There has never been another band like Iron Maiden.
When it comes to the lads from London’s East End, I make no pretence to a lack of bias. I am a huge fan, and I wear my Maiden love on my sleeve (quite literally: I have a tattoo of the band’s mascot Eddie on my arm). Maiden are a band that I can listen to endlessly, virtually never getting bored, diving into different albums and eras and periods and constantly discovering new ways of listening to the material. So my subjectivity is undeniable. Ask me to rank Iron Maiden against any other band on the planet and the answer will be the same every time: ‘There’s no contest.’ Nevertheless, with that fandom comes a deep familiarity with Maiden’s material and history. As such, when it comes to assessing Maiden’s output against itself, I think I’m pretty well suited to the task.
Maiden’s 17th studio release arrived on September 3rd 2021, despite being recorded — remarkably — all the way back in 2019. The band had originally laid down the tracks in Paris in between legs of the critically acclaimed Legacy of the Beast tour, hoping to release it not long after that tour wrapped up. Well, we all know what happened after 2019, don’t we? What happened to hopes and intentions. The Covid-19 pandemic put a halt to the best laid plans of most of humanity, including that most organised and indomitable of metal juggernauts. ‘Senjutsu’ would end up sitting in a literal Parisian vault for two years–incredibly without any leaks whatsoever–before the band felt it could unleash it upon the world.
I’ve been listening to ‘Senjutsu’ nonstop since the moment it came out. Like many modern (post-2000 reunion) Maiden albums, it’s a hefty piece of work that doesn’t spoon feed the audience anything. Its greatest treasures and its real contours and purpose are only revealed after multiple listens.
I’d been trembling in anticipation at the thought of a new album for years, so repeatedly diving into this monumental double album that clocks in at 81 minutes felt nothing like a chore. It is, in fact, the only thing I have been able to listen to since its release. There are similarities here to their last album, 2015’s ‘The Book of Souls,’ namely that ‘Senjutsu’ is also long and dense, but provides enough moments of immediate satisfaction so as to appeal to less diehard fans (the album also calls to mind the band’s brilliant and underrated 2006 gem, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’). If you grab hold of one of those threads and you use it to find your way deeper into the cave, becoming familiar with its twists and turns, ‘Senjutsu’ will offer up some treasures that stand right alongside the best moments of Iron Maiden’s Brave New Lineup era.
So without further ado, let’s just dive right in, track by track.
Six years. Six years in darkness and silence and in hope. Until, suddenly, there is life again. It begins with a one drum stab out of the dark.
Then two follow.
Then two more.
And then we’re off. Drummer Nicko McBrain starts pounding out a stunning tom-heavy martial rhythm full of foreboding and violence, in a moment that hearkens back to his legendary entrance on ‘Where Eagles Dare’ in his debut for the band on 1983’s ‘Piece of Mind’. That opening track announced the presence of a ferocious new talent in the band; here it reminds us just why the nearly-seventy year old son of Hackney remains one of the greatest and most interesting rock drummers of all time.
The stage set, the guitars launch into one of Maiden’s heaviest riffs. Then it’s Bruce’s turn. ‘Senjutsu’ the album is the first recording made after the singer’s recovery from throat cancer, and he is on incredible form throughout, that famous air raid siren of his mixed with moments of age-matured lower notes and mellower passages. Bruce opens the album with a performance that is infused with menace, its opening line both beginning the story of an ancient people rallying around a great wall in order to repel a horde of evil invaders and–deliciously–echoing Nicko’s musical storytelling: ‘Beat the warning, the sound of the drums!’
A contrast from many of Maiden’s opening tracks, which tend to be on the shorter, faster end of the spectrum, ‘Senjutsu’ is a deliberately paced number, heavy on drama and atmospherics, and which clocks in at over eight minutes. On ‘The Book of Souls’ Maiden delivered one of their greatest album openers of all time in ‘If Eternity Should Fail’. ‘Senjutsu’ is a slower burner than that. It’s not quite as immediately catchy or mind-blowing, but its cinematic scope and dynamic shifts make it take up residence in your brain. In a way that’s emblematic of the whole album, the song has continuously risen in my estimations as time has gone on. That and the transition to the chorus is truly euphoric.
