Two years after the departure of Bruce Dickinson, Iron Maiden finally returned with Blaze Bayley and The X Factor. How did Maiden adapt to one of the biggest changes and challenges of their career?
The X Factor
Produced by Steve Harris and Nigel Green
Released 2 October 1995
Fear Of The Dark (1992) seemed to go down in history as Iron Maiden’s final studio album with singer Bruce Dickinson. After a troubled tour in 1993 he left the band to pursue his solo career in earnest. Maiden saturated the market that year with no less than three live albums that all left a lot to be desired, ending with the best of a pretty poor bunch: Live At Donington.
And so the band embarked on the toughest challenge of their career, trying to build a brand new Maiden in the wake of losing both Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith. Blaze Bayley, formerly of Wolfsbane, was chosen as Dickinson’s replacement, and Janick Gers was by then established in the Smith spot.
Another absentee would be longtime producer Martin Birch, who had decided to retire permanently. Steve Harris occupied the producer’s chair himself in his own Barnyard Studios in Essex, where he was aided by engineer Nigel Green. In October 1995 Maiden finally unleashed their latest creation after the longest gap between studio albums that their fans had endured to that point.
The album opens with Harris’ 11-minute epic Sign Of The Cross, the moodiest and most atmospheric Maiden opener since Moonchild on the Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son album in 1988. A long intro of Gregorian chants, nearly whispered vocals and delicate strings establishes a compelling vibe, before the band launches into a familiar Maiden gallop as the verse kicks in. The immediate impression of Bayley is that he works hard, clearly possessing a much more limited range than Dickinson but making up for it with effort and determination.
However, two aspects of the song are disconcerting: First, Harris and Green’s production is mostly crisp and clear, but the guitars seem to lack power and presence, being reduced to a faint hiss next to the comparatively overloud drums of Nicko McBrain. Second, Bayley sometimes strays out of tune, being pitched too sharp on occasion. These problems are exacerbated as the album unfolds.
The Gers and Harris composition Lord Of The Flies follows, but its surprisingly poppy chorus is the first clear instance of under-production that hinders the music. Bayley’s lower range is unable to reach the energy level that could lift the track (Dickinson would tellingly pitch it an octave higher when he performed it on a later tour) and the lack of a proper vocal production leaves him exposed.
Look For The Truth is a similar case, where a potentially catchy chorus loses its impact through a lack of harmony vocals and the absence of powerful guitars. Not to mention that Harris should have let Bayley do another few takes of that intro, so that he would not be caught forever on record singing out of tune.
Bayley also contributes a lot of songwriting, primarily lyrics, like first single Man On The Edge. This is one of very few immediate and uptempo tracks on The X Factor, and one of Bayley’s better performances, but it’s essentially a poor man’s Aces High or Be Quick Or Be Dead.
At least, Harris decided not to include Judgement Day on the album, leaving it to the B-side of the single. This is a good call, as Gers comes even closer to his own Be Quick riffs on this track. On the other hand, guitarist Dave Murray’s only writing credit for the project, the Harris-assisted Justice Of The Peace, could have made for a nice and catchy contrast on an album that is bogged down under the weight of way too many slow-burning tracks, but this song was also relegated to a single B-side.
Interestingly, The X Factor seems to fit better into a double vinyl album format, which can be appreciated with the recent 180g reissue, possibly because grouping the tracks into twos or threes makes the totality of the record’s 71 minutes seem less overwhelming. In this format The X Factor splits rather neatly into four episodes.
A trait of the album which is utterly mystifying is the fact that there is no more than one instance of harmony guitars (octaves not counted), and not one single instance of harmony vocals (unlike on B-side track Justice Of The Peace). The latter production choice does Bayley few favors, as his lower-register singing seems naked and one-dimensional on much of the material. One of his best performances on the record is on album closer The Unbeliever, where he very nearly screams the chorus because it’s out of his range.
Only Harris’ chillingly honest Judgement Of Heaven, as well as a very short bit of Murray’s solo in The Edge Of Darkness, features an instance of the harmony guitar Iron Maiden hallmark. It is deeply worrying when a classic band stays true to their basic style but still manages to not sound like themselves.
Ultimately, the responsibility for The X Factor‘s shortcomings must fall on the shoulders of Steve Harris. With Smith, Dickinson and Birch all out of the picture, there had never been a Maiden album where the bassist was so completely in charge. The X Factor represents what Harris wanted at a time when he could pretty much make exactly the Iron Maiden album he envisioned, at his own pace and in his own studio.
However, judging by the way Harris would later welcome Dickinson and Smith back to the band, he might not have been in this position by choice. And no matter the time and effort Harris put into the album, at its worst The X Factor is a depressing dirge through tracks like Fortunes Of War and 2 A.M., with The Aftermath and Blood On The World’s Hands also struggling to keep the listener’s attention even after years of familiarity with the record.
On the plus side, there are lyrics here that must count as some of Harris’ strongest and most gripping ever, as he’s struggling to find firm footing after the upheavals of his divorce and Bruce leaving the band. There’s no doubt that The X Factor is heartfelt and well-intentioned, but there’s equally little doubt that Maiden now lack too many crucial ingredients: Songwriters, a more sophisticated guitarist, a more able singer, and a producer with the skills to capture and communicate the intentions and emotions that want to break through these walls of relative incompetence.
The best songs on Maiden’s darkest ever album are the very Maiden-sounding Sign Of The Cross and The Edge Of Darkness, the latter of which would have fit well on the previous studio album Fear Of The Dark. In fact, there are a few more decent songs on The X Factor than on its predecessor, but the production is at times abysmal, something for which Bayley in particular suffers.
This problem would not be rectified on the subsequent Blaze era album in 1998 either, the catalog nadir Virtual XI.
The X Factor is deep enough to be interesting, but not good enough to challenge other Maiden studio records to that point, except Fear Of The Dark. A disappointing debut for Bayley. And a disappointing adaptation for Iron Maiden, who continue to stumble through the 1990s.
Christer’s verdict: 2/6