Album of the Week 39-2015: Iron Maiden – The X Factor

Blaze Bayley’s tenure with Iron Maiden – or the other way around, if you will – has been unjustly overlooked and therefore, I’d like to shed some light on Bayley’s epic debut with the British Heavy Metal legend. ‘The X Factor’ has often been named Maiden’s worst record, but that title should go to ‘No Prayer For The Dying’. In fact, I think ‘The X Factor’ is the best record the band did in the nineties. More consistent than ‘Fear Of The Dark’ and ‘Virtual XI’, the album has a darkness to it that no Iron Maiden release before or since has come close to.

Of course, Bayley comes out unfavorably when compared to his legendary predecessor (and follow-up) Bruce Dickinson, but he is the perfect singer for this record. His lower register fits the darkness of the album much better than Dickinson’s higher wails would have. Also, ‘The X Factor’ seems to lay the groundwork for bassist and bandleader Steve Harris’ quasi-progressive template of latter day Iron Maiden. That formulaic approach has been one of the main – and most justified – criticisms of Maiden’s last few albums, but since the band is still discovering that side here, some of the results are stunning.

Admittedly, a lot of the songs are essentially ‘Afraid To Shoot Strangers’ rewrites – slow build-up, lyrics concerning the atrocities of war, subtle keyboard flourishes – and sound somewhat alike in the process. The intro to ‘Look For The Truth’, for instance, might just as well have been an epilogue to ‘Fortunes Of War’. The best of those stately, midtempo tracks – ‘The Aftermath’, the aforementioned ‘Fortunes Of War’ and the doomy, should-have-been-classic ‘Blood On The World’s Hands’ – measure up favorably to similarly styled tracks from Iron Maiden’s more recent history. Despite its somewhat disposable bass intro, the latter is even one of the more to-the-point moments on the record.

Ironically, the most old school moment of the record has been written by relative newcomers Bayley and guitarist Janick Gers; ‘Man On The Edge’ is the fastest song here and is driven by strong NWOBHM-flavored riffing and possibly Bayley’s best vocal melodies on the record. ‘Lord Of The Flies’ successfully shows a more Rocking side of the band and opener ‘Sign Of The Cross’ is one of those monumental Maiden epics with delicious tempo changes. In the end, only ‘Judgement Of Heaven’ and closing track ‘The Unbeliever’ miss the mark. The former sounds too close to self-pitying American radio Rock for comfort at times and the latter, despite good segments, feels underdeveloped.

Listen with an open mind and you’ll find that ‘The X Factor’ is nowhere near as bad as people want you to believe it is. Sonically, it’s even one of their best works yet; Harris’ bass has never sounded this good, at times sounding almost like an acoustic bass guitar. Those expecting another ‘Powerslave’ or ‘Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son’ will be disappointed, but I can think of at least five studio albums of the band that are worse than this one – four of which feature Dickinson. Give this a chance and surrender yourself to the bleak atmosphere of ‘The X Factor’.

Recommended tracks: ‘Lord Of The Flies’, ‘Blood On The World’s Hands’, ‘Man On The Edge’

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