On the day Maiden dropped the second single from ‘Senjutsu’, I was at the pub. I planned to meet a friend for a few drinks, and completely by chance we found out that morning that the band would be releasing the single at 6pm. Being Maiden fans, we were both damn excited. When the time came, we put our drinks down, took out our headphones, and plugged in for the premiere. Head bowed and nodding along in the pub, with a pint there in front of you for a sip immediately after–I can say now with confidence that this is the finest possible way to experience a new Iron Maiden song.
‘Stratego’ is one of the shortest songs on the album, but it blazes like a fireball. The sound of Steve Harris’ bass is at levels that bring to mind the band’s totemic eighties era, and the track is built on a trademark ferocious gallop that had fans worldwide cheering immediately upon release. It was a great choice of single. Punchy, with hooks aplenty, and with Bruce providing some moments of shiver-inducing power (‘For I have no mortal soul!’), I find myself coming back to ‘Stratego’ a lot. It feels like an interesting combination of several different Maiden eras.
‘The Writing on the Wall’
‘The Writing on the Wall’ is many things. It was the end result of one of the most deftly orchestrated and typically canny musical publicity campaigns of recent memory. It was the world’s first impression of that most precious of things–a new Iron Maiden album. And it was a stylistic diversion that paid off in spades. Released on 15th July 2021, the song followed an at first slowly dawning realisation and then rapidly building anticipation that the world’s greatest heavy metal band were about to release new music for the first time in six years. Alongside it came one of the best videos that the band had ever made, a visually resplendent Mad Max-esque tale of the elites of the world seeking refuge in a walled compound while denying the masses their place, and featuring the latest iteration of their eternal mascot Eddie cast as avenging archangel samurai (!), laying waste to the whole corrupt order.
The song itself is unlike Maiden have ever done before, a bluesy, classic rock mid-tempo stomper that–trademark Maiden flourishes notwithstanding–you can imagine being at home on a UFO or Aerosmith record from the late seventies. Recording it in the first place was a gamble. As was releasing it as the lead single. Both paid off handsomely. The track is absolutely drenched in atmosphere that echoes the spirit of the times we find ourselves in, as Bruce sings of collapsed empires and tides of change coming against the will of tyrants who would wish to cling onto power. The meaty riffs groove, Bruce delivers the imagery with powerful conviction, and Nicko provides the thunder with a number of his signature, inimitable rolls. It may be a diversion from their usual style, but Iron Maiden is a band that has relentlessly pursued new ground and studiously avoided creative indolence, almost always to triumphant effect. That is exactly the case here.
And dear lord, that Adrian solo. Any time a discussion of greatest Maiden solos is now had, Mr Smith’s work here will have to feature.
Here’s that video again, because it deserves to be seen over and over:
‘Lost In a Lost World’
A mournful acoustic guitar opens the fourth track on ‘Senjutsu’, a song that–despite the gorgeously emotive and atypical intro–provides the first proper taste of the sort of compositions that Maiden are known for. A long instrumental mid section with immensely singable melodies is bookended by Bruce returning to a topic that the band have explored before, most memorably on the one and only ‘Run To The Hills’: the plight of indigenous peoples as a result of contact with invading forces. On ‘Lost In a Lost World’ Bruce delivers a truly beautiful melody line with lyrics that hammer home the end result of the colonising dynamic:
‘Nowhere to go nowhere to run
Our whole nation overrun
Itself existence under threat
And soon will be none of us left’
‘Lost In a Lost World’ is a heartfelt track that combines the best of what we expect from Maiden with stirring flourishes of something new.
