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From The Vaults #4 | Iron Maiden’s ‘Virtual XI’

The 1990s were a hard time for metal music and a hard time for Iron Maiden.

Beginning the decade with the departure of long time guitarist Adrian Smith and subsequently losing frontman Bruce Dickinson after the poorly received ‘Fear of The Dark’ album in 1993, things were bleak for the British metal titans.

The bleakness showed in their 10th album, ‘The X Factor’, released in 1995.

Introducing new vocalist Blaze Bayley, the album was a huge departure in style for Maiden.

Gone were the thunderous, galloping riffs and huge sing-alongs of ‘Seventh Son of A Seventh Son’ and ‘Powerslave’. Instead, a collection of slow, dreary songs with introspective / religious lyrics were presented to the metal masses.

Some fans embraced this new Iron Maiden. Most did not.

During the subsequent tours, the concert audience in Europe and North America almost disappeared (the band remained a stadium act in South America) and album sales were at an all time low.

While some die-hard Maiden fans loved the first Blaze Bayley record, seeing it as successful experiment and the sound of a band maturing gracefully, very few had kind things to say about the follow up in 1998, ‘Virtual XI’.

A swathe of negative reviews and fan backlash has now led to this album being almost forgotten by modern metal audiences, with many Maiden fans neglecting this record when filling out their collection.

However, despite the negative criticisms at the time, I think that this album is a lost gem, if one gives it time and if one skips over a certain track…….

Track By Track

Lets look at Virtual XI track by track and see how it stands.

‘Futureal’ is a blistering track, a high energy song that bursts out of the speakers and is reminiscent of that other tragically forgotten Maiden opener ‘Be Quick Or Be Dead’.

Blaze does a fine job singing over the riffs and the shredding solos, the harmonies in which are outstanding. It’s a straight-forward Maiden opener but that means its pretty damn good.

‘The Angel And The Gambler’ is for this authour and Maiden fan, the huge pulsing pimple on the otherwise majestic face of Iron Maidens musical career. It’s just a stupid song. It sounds childish and silly.

It’s far, far too long and the chorus is the definition of repetitive (I believe that in one instance the words ‘don’t you think I could save you’ are repeated 22 times in sequence).

This song had a huge impact on the overall reception of the album, largely due to the fact that incredibly, Steve Harris insisted that it be the lead single over ‘Futureal’.

This caused many fans to dismiss the album out of hand after hearing the ‘single’, which makes ‘The Angel And The Gambler’ the pimple on the face of Maidens business career also.

Thankfully, the ridiculousness stops there. ‘Lightning Strikes Twice’ is awesome. One of two Dave Murray contributions to the album, it is superb in every way.

The song begins at slow tempo with clean riffs and lead licks before beginning to slowly build into a crashing gallop. Once the song really takes off, the driving riffs and the scorching solos should electrify any maiden fan.

‘The Clansman’ remains one of the most underrated Iron Maiden songs ever written. It is pure gold and an anthem to rival anything the band produced in their supposed heyday in the 1980s. Beginning with an ominous clean guitar intro and a building bass line from Harris, the song builds upon itself up to the first chorus, where it explodes with an apocalyptic metal fury.

The remainder of the track is a fiery, epic metal extravaganza. The lyrics are perfectly suited to construct a movie in your mind, the tale of Scottish rebels defending their homeland and the screams of ‘Freedom!!!’ in the chorus should send shivers down the spine.

‘When Two Worlds Collide’ is a relatively simple rocker. It has nothing amazing about it, but it is far from filler. It has a catchy groove during the verses and the solos are excellent.

‘The Educated Fool’ is a fantastic introspective piece penned solely by Steve Harris. Blaze is at his best here; his dark and moody vocals suit the atmospherics of the song perfectly.

The song shifts mood throughout, changing from joyful highs to barely restrained anguish to an uplifting chorus, changing seamlessly and it works brilliantly. The guitar harmonies between Gers and Murray in the songs latter sections are wonderful. Pure, classic Iron Maiden.

‘Don’t Look To The Eyes of A Stranger’ is another great song. Highlights include the slow buildup to the frantic and killer solo that begins to kick in at 5.30 mins. The galloping riffs that underscore the harmonies and rhythm riffage is great and belongs in the hall of classic Iron Maiden moments.

Closing the album ‘Como Estais, Amigos’ (hello there, friends) is an introspective number full of cool vocals hooks and excellent guitar melodies. It is slow and somber, but it’s also a damn fine song.

The guitar licks beginning at 2.50 show the kind of intricate guitar work that Janick Gers would continue to develop in Maidens later albums and it is moments like this that make you realize how vital he now is to Maidens sound.

