Ginger Nuts of Horror
Before I begin, allow me to explain….
I came at this project as someone who has never listened to an Iron Maiden album, but of course, I’m familiar with the band. Who isn’t? I’d describe myself as a fan of all types of metal and would like to think I have eclectic musical tastes. Before sitting down to listen to ‘The X Factor’, I had never heard the album, or any of the songs from it, and didn’t really have any feelings about Iron Maiden either way. I could name a few of their songs and would nod my head along sometimes, but I sort of ‘nothing’d’ them.
After sitting down for around 120 minutes with this album, I’ve changed my opinion, and my Maiden fan pals have already laid into me about it. According to them, my opinion counts for nothing because I don’t know Maiden well enough, haven’t given them enough of a chance (on account of only listening to one full album), and I just don’t ‘get’ the band or what they do. I’d disagree that my opinion is worthless, but can’t argue with their reasoning. I slagged off one of their favourite bands and they felt personally offended by that.
It’s true that I’m not familiar, not even remotely familiar, with Iron Maiden’s musical catalogue. In that regard, I’m a newbie. It’s also true that I haven’t given them ‘a chance’ by listening to another album, because on the basis of The X Factor, I refuse to subject myself to another two hours of torment. And it’s especially true that I don’t ‘get it’, but it’s not the band I’ve taken issue with, it’s the album itself.
To any hardcore fans I might annoy with this review, sorry pals. Just remember that just because I hate it, it doesn’t mean I’m right.
…. Though in that respect, I guess that we could also say that just because you disagree, it doesn’t mean I’m wrong either. Huh. Here it is.
The album opens with ‘The Sign of the Cross’, hitting us straight away with an interesting, atmospheric intro, which I enjoyed immensely. I found myself wondering why on earth I’d never taken more time to listen to this talented band, enjoying the gradual emotive swell of the music and feeling as though I was about to be lead into something epic.
Due to the dark tone of the intro, I wondered how I could have possibly missed this 1995 release, when only a couple of years later I was discovering Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor and backtracking through their albums. This, I thought as I listened to this Maiden album opener, is exactly the kind of thing that I breathed. I was so excited about being thrust into an album that at first gently takes you by the hand and then flings you into this clamour of emotionally weighted magnificence. But then the vocals kicked in.
‘Lord of the Flies’ came next, and I found myself in the same thought pattern – ‘oh my god, this music is amazing and I love… oh god, here come the vocals’. ‘Man on the Edge’ was a song in which I enjoyed the instrumental sections so much that I felt inspired enough to quickly jot down a couple of short story ideas. But then, you guessed it, the singing began.
I was pleasantly surprised by the fourth song, ‘Fortunes of War’, which was slower and softer than the others, though I still much preferred the instrumental sections. Still, I was relieved to discover some diversity. Until the next track, ‘Look for the Truth’, kicked in. Like ‘Fortunes’, this one was slower in tempo, but once again, the vocals let it down.
I haven’t taken issue with Blaze Bayley’s voice and I don’t wish to criticise his ability as a singer, but this album is like a showcase of two vocal structures. Singing structure ‘A’ is for the faster songs, and then there’s singing structure ‘B’, for the slower songs. Every vocal melody on this album fits one of the two, and unfortunately, the result is that all the songs just end up blurring into one and sounding the same.
When I sat down with this album, I listened to it with total commitment. I wanted a full Iron Maiden album experience. I didn’t have it on in the background while I pottered around with other things, I sat in front of my computer and listened to it in one sitting, reading the lyrics to each song as it began. Even so, I was confused about what this album was about. The majority of songs seemed to be about the devastation of war, so I wondered for a while if it was a concept album… about war. Whilst listening to it, I found the lyrics unimaginative. It seemed like song after song of ‘war is bad’, and I wished that the words were less simplistic, and thought the whole thing could have benefitted from the use of metaphor.
Afterwards, I read that the lyrics were based on Steve Harris’ (bassist) personal issues regarding his painful divorce. The subject matter of the album then made more sense, and thus I retracted my own criticisms of the album lacking metaphor, since the war theme is, in fact, a metaphor in itself.
Though I’m not a fan of the same vocal melody being repeated in every single song, that wasn’t enough to ruin the album for me. Hell, as someone who will admit that just this week I had Disturbed’s ‘The Sickness’ on repeat in my car, I’m no one to have a go at repetition. That album is just one giant song, yet I love it.
Regardless of knowing the context of The X Factor’s inception, I didn’t much care for the actual lyrics. I found them simplistic and lacking in imagination, and almost impossible to connect with (though that is entirely subjective to the listener and I’m aware that this is an album that many fans cite as part of the reason they overcame difficult personal situations). But that wasn’t what bothered me. I mean… I like Papa Roach - the band with possibly the worst lyrics ever written. For crying out loud, you can’t just rhyme ‘eyes’ with ‘eyes’ and expect to get away with it.
What bothered me is that whenever the vocals cut in, the quality of the instrumental elements dropped. What we have is this gorgeous, audible treat of imaginative and intricate guitar, bass, percussion, and keyboard work, which transports us into a story world that promises development and emotion. There are a load of lovely references to other forms of music in there too – I heard influences and hints to everything from classic rock to Final Fantasy boss battle and world map themes in there – it’s stunning. Then, before we reach the summit of the hero’s journey, it’s like the vocalist just parachutes into the middle of the scene and starts throwing word punches at us. It feels out of place and sometimes disjointed.
Suddenly, the musicians are taking a backseat to the vocals, which, okay I admit, is sort of natural. After all, you can’t expect anyone to listen to the lyrics during a distracting guitar solo or a Joey Jordison drum fill. But the music sounds muted to the point of being dumbed down. Instead of interesting, it’s suddenly repetitive to the point of boring, and even frustrating, which is insane when you consider how talented these musicians clearly are. It’s like the whole piece isn’t a collaboration, but rather that the musicians and the vocalist take it in turns to ‘have their bit’. I’m not having a go at the singer; I’m having a go at the structure. Instead of the vocals matching the quality and complexity of the music, the music ends up lowering itself to act as a backdrop for the vocals. It’s frustrating because you know it doesn’t need to be this way – they’re too good for this! Why? WHY?!
It kills me, it really does. I want to like this band and I want to love this album, but I can’t because it’s too samey and everything awesome about it is constantly interrupted by this bizarre, repetitive dullness. The musical ability of these guys can’t be sneered at, but you throw it all together like this, as demonstrated in this album, and it’s just.. WHY?
I’m not a musician or a singer, and I probably couldn’t write a song if my life depended on it. I’m not saying I could write a better album, I most definitely couldn’t. However, as a music lover and avid listener, all I know is that ‘The X Factor’, for me, doesn’t live up to its name or its promise. The only ‘X’ rated element was the amount I swore at it every time I felt disappointed. I don’t know what the fans made of it, but I know it’s put me off listening to another full album by Iron Maiden, and that’s made me a sad panda.