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