Growing up when heavy metal was in its infancy, Iron Maiden has a special place in my heart, as I'm sure they do in the hearts of many others. Maiden always straddled an interesting line: they were heavy, fast and aggressive, yet literate and obviously very intelligent. Lyrically, they always took on ambitious topics and told big, sweeping stories, even if they were a bit cornball at times. Musically, they found their sound and stuck with it, continually experimenting at its perimeters. The dual guitars of Adrian Smith and Dave Murray deservedly became the stuff of legend, as the two wove together disparate melody lines to come up with a third, distinct melody. They were ahead of their time in more ways than one.
Now, years later, countless bands have taken the style invented by Maiden and added to it, creating untold numbers of offshoot styles and sounds. Maiden themselves, however, still are working within their familiar realm, and The X Factor sounds like classic Iron Maiden in many ways. But it's a surprisingly mature album, both in songwriting and execution, and satisfies in ways their older work never did.
For one thing, Bruce Dickinson is gone, and in his place is vocalist Blaze Bayley. Bayley's deep, rich voice, not a typical one for heavy metal, brings a strange kind of majesty to the sound on the album, and it works. Also gone for some time now is Adrian Smith, half of the guitar duo that made Iron Maiden what they were. You'd think that losing Smith would be the end of them, but Dave Murray retains enough of their signature style to remind you who you're listening to. New guitarist Janick Gers seems able enough, although his sound - if indeed he has one - is lost in the songwriting.
The songwriting itself is the most impressive feature of The X Factor . The three-minute guitar runs are still there, but rather than being showcases for the guitarists, they are instead part of the song, a bridge from one part to the other, and the big picture is often ambitious and grand. There is an artistry to this work that simply wasn't there years ago, and that certainly has something to do with the maturity of the musicians - it's been ten years since their days of filling giant arenas, and the time seems to have made them better composers.
(A brief aside: Of course, Eddie, Iron Maiden's time-traveling mascot, is ever-present on the liner notes…this time, he's being electrocuted and crucified by fantastic futuristic devices. Life's hard when you're undead, especially when you hook up with a heavy metal band.)
The X Factor is a great album, and I'll go so far as to put it up there with Maiden's signature album from their glory days, Somewhere In Time . I eagerly await their next release.