Review: Virtual XI (1998)

virtualxicover

In trying to build the new Iron Maiden with their second Blaze Bayley album, the band unfortunately reaches the nadir of their recording history.

Virtual XI
Produced by Steve Harris and Nigel Green
Released 23 March 1998

Iron Maiden’s battle to survive the 1990s continues with Virtual XI, a record that is unfortunately football-themed in its title and visuals, and just as unfortunately produced and mixed by band chief Steve Harris in conjunction with Nigel Green. This production duo proves utterly incapable of shepherding Maiden towards the new millennium, and they have the poorest collection of Maiden songs to work with.

In 1995 Maiden had delivered a disappointing introduction to their new Blaze Bayley line-up with the dark and downbeat The X Factor, an album of interesting ideas that were ultimately underdeveloped and severely hampered by the Harris/Green production. In a display of sheer 180 degree incomprehensibility, the overloud low-end of that previous album, where faint guitars faded into the background, is replaced here by a top-heavy mix that sports a nearly inaudible Nicko McBrain bass drum.

Virtual XI is undoubtedly Maiden’s worst sonic presentation since the debut album eighteen years before, not counting the cheap-sounding 1993 live albums, and grim proof that letting Harris handle Maiden’s productions in his own Barnyard Studios at home was a bad idea.

lineup1998.3

CGI Eddie hurts your eyes, in back of the 1998 Iron Maiden line-up: Dave Murray, Steve Harris, Blaze Bayley, Nicko McBrain, Janick Gers.

Before Maiden could even get to the recording sessions for their second Blaze album, former singer Bruce Dickinson effectively stole their thunder with a spellbinding return to heavy metal: 1997’s Accident Of Birth. Tables now decisively turned, Iron Maiden created their new record in the shadow of a singer and an album that successfully pushed the stylistic hallmarks of Maiden themselves into the late 90s.

Iron Maiden would prove unable to rise to the challenge, suffering another humiliation when Dickinson delivered his masterwork The Chemical Wedding (1998) just a few months after Maiden’s dismal Virtual XI.

The record opens well, if badly produced, with Futureal. This is a fast and furious track clocking in at under 3 minutes, with music by Harris and lyrics by Bayley. Actually this was the last ever instance of Harris writing a short hard rocker for Maiden. To top it off, the song features a blistering trademark Dave Murray solo:

If one imagines this track with a proper heavy metal production, something akin to what Maiden would later achieve with Kevin Shirley, packaged with the proper Derek Riggs artwork seen below, it could have been a killer first single and a kick-ass opening to the record. It’s sorely lacking in the audio department because Steve Harris has full control of the production, but the song itself is good enough to register.

futurealartwork

Derek Riggs’ superior artwork for Futureal, which the band used less than the ugly CGI rip from their then forthcoming video game. Heck, why not call the record Futureal and use this for the album cover?

However, any and all momentum is lost as soon as the second track is unleashed: The Angel And The Gambler is the very nadir of Maiden’s output, comically overlong and repetitive, without a single riff or melody to make it memorable. This is the horrifying sound of Iron Maiden self-destructing.

Manager Rod Smallwood argued that Futureal should be the first single and video from the album, but he was overruled by Harris. In retrospect it is plain that the band leader, bassist, main songwriter and producer lapsed into artistic and commercial insanity when he insisted on issuing The Angel And The Gambler:

The lack of any discernible quality control in the songwriting is exacerbated by the infantile production choices (synthesizer horns, we’re looking at you), and the album version of the track is also a mind-blowing 10 minutes long (mercifully edited in the video). This was a flopping turkey in its day and time has not improved its reflection one bit. The Angel And The Gambler quite easily tops our list of the worst Maiden songs in existence.

angel and gambler front

Derek Riggs’ superior artwork for horrible first single The Angel And The Gambler.

Virtual XI never recovers from that particular train wreck. To be fair, there is a modern Maiden classic here in the form of The Clansman, and there is also the promising but unrealized The Educated Fool, but even those are effectively neutered by the weak production and the failure to accommodate Blaze Bayley’s vocal style: He sounds as dry and unproduced as he did on The X Factor, and Harris still doesn’t bother to shore up Bayley’s tendency to drift too sharp in his delivery. This is a shame, as Bayley works hard to deliver the lyrics with conviction.