‘Days Of Future Past’
Alongside Stratego, this is one of the two ‘short’ Maiden songs on the album. Coming in at ‘only’ four minutes and lacking any extended instrumental sections, ‘Days Of Future Past’ is a quality rocker that works perfectly in its placing on the album, giving the listener a shot of adrenaline and a breather of sorts in between the grander, more intricate compositions.
‘The Time Machine’
After the short burst of kinetic power that is ‘Days Of Future Past’ comes a ‘mid length’ track of seven minutes with an intro reminiscent of the underrated Gers-penned masterpiece ‘The Talisman’ from 2010’s ‘The Final Frontier’. But where that song exploded out of its quiet acoustic lead-in into one of the most blisteringly paced songs post-2000 Maiden have ever done–a furious squall of a tune echoing its ocean storm subject matter–’The Time Machine’ is a slightly more measured, mysterious proposition. The main verse riff functions as a hypnotic and intriguing hand extended to the listener, beckoning us to join Bruce as he weaves a first-person tale of an extraordinary man reminiscing about a quite extraordinary life:
‘I am not a preacher, I am but a man
You cannot imagine what I’ve seen and done
I have lived a long life, I have seen the world
I could tell you stories, hair will stand on end’
‘The Time Machine’ does open with a lyric that some fans have pointed out might come across as a tad clunky, especially for a band that has delivered so much poetry over the years: ‘Have I ever told you about my time machine?’ It’s true that sounds a little bit on the nose. I did, however, read a take on ‘The Time Machine’ the other day that made me reconsider things. Someone had written that rather than reading the lyrics of the song as a literal account of a man who had constructed an actual machine to travel through time, the track should be viewed more metaphorically, with the time machine in question actually the protagonist’s way of referring to his memories. Once I shifted my perspective to this new position, the song’s lyrics suddenly took on a new level of poignancy. Instead of a light sci-fi jaunt they took on the shape of a reflective and slightly melancholy reminiscence that resonated with me far stronger than before. Whichever meaning you take from the lyrics of ‘The Time Machine’, musically the track is excellent, with a twisty, uber-catchy, very Harris-y, riff coming in about halfway to shove a fireworks rocket in the composition’s engine and some great solo and melody work from the three guitarists dominating the second part of the tune.
After three weeks of constant listening and grappling with its dense, challenging material, ‘Darkest Hour’ is the one song on ‘Senjutsu’ that remains out of my reach. Despite its somewhat less hagiographic and cliched treatment of the British WWII era leader, this dark and brooding ballad about Winston Churchill is not exactly what I’m personally interested in hearing.
‘Death Of The Celts’
One of the most exciting parts of the ‘Senjutsu’ publicity campaign was the release of the album’s track listing. Being a Maiden fan at this stage means being intimately acquainted with each band member’s songwriting style and what each writing credit on a song will likely entail. A Dickinson song is not like a Gers song is not like a Harris song, etc. And that’s not to mention all the songwriting partnerships that have developed over the years, with the sight of a Dickinson/Smith co-credit, for example, emerging over the years as a near guarantee of a good time.
So when the track listing dropped for ‘Senjutsu’, fans couldn’t help but make googly eyes at the sight of the trio of songs rounding out the album, all clocking in at over ten minutes, and all with a sole writing credit attributed to one Steve Harris.
What is there to say about Steve ‘Arry’ Harris at this point? One of the most important figures in all of heavy metal, the single-minded and preternaturally determined Arry is the reason that Iron Maiden exist in the first place. They may be a gigantic enterprise now, and to see the band on stage is a testament to how gloriously synergistic their musical operation is, but it was the will and the vision of one man that first carved the grotesque image of Eddie out of the marble (not literally of course: Eddie was the baby of artist Derek Riggs, but you get my meaning). Once, topless and drunk in the middle of eighty thousand Maiden fans, in the middle of the band tearing through ‘The Red And The Black’, I screamed, ‘There is only one god, and his name is Steve fu**ing Harris!’ And, well, I think that sums up my views on that.
