Ginger Nuts of Horror
It’s the 28th August 1993. Iron Maiden has taken to the stage in what will be their last performance with vocalist Bruce Dickinson at the helm. Rumours are rife of band disruption and there are allegations of Bruce not performing to the best of his ability coming straight from bassist Steve Harris. Something has to give! The previous two studio albums, Fear of the Dark and No Prayer for the Dying, feel a little like Maiden were just going through the motions. Fear had some great songs; notably Afraid to Shoot Strangers, Be Quick or be Dead and of course the live favourite and title track Fear of the Dark….but the rest? The less said about No Prayer for the Dying, the better. To these ears it sounded like a band tired and lacking any real inspiration. Maiden revisited themes such as war (Tailgunner) and history (Mother Russia) and they were beginning to sound very dated. Maiden was in trouble and all you need do is take a look at the lousy Raising Hell video to see that Dickinson had somewhere else he wanted to be.
Let us now fast-forward a little to January 1994 when Iron Maiden announces their new singer. It’s rather surprisingly former Wolfsbane frontman Blaze Bayley! Blaze is the man given the unenviable task of filling the shoes of one of heavy metals very best vocalist. For those still unfamiliar with Wolfsbane, check out their Rick Rubin produced album from 1989 called Live Fast, Die Fast (It is a belter!)
Bayley is a very different singer to Dickinson. Technically speaking, there is not much of a contest. Dickinson has a much better range and can move from a soft growl to a high sustained voice without losing any of the musical momentum. It’s not difficult to see why he is held in such high regard - not only amongst the metal community, but from other genres of music also. Bayley is more of a (what I’d call) blood and guts singer. He has a baritone voice and he leaves everything out there and in my opinion has more of a classic rock voice. When I first heard the news of Bayley’s appointment, I was very interested to hear how the album would sound with such a different type of singer.
Soon after the Blaze announcement work begins on the new album at Harris’ home studio. Later that year, the official Maiden fan club announce that the new album will be released early in ‘95 However, further delays occur when Bayley injures himself in a motorbike accident. Finally in June 1995 Steve Harris and producer Nigel Green begin mixing and a series of UK tour dates are announced for November, despite there being no album title and still no official release date. The X Factor and it’s follow up Virtual XI were the final albums that Green worked on before the production torch was then passed onto Kevin ‘Caveman’ Shirley.
1995 was a very interesting year for this rock fan. I was fast approaching the end of high school and didn’t really have a clue what I wanted to do with my life. I worked part-time for an independent record store and played guitar in a band. Music was in my blood. It was all that mattered. I was a bit of a late arrival with Iron Maiden. In fact, it was when I heard Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter on Top of the Pops that I sat up and thought ‘this is bloody brilliant, but how on Earth has this song made Top of the Pops and how on Earth has it made top spot?!’ I became a Maiden fan immediately and sought out every studio album they had produced. I became a huge fan - not only of the Dickinson era Maiden but also the Di’anno records too. I liked the punk rock stylings of those first two releases, but could see that the band also had this epic vision about the direction they were heading.
On October 2nd 1995 Iron Maiden release ‘The X-Factor’.
Now, I will be the first person to accept that its UK chart debut at number 8 and US Billboard position of 147 was a little underwhelming but believe me when I say that The X-Factor is no way near as bad a record as most people will have you believe. For this release the band used Canadian graphic artist Hugh Syme to design the album cover. The image is a photograph of a miniature model made by Syme of Eddie being tortured in an electric chair! The inside of the sleeve is dark, the band photos are dark and so are the lyrics.
The 1980’s were a happy time for Maiden, but things started to get darker around the time of 88’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son album and culminated in 95’s The X-Factor. I actually believe that Murray and Gers play excellently on this album. Their leads are explosive and you can feel the chemistry between them. This is also, for me, one of the best produced Maiden albums. The mix is excellent and each instrument has room to breathe. Blaze’s vocals are strong throughout and I think that it is testament to the quality of the band that they were able to record a Maiden sounding album but managed to adapt it to a very different vocal style without losing any of the Maiden identity.