Then there is the utterly below-par entries, songs that would be unthinkable on any Maiden album prior to 1990, including Lightning Strikes Twice, When Two Worlds Collide, Don’t Look To The Eyes Of A Stranger and Como Estais Amigos. Although there are bits of worthy songwriting in the latter track, a ballad, it is a depressing fact that Maiden have lost their ability to take advantage of such skills at this point. And it is conspicuously strange that a prolific writer like Janick Gers has only this one credit to his name on the entire album.

angel and gambler digital

futureal digital

The painfully ugly CGI illustrations for The Angel And The Gambler and Futureal, including a literally pointless new Maiden logo.

In the cold light of day, everything becomes clear: If The X Factor showed worrying signs of decline but also a glimmer of hope that a different Maiden could emerge, a chance that the sporadic interesting attributes of that album could be built upon, Virtual XI (easily Maiden’s worst ever album title, signifying nothing about musical or lyrical content) confirms the decline and fails completely to re-energize the band. It’s evident that Harris and his current crew are unable to create a new beast.

The album also sounds the death knell for Steve Harris’ once inventive flights of songwriting. He might have been struggling in the early 1990s, but from this point on his solo compositions for Maiden would suffer the perpetual fixation of the Em – C – G – D chord progression, with variations of celtic-tinged vocal or guitar melodies that are basically designed for wordless audience shout-alongs. Even some of Harris’ best latter-day tracks, like Blood Brothers (in 2000) and For The Greater Good Of God (in 2006) would expose a composer with no interest in finding other chords for his works, and it seems to have started with The Educated Fool on Virtual XI.

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Eddie as Mel Gibson as William Wallace in the not very impressive Derek Riggs artwork for the Braveheart-inspired The Clansman, the only qualified highlight on Virtual XI.

There are some harmony vocals here, on The Clansman and The Educated Fool, a feature that was inexplicably missing from The X Factor. But horrible production ruins what could have been an aid to Bayley: There is no sense of which line takes the lead and which lines back it up, different vocal tracks are rising and falling in volume in an utterly amateurish fashion. When Bayley also struggles to hit the right pitches in his layered harmonies there is no saving the choruses this way.

Add to this another major problem: The band finds not a single occasion for displaying their trademark harmony guitars. The indistinguishable tones of Murray’s and Gers’ Stratocasters make for a bland guitar landscape that is depressingly far removed from the masterful sonic storytelling of Powerslave (1984) and Somewhere In Time (1986).

It’s impossible to tell that this is the same band.

virtual ix artwork

The Melvyn Grant artwork for Virtual IX would turn out to be one of the least popular incarnations of Eddie. Worst of all is the band’s request that a football game be inserted in the bottom left corner.

An interesting footnote to the production issue is the fact that Nigel Green also worked on Killers (1981) and The Number Of The Beast (1982), as the great Martin Birch’s right hand engineer. Based on this evidence, either he had little to do with the sound of those records, or Harris’ production choices and the qualities of the Barnyard studio are so terrible that Green is all but useless at the console.

None of this was Bayley’s responsibility, but it was inevitable that he would ultimately take the fall for Harris’ failure to maintain the previous high quality of Iron Maiden’s records and concerts. Bayley was simply the wrong man for the job, through no fault of his own, and Maiden clearly lacked songwriting qualities and production expertise to see him through.

lineup1998.1

Hold this photo next to the Powerslave inner sleeve’s band picture and you’ll see all that has gone wrong with Iron Maiden by 1998.

Two misconceptions about the Blaze Bayley period of Iron Maiden need to be adressed in rounding this review off.

The first misconception is that the Blaze albums have been underrated. Since this is claimed so often, since the internet is full of fan praise and popular articles about these albums actually being good, they can’t possibly be underrated. Quite the reverse, they seem to be overrated. In my somewhat rational argument The X Factor is a poor album, and Virtual XI is worse. If some fans think they are in fact good, that’s fair enough. But this in itself does not make them underrated.

The second misconception is regularly promoted by Bayley himself, that these records were the start of Maiden getting more progressive. This is an utterly absurd statement, although readily repeated by the press over the past few years, about a band that made Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son (1988), a band that before Bayley’s time had recorded Phantom Of The Opera, Hallowed Be Thy Name, Revelations, To Tame A Land, Powerslave, Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, Alexander The Great and Infinite Dreams, to name a few.