So overall, ‘Virtual XI’ is a great album, if you ignore the utterly terrible ‘The Angel And The Gambler’.

Blaze of Glory

Many will never warm to this record because of Blaze and that is ok. There is no doubt that Bruce is the voice of Iron Maiden and yes there is no doubt that in the live arena Bruce took these tracks to places Blaze never could (check out the amazing version of ‘The Clansman’ on the Rock In Rio 2001 album and ‘Futureal’ which can be found on ‘Best of The B Sides’).

However, Blazes performance on this album is still great and the songs speak for themselves.

Moreover, the maturing evolution of Maiden is apparent on this record even more than on ‘The X Factor’.

The guitar phrasings brought in by Janick Gers were more prominent here and the lyrics of Steve Harris were continuing in a more personal theme (instead of songs about devils and albatrosses).

These elements would come together and be expanded upon with Maidens later albums with Adrian Smith and Bruce Dickinson returning to the fold. Without the musical evolution on ‘Virtual XI’ we would have no ‘A Matter of Life And Death’ or ‘Brave New World’.

For that reason alone it is worth checking out, if for no other reason than to explore the roots of the post 2000 Maiden sound.

If you have dismissed this album until now go check it out and if you have a copy gathering dust since winter 1998, go grab it and give it another try. It’s worth the effort.

Bernard Drumm ::: 23/07/14

  1. I always thought this album had some great songs on it. However, some of the playing and the production is so sloppy it’s unbelievable. There’s even a bit at the end of the Clansman that’s out of time.

  2. It’s certainly not a bad album, and “The Clansman” is Maiden classic as far as i’m concerned – but at the time the hardest thing for me to see past was the whole football angle in the artwork etc – totally out of place.

  3. I have a lot of time for both this and X-Factor, though X-Factor suffers from much more filler and poor production problems.

    Overall, Virtual has some awesome tracks. ‘Futureal,’ ‘The Educated Fool’ and ‘Don’t Look To The Eyes of a Stranger’ are tracks I still go back to!

    Kind of wish they would properly mix and master both albums, there’s no reason why they couldn’t!

  4. Barrytron Says:

    Angel and the Gambler also has possibly the worst music video of all time.

  5. You’ve hit the nail on the head in terms of my relationship to Maiden in that piece. I was one of those people who bought ‘The Angel And The Gambler’ (7″ picture disc) in advance of the album’s release and it really consolidated my falling out of love with Maiden, which began with ‘Fear Of The Dark’. To this day, I don’t think I have once consciously listened to ‘Virtual XI’.

    The allusion to the fact that Maiden opening tracks are generally great, I find a bit baffling, though. ‘Be Quick…’, ‘The Wicker Man’ and ‘Wildest Dreams’ are amongst the worst songs they’ve ever penned. Ironically, and very unpopularly, I know, I think ‘Satellite 15’ is the best opening to a Maiden album since ‘Moonchild’.

    I must admit, you have me tempted to give the album a chance, but the statement that without ‘Virtual XI’ we would never have gotten ‘Brave New World’ and ‘A Matter Of Life And Death’ has me in about ten minds given that I think they are two of the band’s most insipid albums.

  6. The biggest problem with Maiden since the early 90s is Steve Harris. The flat, lifeless production which has become his hallmark started once Smith left. I remember hearing them play Man On The Edge live on Ray Cokes show on telly when X Factor came out and it sounded huge and powerful and full of life. It was such a let down to hear the studio version, as powerful as a damp paper bag. Even now, he manages to make a band with three fucking guitarists sound largely timid when the sound of them should be ripping out of the speakers. That and his constant use of E-C-D-E chord sequences had me bored of this band by the time this album came out. Blaze gets a raw deal for this eras failings, much like Bob Rock seems to take a lot of the blame for what Metallica have become. He wasn’t the right man for this gig but it ain’t his fault. That being said, I don’t think the songs on this album are anywhere near good enough to justify the praise given above, even if Bruce and Adrian were a part of it.

    Oh yes, the football angle… what in fuck were they thinking?

  7. Bottle of Tonic Says:

    It’s amazing the power music has to take you back in time. I’ve the album on now and I’m 15 again, having not heard any of it since it came out!
    The Angel and the Gambler is pretty naff sounding, its alright in a hard rockin’, 70’s/80’s stadium sort of way, a few keys on it, but sticks out like a sore thumb. Not very Maiden. Maybe Harris was testing the water and was keen to go down that route?

