When Iron Maiden finally call it a day, there is no question that singer Bruce Dickinson will be heralded as a saviour of the band twice over. When he joined initially in 1981, the band’s next album The Number of the Beast reached Number One in the album charts and propelled the band into the stratosphere, becoming one of the world’s most beloved metal acts in the process. When he returned in 1999, Maiden’s period in the wilderness of the previous decade was vanquished near-instantly and they returned to the summit of the metal world with consummate ease.
In between his tenures, the group were lead by Wolfsbane singer Blaze Bayley who, despite his earnest efforts, found Dickinson’s shoes a little too big to fill. CD sales dropped, tour venues shrank and by the time he departed in 1998, Iron Maiden were facing the real possibility of their career fizzling out into a damp squib.
Nowadays, the two albums released with Bayley at the helm – The X Factor and Virtual XI – are not held in high regard whatsoever by metal fans in general, let alone Maiden supporters. But with the band touring again and two of the songs from this period in the set, it’s time to revisit them and explain why they’re really not as bad as they seem.
Let’s get two negatives out of the way first; neither record has aged well at all and are very much a product of their time. Secondly, there is a significant amount of average-to-poor material across the pair, none more so abject than ‘The Angel and the Gambler’ which is nearly ten minutes long, feels about fifteen, and is probably the worst song Maiden have ever released. But the high points still show that Maiden swagger that got them to the top in the first place. The opening triumvirate to The X Factor of the epic ‘Sign of the Cross’ (one of the two songs in the current setlist), the sprawling ‘Lord of the Flies’ and the punch of ‘Man on the Edge’, are great in terms of their structure and pace, even though the lyrical content of the latter could be a little better. The same holds true for Virtual XI which, the aforementioned aside, still has the adrenaline rush of ‘Futureal’ to kick things off, moves into hidden gem ‘Lightning Strikes Twice’ and hits its peak with the phenomenal ‘The Clansman’ (the other effort making its return to the live show), which is the finest song Maiden released in that time and sees Bayley turn in one of the best vocal performances of his career. Compared to eighth record No Prayer for the Dying, which never seems to rise above one level despite the hugely fun ‘Holy Smoke’ and lone #1 single ‘Bring Your Daughter…to the Slaughter’, both The X Factor and Virtual XI are streaks ahead in quality and composure.
But it’s not just the big hitters; give the albums time and you’ll find a couple of extra diamonds among the rough. On The X Factor there’s ‘Blood on the World’s Hands’, which contains a quite brilliant acoustic bass intro from bassist and band leader Steve Harris and the sombre ‘2 A.M’, with some of the darkest words Maiden have ever put to paper, the theme of a man suffering from depression one that will resonate significantly with many today. As for Virtual XI at eight songs long there’s limited choice, but the moving ‘Como Estais Amigos’ which closes the record is criminally underrated, showing that for all their power and dynamic, Maiden are more than capable of tuning into their softer side and still producing great results.
Yes, The X Factor and Virtual XI are not going to ever reach the heady heights of the likes of Powerslave, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son and Piece of Mind when compared across Iron Maiden’s back catalogue, but it’s a disservice to them both to be dismissed entirely; they’re better than you think.