In trying to build the new Iron Maiden with their second Blaze Bayley album, the band unfortunately reaches the nadir of their recording history.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 explain 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. In order to differentiate them, Virtual XI gets rated the worst ever Iron Maiden album.
Christer’s verdict: 1/6