    As regards the artwork and the football kit, Maiden were always known as big football fans, maybe they wanted to point out that they were just normal lads and not into all the cry-baby, angsty ’emotion’ and ‘feelings’ that was prevalent in the mainstream metal of the time!

  8. welshchris Says:

    Maiden went onto decline when Smith left and his returning is as much a part of their return to form as Dickinson coming back.

    Never liked Blazes voice.

  9. paul keohane Says:

    I had virtually given up on mainstream metal when this came out,I never gave it at proper listen until years later,rarely gets a spin These days, in fact I dont listen to much maiden anymore.

  10. King Hostile Says:

    Maiden’s decline started with Adrian smith leaving and the “no prayer for the dying” album.

    Maiden were still huge in 1993. They sold out the point. Fear of the Dark was a No. 1 in the UK.

    It was the X Factor and Bruce leaving that really nearly destroyed them. They went from playing the point in Dublin to the SFX!

    Steve Harris thinking he could play a key board – “the angel the gambler” kind of said it all. Then he thought he could mix and master albums. He had lost the run of himself completely delusional.

    As for “The clansman” it is absolute cheese, rubbish.

    The comments above are correct the production on this album is terrible.

    Blaze Bailey could never sing. I remember Steve Harris going on about how when Maiden had toured with Wolfsbane that Blaze would be a good replacement for Bruce should the situation arise! madness…..

    At least today they have gotten better than they were in the late 90’s.

    However I do think that 7th Son and the all the albums before it were one serious musical ride that is unparalleled.

    Up the Irons! your beer is great!

  11. blahblahbleh Says:

    I agree, if you overlook the gambler nonsense, it is a fairly solid album.

    But …… “the kind of intricate guitar work that Janick Gers would continue to develop in Maidens later albums and it is moments like this that make you realize how vital he now is to Maidens sound.”

    Sorry, no. Just no.

  12. Resonant paddy Says:

    Great album! Very overlooked tracks on there like futureal, lightning strikes twice, the educated fool, the clansman, two worlds collide, como estais amigo…

    Besides gambler, it’s pretty solid. And blazes vocals are perfect for it to be honest.

  13. That 93 gig in the Point was many things but a sell-out most definitely isn’t one of them. There was nowhere near as many people as the first time they played there. If it was even a third full I’d be surprised. The only time I saw less people in that venue was when The Cult played. They were definitely on the slide, in terms of crowd pulling ability, long before Blaze joined.

  14. earl grey Says:

    And not to mention that 95 in Belfast was in the glorious surroundings of…. Maysfield Leisure Centre.

  15. The football element was indeed baffling but you have to take into account what the musical climate was like back then. Bands like Korn, Coal Chamber, Linkin Park etc were starting to shift serious volumes. Maiden were never going to change musically or adapt to trends so you started to see ridiculous shit like that creep in.

    I’d agree that they were on the decline from No Prayer onwards, but disagree that it was anyones fault that Maiden’s popularity plummeted, the grunge scene had exploded by the time Fear of The Dark came out and frankly speaking that’s one of Maidens Worst records, title track aside. Bands like Maiden began to seem utterly ridiculous and releasing albums like that didn’t help. They were ridiculed by printed media for a long time during that period, even upon Bruce’s return. I clearly recall a smarmy interview in Metal Hammer which attacked the band from the off, ridiculing Bruce’s statement that Maiden could still compete with the likes of Marilyn Manson & Korn. Funny how things change, rags like that rely on Maiden to shift copies now!!

    Blaze was never entirely suited to the role, maybe if trends etc had’ve been different they would’ve shifted more albums then but it’s all ifs and buts. In Blaze’s defence I think X-Factor and Virtual XI are an inprovement over the two albums that preceded. On X-Factor especially I found the darker stripped down approach far more endearing and interesting than anything they’ve released recently. Most of the recent records follow a strict formula, we’ve all heard the chord progressions a million times before. Bruce doesn’t sound arsed half the time, I read somewhere that he recorded the vocals for one of the recent albums in one weekend. Blaze doesn’t have half the ability but gave 110% for all his time in Maiden.

    In regards the the review, I’d agree with most of it. I remember enjoying the album when it came out. Angel is indeed beyond dreadful but the standard on the rest of the album is pretty good. It is a shame about the production but you can thank Steve Harris for that. By no means their finest hour but I’d at least put it ahead of NPFTD or FOTD.

  16. northside hoop Says:

    Big fan of Angel and the Gambler, the video edit is what should have been on the album though, and a proper brass section instead of keys.

    Angel and the Gambler get’s the abuse because it was the single, but surely if anyone hates it, then Don’t Look to the Eyes of a Stranger has all the same flaws and is much worse, especially with the mad diddly-eye/polka hybrid section!