The X Factor is not a progressive rock record just because it has an overabundance of long songs on it. And Virtual XI is neither progressive in its songwriting or good enough to warrant interest beyond the realm of the most hardcore Maiden fans. I venture the guess that if a new band had made Virtual XI, us Maiden fans would have deemed it a poorly written and produced record with some bad Maiden impressions on it.

angel and gambler back

Another Derek Riggs piece that is much better than the music of the Virtual XI period.

Click here for our Maiden History chapter about the making of Virtual XI and what happened behind the scenes when Iron Maiden decided to fire Blaze Bayley!

At this point in their history, Maiden had a simple choice: Stay the course and fade into oblivion, or do a major rethink and recalibration. Smallwood pushed them to choose the latter, and by the end of 1998 the Blaze era of Iron Maiden was over.

In 2000 there would be a Brave New World.

Some of you will no doubt disagree with the score I give this record, so I will state what my aim is: I put all of Iron Maiden’s records in an order relative to each other and nothing else. I’m simply making a long-winded list of how I rate the Maiden albums comparatively, and in order to differentiate them Virtual XI gets rated the worst ever Iron Maiden album.

Christer’s Verdict: 1/6

6/6 Masterpiece
5/6 Great
4/6 Good
3/6 OK
2/6 Disappointing
1/6 Crap

22 thoughts on “Review: Virtual XI (1998)

  1. Totaly fair review, and I agree. And as an indicator, even Riggs’s rejected artwork is crap. His use of digital graphics is horrendous even if its better than the used single ”artworks”.

      • NPFTD is bad, but nowhere near as bad as Virtual XI. NPFTD is bad because it followed the great Seventh Son album and took an unexpected turn in creativity from where the band was going. But NPFTD does have that raw vibe of the first two albums, so its salvageable. Nothing salvageable about Virtual XI.

  2. The main thing that bothered me about this album, both at the time and with 22 years’ hindsight, is how bad a 5 a side team they would make. Steve obviously is a decent player but I can’t imagine Blaze had the athleticism even back then and as for Nicko in goals, what were they thinking

  3. This review is accurate. The album is atrocious and by Maiden standards, embarrassing. I’ve been a died hard Maiden fan since 1986. Buying every album and anticipating new releases, even after Bruce left. I lied to myself back then and tried to convince my self this was an alright album. There’s only 2 albums in the Maiden catalog that I don’t know the lyrics too. The X factor and Virtual XI and that’s because I just couldn’t listen to it to become familiar with the lyrics. They are a both bad as a whole, with a few exceptions. It’s no coincidence that the only songs I like are the live versions of Futureal, The Clansman, and Sign of the Cross sung by Bruce on tour after he returned. Steve is the Captain, however Bruce is the star player that the team needs.

  4. The production on the album is no doubt low-quality. I almost jumped out of my chair when I popped in the CD for the first time and heard the hard, dry guitars on “Futureal.” Also, I blame “The Clansman” for a number of folksy tunes that came afterwards, including “Where the Wild Wind Blows,” “Blood Brothers,” and “Dance of Death.” Maiden, the quintessential British heavy metal group from London writing Scottish-sounding tunes is just wrong on so many levels. Finally, the lack of quality in songwriting on the album was neither Blaze’s fault, nor Steve’s fault. I blame Janick for this. The moment he joined the band and Adrian left was the moment the songwriting quality declined.

    Janick’s style is very “stone-agey.” He does not use any effects to add texture to his tone; he writes most melodies in the same neck position using the same scale (E minor around the 7th to 9th fret); and he almost never palm-mutes notes, and when he does, he relies on palm-mutes, which are very dependent on the amp EQ settings, to carry the song. Case in point: “The Talisman,” which runs out of gas before the second chorus, because all the heaviness and aggression is in the palm-mutes, not the arrangements or the collective delivery of the song. Lastly, I suspect that Janick had something to do with the band’s decision to jettison twin guitar harmonies starting in 1990 and continuing through the present day.