In a slightly unusual move, the album opens with the 11 minutes plus ‘Sign of the Cross’. Although I am still not sure if this is the best way to open an album it still remains one of my favourite Maiden songs. The song is an epic slice of heavy metal that builds and builds to a delightful chorus. The playing is quite restrained from the band but this helps the song to breathe. The subject matter is often a source of discussion for this song. Is it based on the late Umberto Eco’s classic novel from 1980 ‘The Name of the Rose’? The monk chants at the start of the song and the lyrics would certainly suggest that. Whatever it is about, it is a classic Maiden song.
‘Lord of the Flies’ is not only an effective retelling of the story by William Golding but it has a great hook, some terrific guitar parts and another strong chorus. ‘Man on the Edge’ was the first single to be taken from The X-factor and is classic Maiden. Based on the Michael Douglas movie from 1993 – ‘Falling Down’, this is another classic Maiden song. It’s punchy, has a great sing-along chorus and is a ferocious statement of intent that Iron Maiden was back and full of energy. They had a new singer and were hungry again. ‘Fortunes of War’ is an incredibly underrated tune. At seven minutes long it’s maybe a little too long but the chorus sticks inside your head and again Bayley produces an emotional delivery, which is exactly what the song required.
The second half of the album and things get darker still. ‘Blood on the World’s Hands’ and ‘The Aftermath’ are both great songs. I simply love the crunching guitars on ‘The Aftermath’ and though ‘Blood on the World’s Hands’ is a little morose, it’s still a terrific ballad. ‘Judgement of Heaven’ is actually quite uplifting when compared to the other songs and is a welcome little rocker that changes the mood slightly.
The real jewel in the crown and my personal favourite is ‘Edge of Darkness’. ‘Apocalypse Now’ is a classic movie. The movie is bleak, horrific, and yet thought-provoking with powerhouse performances from Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen and Dennis Hopper. This retelling of the story via Bayley and Harris is a dark, brooding affair. Bayley’s spoken word intro over the helicopter noises is superb and the song builds into a monster slab of classic Maiden metal complemented by a delightful galloping Steve Harris baseline.
The songs ‘2 a.m.’ and ‘The Unbeliever’ aren’t the best amongst the mighty Maiden catalogue, but still hold up pretty well.
When all’s said and done, this album isn’t as good as ‘Piece of Mind’ or ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’, but it is an important piece in the history of one of the world’s greatest heavy metal bands. Blaze doesn’t have the vocal range of Dickinson and subsequent tours saw Bayley derided for his singing of some of the Dickinson era classics. I can remember seeing Iron Maiden at the Manchester Apollo on The X-Factor tour. They played with great energy, were tight and I have very fond memories of the gig. They didn’t have the elaborate stage show of old (possibly due to venue size?) but that night it was all about the music. Songs like ‘Man on the Edge’ and ‘Sign of the Cross’ brought the house down. It was terrific seeing a frontman on stage having such a good time. It seemed the band was given a new lease of life.
Ultimately, it wasn’t to be. Virtual XI was patchy at best and Dickinson returned in ‘99. The band went on to record ‘Brave New World’, which was a great record that also saw the return of guitarist Adrian Smith. Blaze went onto record a number of solo albums, with ‘Silicon Messiah’ being very strong, and he is still touring today.
The album sales weren’t there, neither were the ticket sales for the gigs, but the passion certainly was - I saw it on stage with my own eyes.
People will forever be indifferent to this record. I am a firm believer that with Bruce on vocals, this would be talked about now as a classic album. Alas, The X-Factor will forever be frowned upon by many Maiden fans, but not this one. As I write this now I am listening to the final strands of a Spotify mix that has just finished ‘Sign of the Cross’. And you know what…..I got the goose bumps!
Check out our exclusive interview with Blaze Bayley