Unlike most Harris epics, ‘The Death Of The Celts’ didn’t win me over immediately. Over the past decade or so, Harris has developed a few songwriting crutches. These days there are certain easy giveaways that a song is a Harris composition. There’s the quietly plucked intro with atmospheric lead guitar over some bass chords–often this is mirrored at song’s end. There’s the cascading series of overlapping guitar melodies and singalong harmonies peppered throughout–especially in an extended mid-section. And there’s the narrative storytelling found in the lyrics, often eschewing or at least temporarily withholding a classical verse-chorus structure.
‘The Death Of The Celts’ adheres to all of these Harrisian tropes, with a strong emphasis on that long form musical storytelling, as roughly a third of the song is dedicated to Bruce delivering a gradually emotionally rising, first person tale, of what sounds like the last surviving Celt sitting by a dying fire on the hill overlooking a bloody battlefield. A hefty proportion of the latter part of the composition is then handed over to another Harris trademark: A series of immediately catchy guitar melodies interspersed with solos from Smith, Murray, and Gers. As is the case for the rest of the album, the soloing is on fire throughout. The Harris melodies don’t hit quite as hard as they have in the past, but on repeated listens they lodge themselves firmly in your head regardless, and they do so in that emotionally evocative way that his best always do.
The second of ‘Senjutsu’s’ trio of Harris epics is in some ways the most difficult song on the album. Featuring some beautiful if obliquely mystical lyrics and clocking in at twelve and a half minutes it is also the longest song on the record. It has taken me a long time to crack the surface of ‘The Parchment’. At first I couldn’t see what Harris was getting at. The song plods along at a very deliberate pace for what feels like an extended period of time, with musical and lyrical motifs that are somewhat reminiscent of that almighty title track from 1984’s ‘Powerslave’. That’s the only real comparison that can be made with that composition, which charges along at a relentless pace and hits with an urgent immediacy while ‘The Parchment’ unfolds more like a rambling bard’s tale. It’s a tale that’s full of intrigue and drama, but it’s one that you really need to sit with for some time before you can appreciate its full shape.
My first impression of ‘The Parchment’ was that things simply did not measure up to the standards Harris and the band have set for themselves so many times before. The stellar dynamics, the deep understanding of drama and momentum, the interconnectedness and flow of riffs and melodies–none of it felt nearly as present here as it should. But then, eventually, something clicked. Despite my initial disappointment, I couldn’t stop coming back. There would be fragments of guitar melody here and vocal segments there that kept bubbling up in my mind during the day. I would wake up in the morning with a phrase in my head. And so I kept returning, listening again and again, until suddenly it made sense. I felt like I took a big step back and could appreciate the whole of ‘The Parchment’ as one piece, its drawn out opening sections and its interlocking instrumental mid section and its turbo charged ending suddenly coalescing into a unified whole that not only made sense, but proved to be powerfully satisfying. It still doesn’t measure up to the best of Harris’ epics, but it’s definitely a track I will keep coming back to again and again.
‘Hell On Earth’
Iron maiden don’t half-arse their album closers. Perhaps more than any other band, they have cemented the Epic Closing Track as a hallowed (wink) tradition. From ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ to ‘Fear of the Dark’ to ‘Where the Wild Wind Blows’ and ‘Empire of the Clouds’, these statements span almost their entire career. They are often some of the very best songs on their respective albums, and fans eagerly anticipate the release of each new record with an extra bit of excitement reserved for seeing just how the boys will close things off this time.
Now, forty one years into their career, there is an additional element to their album closers. The lads are in their mid sixties–with Nicko pushing seventy–and though they are all fit and healthy enough to regularly put on two hour shows night after night when on tour (with an energy that bands half their age often shy away from), it would be impossible to deny that we are reaching the end of the road. As much as it physically pains me to say it, each record could be their last. Each epic album closer could be their swansong. When ‘The Book of Souls’ ended with the deeply emotive and stirring masterpiece ‘Empire of the Clouds’–which also happened to be the band’s longest ever song–there was a part of me that thought, ‘Well, I really don’t want it to be the case, but if this is how they go out, then that wouldn’t be so bad.’