    As for the songs on Virtual XI, I think “When Two Worlds Collide” has depth and magic, minus the awkward and unnecessary key change during the solo, and I actually appreciate “The Angel and the Gambler” for its unique incorporation of organs and its rock’n’roll vibe. I do agree the song is definitely longer than it needs to be, but it does have some of that old magic, which Derek Riggs perfectly captured with the beautiful drawing of Eddie at the boat dock. Probably the last rendition of Eddie where Eddie looked recognizable as the iconic mascot, and also the last time that the music and the visuals reinforced each other.

    • Steve has the final say, therefore regardless of Janick’s tendencies, Steve allows it and/or liked it. Janick is not the one trick pony you make him out to be. He wrote blistering songs, not folksy, such as The Ghost of the Navigator and Montsegur.

      • Both “The Ghost of Navigator” and “Montségur” share the same problems, introduced because of the fifth (or sixth, in this case) wheel that is Janick. Since there is nothing else for Janick to do in the songs, several different parts of the songs have a guitar that is playing the same melody as the vocal melody. In addition, the melody is played up on the neck, around the 12th–15th fret and on the D, G, and B strings, in a neck position where even a well-intonate guitar has poor intonation, and where notes start to sound too thick on those three strings, but because those are very high notes, it is necessary to play them in that position and on those strings in order to avoid thin, brittle, ice-picky tones that are impossible to sit in the mix.

        This would not be so much of a problem if Maiden still wrote material that is as complex as Powerslave, which had songs that had up to four different melody guitars going on, but that is not the case today. With maybe a few exceptions, the third guitar is simply not needed.

        I don’t think Janick is a one-trick pony, either—I think he’s a three trick pony: 1) Acoustic songs that are of limited use to Maiden, 2) folksy and/or recycled melodies around the 7th–9th fret (e.g., “Afraid to Shoot Strangers,” “Fear of the Dark,” “Where the Wild Wing Blows,” “The Talisman,” “Dance of Death,” “No Prayer for the Dying,” “For the Greater Good of God”), and 3) the same solo melodies around the 15th–17th fret, with a full bend on the 17th fret on the 1st string, followed by some combination of the 15h and 14th frets on that string, followed by 17th fret on the 2nd string.

    • Blaming Janick for the songwriting seems strange when he wrote only 1 of the songs. He can’t be blamed for Adrian leaving either, but there is no doubt that Maiden never made a great record without Adrian.

      • Janick lowered the bar for everyone on the first two records he did with Maiden. By doing so, Dave Murray ended up, over time, boxing himself in and losing his creativity. And, lastly, a certain laziness developed, as well, for it is much easier to churn out melodies from one very comfortable neck position than it is to stretch oneself (and in this case, one’s fingers, literally) in search of some newer, more technically demanding ideas. It’s too bad I can’t post videos here, because I could easily demonstrate on the guitar what Janick’s influence has been on the band.

        That said, I do appreciate Janick’s philosophy on playing and tone for what it is, but it is the wrong fit for Maiden, just like his dancing on stage. Maiden used to be a “dangerous” band, the kind of band that would give you nervous with excitement when you first listened to a new album or went to see them live. They were the quintessential classic heavy metal band, the band that recorded “The Flight of Icarus,” “Where Eagles Dare,” “Only the Good Die Young,” and many other examples of the finest British steel. After Janick, they became the band that started dancing on the stage, delivering sing-along crowdpleasers, and adopted annoying stylistic traits that seriously handicapped their creativity.

        And there is actually one more problem with Janick that was on full display during the Blaze era. Janick does not write riffs and lacks Adrian’s edge and grit. Without Adrian, many of the cool and sometimes intentionally dirty riffs we hear on The Book of Souls would not have been possible. Examples of these riffs include the intro riff on “Speed of Light” and “The Great Unknown” and the uber-classy metal riff on “Empire of the Clouds” during the lines

        Fighting the wind as it rolls you
        Feeling the diesels that push you along
        Watching the channel below you
        Lower and lower into the night
        . . .
        Reaper standing beside her
        With his scythe cuts to the bone
        Panic to make a decision
        Experienced men asleep in their graves

        Her cover is ripped and she’s drowning
        Rain is flooding into the hull
        Bleeding to death and she’s falling
        Lifting gas is draining away

        This level of class is unthinkable with Janick only. Janick’s best work was on “The Legacy” and some of the stuff on No Prayer for the Dying and Fear of the Dark (the whole albums), but the rest of his creative output is very forgettable or sounds like a parody of the band. Honestly, how likely are the band to play the following songs ever (again)?

