Iron Maiden need no introduction of course. As arguably the most important group to emerge from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal during the 1980's, Maiden gave us album after album of classic genre defining power metal. After a creative decline and an unsuccessful attempt to rebuild the band's reputation with a new singer, vocalist Bruce Dickinson rejoined the band in 1999 along with former Maiden guitarist Adrian Smith, making the group a sextet and releasing the excellent Brave New World in 2000. That album was certainly the band's finest achievement since Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. Happily, Brave New World wasn't simply a rehash of past glories; rather, it was, as the title suggested, a new beginning for a band intent on flying the flag for heavy metal into the new millennium.
Now comes Iron Maiden's follow up to Brave New World in the form of Dance of Death. Like Brave New World, Dance of Death is a mature, mellow(er) and more symphonic Maiden. While there are plenty of galloping metal anthems, there are also many epic, keyboard and string laden compositions, such as the nearly 9 minute title track. A slowly building, atmospheric waltz tempo gives way to a grandiose yet infectious piece of progressive metal. Indeed, the band have made it no secret over the years that they were heavily influenced by Genesis, Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake and Palmer as much as Deep Purple, UFO and Black Sabbath. "Paschendale" is another 8 minute cut that relies on dynamics and mood as much as full tilt heavy metal. Elsewhere, we get the requisite galloping stomp of tracks like "Wildest Dreams", "Rainmaker", and especially "Montsegur". Think of "Montsegur" as the new "Run to the Hills" or "Flight of Icarus". Dickinson's singing is simply top flight. "Age of Innocence" contains a catchy chorus and is practically radio friendly, at least as far as Iron Maiden goes. I think the shocker here is the closing track, "Journeyman". It's a 7 minute piece largely consisting of acoustic guitars, keyboards and strings. That's right, Iron Maiden have composed a genuine ballad! But it's no cynical attempt at mainstream acceptance. Rather we get a moody, medieval style mini epic that's drenched in melancholy atmosphere.
If you liked the sweeping cinematic textures of Brave New World, you'll probably enjoy Dance of Death as well. Does it hold its own against The Number of the Beast or Powerslave? Not quite, although it's very, very good. Occasionally, some pieces take too long to build and ultimately don't deserve all the pomp as on "No More Lies". The other problem I have is that the sound quality is just awful. Weighed down by bass and distortion, the mix is terribly clogged and often times Bruce Dickinson's voice is buried beneath a layer of murkiness. I don't usually place too much emphasis on sound quality, but the mix really does hinder my enjoyment of the CD. Personally, I welcome this new classy era of Iron Maiden. It makes me wonder how the recently reunited Judas Priest will fare in the studio!