But here we are now, six years after those final notes of ‘Empire of the Clouds’ rang out. To say that I was keenly curious while listening to ‘Senjutsu’ to see how the band would end things here would be an understatement. The thoughts kept coming to me thick and fast. ‘At this stage in their life and career, six years is a bloody long time!’ ‘What if this is the actual last song we ever hear from Maiden?!’ ‘How is it gonna stack up against ‘Empire of the Clouds’–and will they try to replicate things or go a different direction?!’
Though I’ve mostly been listening to the whole album from start to finish, ‘Hell on Earth’ is now undoubtedly my most revisited individual track. It’s a monster of a song, in many ways unlike any we’ve ever heard from Maiden before. An incredible closer featuring some of the most genuinely heartfelt, stirring melodies Arry has ever written. My only objection to the song thus far has been that I wish it was twice as long–which says a lot considering that it is an eleven-and-a-half minute tune. Yet this is just another thing that sets it apart from so many others of its kind. Where, for example, ‘Empire of the Clouds’ really luxuriated in every melody, here we’re desperately left wanting more as they arrive thick and fast, cascading from one to another, each better than the last.
I’m convinced, and I hope dearly, that Iron Maiden have another album in them. They seem simply too vital to stop now. But there is something about the emotional power of the music and lyrics of ‘Hell On Earth’ that makes it relatively easy to imagine this being the parting shot from the greatest band to have ever walked the Earth. Within a few seconds of the soft opening melodies I’m instantly transported to a vista overlooking four decades of this singular band’s career. That feeling only increases as the melodies and riffs pile on, with Bruce on gut-busting form throughout singing an alternately melancholy and defiant almost-elegy, projecting Arry’s apocalyptic vision upon the heavens in a way that only he has ever been able to. My chest swells every time I listen through ‘Hell On Earth’. It hits as hard as a sledgehammer. By the time we reach the finale, it feels as if I’m standing alongside Eddie himself, surveying a landscape unlike any other, a sublime history created by a few working class lads from East London and curated with the help of millions of incredibly passionate fans spread out over multiple generations all across the world. There’s never been a band like this. There likely never will be again. Perish the thought, but if this is to be their swansong, then it’ll be worthy of it.
Iron Maiden’s eighties period is rightfully referred to as their ‘golden era’. From 1980 to 1988 they released–at the rate of almost one per year–some of the greatest albums ever recorded. It’s a serious contender for the strongest run of releases by any recording artist of any era. It’s crazy to think that their ‘reunion’ or ‘comeback’ period has now been going for a longer time than not just their golden era, but the entire period prior to Dickinson and Smith re-joining in 2000 and sparking the rejuvenated, re-energised reunion era in the first place. Considering the strength of albums they have released in that latter period, it should no longer be a point of contention that Iron Maiden now have two golden eras: 1980-1988, and 2000-[forever, somehow, please?!]. ‘Senjutsu’ does not break this streak.
‘Senjutsu’ is one hell of an album. Like many great pieces of art, it asks that you meet it halfway. That you put in the effort of reaching out to it as it reaches out to you. There are parts that provide easier access, but overall it is a complex, dark piece of work. One of Iron Maiden’s darkest yet. It’s not perfect by any means–some parts could use a bit of sprucing up or a few sessions’ worth more of tweaking from the boys—but if you do put the effort in, you are rewarded immensely. Kevin Shirley’s production here–often maligned by fans who cannot let go of the (admittedly glorious) past–is often brilliant, capturing the fine textures and individual sounds of the overlapping, layered, and deep instrumental sections. In an era of overly digitised and quantised music recording and production, Maiden’s commitment to live studio recording pays off handsomely in the wonderfully organic and lived-in sound that comes through in these performances. Every single member of Maiden is on absolutely top form on ‘Senjutsu’, but special mention must go to Nicko McBrain, whose performance here is emblematic of the band as a whole: Age be dammed, Iron Maiden’s gonna get you, wherever you are.