged yet succesful band against a younger group with debts and dues to pay? Or am I reading too much into this? Certainly the sense of contrast with the past is there with returns to old ideas - the soldier on the battlefield (Mother of Mercy), the historical figure (in this instance Dr John Dee in Janick Gers' lively The Alchemist) and the hero of legend - here it's the original British and, potently, undying king in Isle of Avalon which restarts the album after a slow lapse and introduced a strong troika returning the album's theme. Indeed, its immediate successor Starblind seems in it opening lines to return to the doomed astronaut of the album's overture stil drifting to his doom, but spiritually resigned in a beautiful description:
"Take my eyes the things I've seen/in this world coming to an end
My reflection fades/I'm weary of these mortal bones and skin
You may pass through me and leave no trace/I have no mortal face
Solar winds are whispering, you may hear me call."
Starblind is the highlight of Frontier for me, an easy anchor point with fantastic solos and Dickinson in strong voice. I can't decide however whether the vocals suffer slightly from the singer's age (the higher notes are 'thrown' as elsewhere on the album and Dickinson's 'F's are sounding more wet), or are given greater conviction because of it. This would have lifted the roof back in the days of Number of the Beast but would it have resonated as well amid the bloodthirsty songs of vikings, demons and madness? To Maiden's, Dickinson's and Harris' credit (and not forgetting the other songwriters of the band) strong lyrical compositions matter more in these later albums - technically the band have never dropped in quality despite the singer's voice aging and the drummer being the senior member), so it's heartening to see them being given obvious attention here. Gers returns to writing chores with The Talisman, a (whoops!) doomed seafarer dropping at the last hurdle on his voyage to the New World. It's a good composition and yes, Gers has trod this tale before with Ghost of the Navigator on Brave New World, but he does this stuff so well I can forgive him easily.
The final highpoint of Frontier is Steve Harris' rewrite of Raymond Briggs' When the Wind Blows, closing the album as one of the longest songs of Maiden's repertoire. When the Wild Wind Blows reliably tells the story of an old couple responding to the imending nuclear holocaust around hem by huddling in their shelter, but choosing to end their lives (unlike the unhappy protagonists of Briggs' story). The fact of the false alarm that drives them to it is a cruel trick of fate, but maybe here Harris is having it both ways - individuals facing death with dignity, and all the while death not being the end of the world around them.
If The Final Frontier is Iron Maiden's legacy album, the last release in their name as a group, then it works very well, hitting the notes of the past without falling into the trap of sentimentality of self-reverence. Coming as it did on the heels of the hugely succesful Somewhere Back in Time 'golden years' world tour and album, you could be forgiven forexpecting some of the obvious formulas of the past creeping in either through familiarity or an acknowledgement of what worked in the past. Thankfully for Maiden they haven't done this and haven't needed to - whatever they're doing it's clearly still working. There's nothing shocking or new on Frontier past its overture, but not does it sound tired or rehashed,a testament to the invention and energies of its seven strong contingent. If this is the end, then true to the heroes of the album, they depart in style.
Nooooo! It was going so well! This, believe it or not (and many didn't, and frankly the jury's still out a little) is Eddie. Yup. Space Eddie, hoovering a dead astronaut's brains. Yeah. Whatever floats your boat, buys. Obviously not a Derek Riggs portrait, it comes from the usually reliable Melvyn Grant and for what it's worth the design has stuck, being incorporated into the standard Giant Eddie onstage and on the single artwork by Anthony Dry. As you might imagine, I'm far from sold. It's cartoonish in the wrong way and actually looks really clumsy. There's a back story to the art involving a quest for seven keys (for seven bandmembers?) one of which Eddie has presumably retrieved here, but it's not followed up in the album (just a spin-off game), so we';re really into Ed Hunter territory here. Frankly, a close up of the astronaut helmet with a more classic Eddie reflection would have been preferable, and may have suited the opening track more. In other words, I ain't buyin' the tee shirt for this one.
Satellite 15... The Final Frontier
Mother of Mercy
Isle of Avalon
The Man Who Would Be King
When the Wild Wind Blows