    I’d love it if Maiden busted out Angel and the Gambler at a gig just to be stubborn, something they’d be quite capable of doing!

    The real guff is the lyrics to Lightning Strikes Twice and When Two Worlds Collide.

    I’d rank it as the worst Maiden album overall. It’s a toss up between it, No Prayer and Fear of the Dark, and it gets the nod because No Prayer at least keeps things short and sweet and Fear has two Maiden classics in the title track and Afraid to Shoot Strangers compared to only the Clansman on VXI.

  17. King Hostile Says:

    Futureal sounds great with Bruce singing, its on a single from one of the last couple of albums.

    As for the grunge era it was all these big bands (Metallica and Maiden) being lazy trend hopping bastards.

    Pantera on the hand, grunge didn’t affect them for record sales and impact! Also Megadeth had there most profitable and best era in the early 1990’s… and why because they wrote good albums and played good music.

    Funny point comes to mind on the subject of lack lustre crowds, Anthrax in the SFX, Dublin on the Stomp 442 tour! and yet Slayer, Paradise Lost and Type O Negative were complete sell outs!

  18. King Hostile Says:

    can you imagine Blaze being in Maiden as he is now? Serious you would need your head examined!

  19. The Angel and the Gambler is one of the fucking funniest things I have ever seen/heard. Truly amazing

  20. PatrickReborn Says:

    It’s a fairly solid album… obviously in comparison to Maiden’s 80s output it’s a fair bit off, though.

    I think we can all agree that Blaze would go on to bigger things, anyways…

  21. Resonant paddy Says:

    King hostile, maiden have never been a ‘lazy trend hopping band’… I think the very fact that they always went against the trend is half the reason there popularity suffered. Can you explain where maiden done grunge or nu-metal to back up that ridiculous statement?

  22. King Hostile Says:

    What I mean is that they got lazy…..lack lustre albums ment people became uninterested. When they got all the way to the top it was hard to see where they had come from. This opened the door for Gunge and Nu-Metal. Maybe in a way I mean that Maiden and Metallica e.t.c ran out of ideas.

    Pantera, Paradise Lost and a fair few other bands continued to play and explore there sounds in a progressively better way. This kept them relevant and people interested.


    There was a trend of laziness…. which a fair few bands hopped on.

  23. Barrytron Says:

    Went back to this this morn. Got about halfway through The Clansman, just too repetitive and uninspired. Yawn

  24. Sedgebeast Says:

    My Maiden-obsessed mate bought all three versions of ‘The Angel and The Gambler’ singles on the day of release. We sat down for the first listen and the evolving expressions of shock, betrayal, anger and then resigned despair that crossed his face as it played still haunt me. It broke him – his love for the band pretty much died that day. It really is inexcusable junk and deservedly heralded a wilderness period for the band.

    As for the rest of the album – better than the X-Factor, yes, though that really is damning with faint praise. Its still not very good.

  25. I remember borrowing this CD from Cork City Library back in my UCC days. I used to copy the good ones onto tape (oh the days of being a poor student!). I listened to it once or twice and wasn’t impressed. I didn’t make a copy of the album. Though I always remembered that the track “Futureal” rocked. At this time I was only a casual Maiden fan, owning a few of the 80’s albums.

    Fast forward to post 2000 and the reunion. I got more into Maiden, started buying all the albums in the catalogue. Finally went back to check out Virtual XI. I’m still not a massive fan of the album. A big reason for this is probably “Angel and the Gambler”, once I skip over this track then the album seems to work better. I like The X Factor, I see it as a vast improvement on the last 2 albums with Bruce. But I think that the quality dipped when they released Virtual XI. That’s not to say its a total throwaway as “Futureal” still rocks and “The Clansmen” is a classic Maiden epic. I just feel that the rest of the album is a bit uninspired and repetitive.

    I see this album as a product of the times. Maiden were down for a few years. I think that they were declining in the early 90’s and I think this would have occurred even if Bruce didn’t leave. It was going to be tough on whoever replaced him. I give them kudos for continuing. I don’t think Maiden would have had such a big return if they didn’t go through this lean period. It’s just the way that careers go.

    As for the football imagery that hung around the album? I assume this was in relation to the World Cup in France in 1998.

  26. wizardinblack Says:

    Just had a listen to this for the first time. It’s shite right the way through, including the clansman. I’m yet to hear a decent thing from them since 7th Son. There is no way in hell I’m putting myself through a record called the X Factor.

  27. Kewl you should come up with that. Execllent!

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