Is this it? The Final Frontier, Iron Maiden‘s 15th album, is a milestone with significance. Main man Steve Harris once proclaimed that Maiden’s mission statement was to complete 15 albums and then call it a day. Recent interviews suggest that this comment was possibly tongue in cheek. But what if this is it? Is The Final Frontier a suitable parting shot for Iron Maiden?
The album starts in unfamiliar fashion with Satellite 15… The Final Frontier, a song in two parts. Initially it’s almost experimental with rumbling bass sounding like the last few seconds of a Space Invaders game. Rumbling tribal drums thunder with industrial intent, while the guitars squall and thrum. It’s only Bruce Dickinson’s wail that points to this being a Maiden album. The second half returns to familiar territory with thuggish power chords and technical solos ripping forth. Thematically, the story of a space explorer lost in the unknown is not unlike David Bowie‘s Space Oddity but it also evokes the spirit of Maiden’s own Somewhere In Time album.
Indeed there is a retrospective feel to the album. Recent single El Dorado is introduced with a barrage of guitars that seems to feature the deconstructed riff from 1986’s Wasted Years. Elsewhere there are nods to the Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son and Powerslave eras in particular, with reworked riffs and themes. It’s not that the band have run out of ideas, rather that they’re toying with their history and indulging in a little time travel of their own.
Initially things are kept fairly tight; the gallop of Mother Of Mercy rumbles along in typical fashion as Dickinson explores the horrors of war in bombastic style. The Alchemist’s short but sweet blast recalls a time when Maiden were still quick to get to the point, and is all the better for it. Coming Home is an early highlight, mixing balladry with straight up rock chops – guitarist Adrian Smith’s pop nous coming to the fore. A possible rumination on the recent world tour documented in the film Flight 666, the chorus soars as high as its homesick protagonist, the words “coming home, when I see the runways lights” ache with sincerity.
However, Maiden’s songs have been expanding of late. A 13 minute saga was once an oddity; now lengthy epics are the norm. The second half of the album features five songs that stretch way beyond the seven minute mark. They appear to be little more than a conglomerate of riffs at first but, with time, they become clearer and there doesn’t seem to be an ounce of fat on any of them – with the exception of the rather poor Starblind. The complexities of Isle Of Avalon are thrilling, The Talisman’s time shifting riffs and salty sea-dog tale hark back to The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, while the slow burn of The Man Of Who Would Be King reveals more about itself with every listen.
Closing the album is the genuinely affecting When The Wild Wind Blows, whose narrative borrows from Raymond Briggs’ stunning animated film of the same name, about an elderly couple surviving a nuclear event. Despite the usual roar, its roots lie in traditional folk and, with its talk of having a cup of tea whilst waiting for the end of days, it’s a very English Apocalypse. It closes with winds blowing across a landscape scorched by a white-hot blast. If this is to be Maiden’s swansong then that’s a fitting image with which to depart. However, the sheer quantity and quality of ideas displayed on The Final Frontier suggests that there are more frontiers to be explored by Iron Maiden yet.