        “The Ghost of Navigator”
        “The Pilgrim” (a somewhat strong song from a very strong album overall)
        “Montsegur”
        “The Alchemist” (a parody of Maiden)
        “The Book of Souls” (a Powerslave—the album—rip-off)
        “Shadows of the Valley” (a hidden gem, special because of the rest of the band band refining with class, and over time, elements that are still quintessential Janick and would have produced a mediocre song, had it not been for the band’s talent)

      • I don’t think anyone disagrees with you about the importance of Adrian to Iron Maiden.

  5. Your insight is definitely reasoned and well thought out. You have more an air for music than I. I will begin to listen to and look for the things you point out. The one I see obviously and sometimes annoyingly is Janick writing the melody line to the vocals. It’s alright for a song, but has been customary on every album for him.

  6. Janice is, IMO, the best songwriter in the band today. The Legacy, Man on the Edge, Book of Souls, Dance of Death, The Talisman, I could go on. You can cite music theory toke all day long, but these are great songs and Janice is far from a 6th wheel. He’s an essential member of the band.

  7. Great comments from everyone, and I agree totally with Seventh Son.

    This is a fair review of Virtual XI. Rose tinted spectacles often blind fans to just how poor all the albums were that Maiden released in the 1990s. I often hear that even a bad Maiden album is better than other bands best efforts, but come on, this is simply not true.

    The 1990s albums had 1-2 good songs on each record (maybe 3 at best), with the rest being either mediocre or poor. Post-reunion albums are generally better than this, but they still have poor tracks and tend to suffer from excessive length.

    The two good songs on Virtual XI are probably Futureal and Como Estais Amigo, but I’ve never cared for The Clansman. As a Scot I find it particularly cheesy, and quite innapropriate material for an English band!

  8. @Seventh Son: If you ever want to write a piece about Maiden songwriting and guitar sounds, we’d be happy to publish it here at Maiden Revelations. 🙂

  9. Music theory and Iron Maiden is not a good idea. The song writing and the solos are at best at a very basic level. Most of the solos from npfd and onwards are improvised and not at all intresting to study. Maidens strenght is not technical playing, it’s about writing good songs with a hook. Songs like the trooper, hallowed, run to the hills, revelations, running free or flight of icarus are simple but great songs. They should stick to that and not writing nine minute “epics” wich ain’t epic att all. Just boring. Adrian has some skills and takes the time to actually write his solos. Dave and Janick seemes not to care anymore. The solos on tears of a clown are a great example of that. Sounds horrible. The song would have been much better without them.

  10. I don’t think songs like Phantom of the Opera, Hallowed Be Thy Name, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Alexander the Great, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, Sign of the Cross, Paschendale, and Empire of the Clouds are boring. Most Maiden fans I believe look forward to listening to the epics on a new album. Song difficulty aside, the epics are interesting and take the listener on an enjoyable ride. Not all are great, but for the most part they deliver. It’s alright to prefer the straightforward chorus anthem songs. But those songs are balanced with the epics.

    • I agree, the old epics were great. But it was ony one of them per album, and they had really worked on the song. What i meant is the new ones. From x-factor and on. Angel and the gambler, the whole a matter of life and death, empire of the clouds and a ton of other songs are just boring. They have the same amount of riffs as say 2 minutes or aces high, only stretched and uses over and over again. All played in E-C-D. Maybe i’m geting old, but there’s not much energy and creativity left in the band. I would much rather have 6-8 really good tunes per album, they had really worked on, than 80 minutes of sleeping pills. Skip the intros, the bass solos, tune down halv a step and do something fresh. If eternity should fail was the only bright spot on the new album, a song not even ment for Iron Maiden. In my opinion, both Bruce and Adrian did their best work on accident of birth and chemical wedding. Far greater than anything maiden had come up with in 30 years, in every single aspect.

  11. The “newer” epics are not as good, with the exception of Paschendale and Sign of the Cross. However I love A Matter of Life and Death the album as a whole. I find it dark, yet uplifting, and heavy sounding. I don’t know anything about music theory or chord progressions. Just a fan who enjoys the songs on a basic level. Adrian Smith is the member that gets overlooked and his departure in 1989 was noticed in subsequent releases.

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