IRON MAIDEN RELEASE ANOTHER MONOLITHIC CLASSIC
A DOUBLE DISC JOURNEY THAT IS AMBITIOUS AND CINEMATIC
How good it is to be reviewing an album by none other than Iron Maiden but Senjutsu, their seventeenth studio release, is a trickier proposition than you might think. This sprawling double disc journey is clearly far removed from the high-octane, rampaging singalong two and a half minute hit single material that elevated Maiden to the global stage a couple of generations ago. Instead, it sits appositely with the band’s output since their pivotal re-birth of Brave New World (2000) when they turned more decisively towards prog explorations and ever more epic odysseys. Senjutsu feels like a very natural progression from the equally sweeping The Book of Souls (2015) which should come as no surprise as this now a course Maiden have been steering for two decades.
For the first time, however, this is arguably a collection of Maiden songs that refrain from charging through their idiosyncratic ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ mix of tempos, alternating leads, and time changes in song construction. Whereas previously founder and chief songwriter Steve Harris almost always vacuum packed his longer tracks with obligatory passages of high velocity galloping and circling solos, here songs are instead generally harnessed into a set focussed pace. This is particularly the case in the second half of the album. The likes of the sonorous Darkest Hour, a seven minute prog-orientated ballad, remains in a dreamy rock gear that is bookended by field recordings of waves and seabirds. Likewise the other long songs like Hell on Earth remain generally in the same gear, less brash and more nuanced than Maiden in years gone by. Overall, the narration relies on mood and thoughtfulness rather than blazing multi-tempos and the consequence is a more mature, steady piece of work that is patient and considered. There are exceptions, of course, and the likes of The Time Machine has some nifty traditional tempo exchanges and they cannot hold off from careering off into a charge at the end of The Parchment but generally this record is unhurried in its development and comfortable in its widescreen, thoughtful scope.
That is not to say Maiden have turned out a pot boiler of dull Dad Rock. Even in their advanced years they are prepared to take a chance or two and a talking point is The Writing on the Wall - a south western influenced sonorous cowboy canter that is unlike anything they have attempted before now and, though you may be forgiven for suspecting it should belong in the out-take bin from the Virtual XI sessions, it is addictive and catchy as hell and sounds quintessentially Maiden. You will just have to listen to it but it affirms that Maiden are, even in their autumnal era, unafraid to steer their own stubborn course rather than pander to any expectations. Plus nobody – really nobody – can do galloping like Maiden. There is no other way of describing this wholly signature sound that pivots around Harris’ bass style and when they stop galloping they won’t be playing anymore. Stratego is an obvious choice for a single and plunges straight into a fast ride of bumpy base and a classic hookline and foot-on-monitor chorus.
In terms of mood, Senjutsu has a brooding seriousness redolent of A Matter of Life and Death (2006) and some of the progressive reflection in Brave New World (2000) particularly in the final furlough of the record. The recurrent theme is war, but not delivered in the band’s vintage barnstorming, singalong flurries like The Trooper or Aces High but it takes a more reflective, philosophical grappling with fate. It is less immediate than their greatest hits and not so conducive to having a 20 foot Eddie cavorting around the stage. Time does indeed roll on even for old heavy metal veterans and Senjutsu has a natural mature weightiness. Having said all that, you cannot have a Maiden record without bumslashing straight into defiantly daft subject material and the over-the-top ten minute Death of the Celts is like a slow-motion cousin of The Clansman. It is another unapologetic sojourn of absurd escapism that is undeniably catchy and will get the crowd singing along – though it does go into some unashamed Jethro Tull folky homage. It is corny but Maiden have a licence for this sort of thing.
This is also, by Maiden’s standards, heavy; not so much in terms of face-ripping impact but instead via a sense of enormity, perspective and cinematic drama. The title track, for example, begins with a reverberating solitary thump of a war drum before bursting into a strident, purposeful march that grinds immensely evoking the vast dioramic scale of unfolding war it chronicles. Leads rise and wheel over a deliberate, rumbling rhythm. It is an album that aims for a sprawling epic scope. Dickinson’s legendary ‘air raid siren’ delivery, meanwhile, has undeniably matured over the years and lingers that bit longer in lower registers during verses but he can still give it big like with his irreplaceable wail – at least on record.
But where does Senjutsu rate in the heaving, multi-generational Maiden canon? That is deceivingly difficult to judge given the sheer widescreen scope of the record and this is perhaps a slower burner. Senjitsu is indubitably up there with Maiden’s most grandiose and epic and certainly their most ambitious. Despite the length it is eccentric rather than self-satisfied, subtly complex not dull. Maiden have delivered one of their finest post 2000 releases.