It is not without flaws, but Brave New World has gained the status of classic album in Iron Maiden’s catalog. The return of Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith marked the start of the band’s second golden age.
Brave New World
Produced by Kevin Shirley, co-produced by Steve Harris
Released 29 May 2000
Iron Maiden had come to the end of the road they traveled in the 1990s. First guitarist Adrian Smith had left to be replaced by Janick Gers for No Prayer For The Dying (1990), and then singer Bruce Dickinson had left after Fear Of The Dark (1992) to be replaced by Blaze Bayley.
Steve Harris had taken charge of leading Maiden through these stormy waters, becoming the even more dominant songwriter and producing Maiden’s albums himself in his own Barnyard Studio in England. The resulting records, The X Factor (1995) and Virtual XI (1998) saw Maiden’s artistic and commercial decline worsening, and by the end of 1998 manager Rod Smallwood facilitated the exit of Bayley and the return of Dickinson.
Another change was made in the Maiden operation at this time: Acclaimed producer Kevin Shirley was hired to record the band in the top-flight Studio Guillaume Tell in Paris, France. The result of this is powerfully apparent from the first chord of the album, the chugging guitars and thunderous drums of The Wicker Man quickly laying to rest the ghost of Virtual XI (easily Maiden’s worst record).
The Wicker Man is the glorious result of the returning songwriters Smith and Dickinson working with added input from Harris, who would from now on write more in conjuntion with the others and less by himself. His name is credited on every track here, but only one of them as lone writer. With the fairly prolific writer Gers staying in the band, and Dave Murray also chipping in with three tracks, Maiden have once again reached critical mass.
Several artists are brought in to add visuals to Maiden’s new music. Eddie originator Derek Riggs provides the face in the sky over Steve Stone‘s futuristic cityscape on the cover, integrated through the overall design of Peacock, while Mark Wilkinson dreams up the Wicker Eddie that would be a centerpiece of the new stage show:
The case is immediately clear: Iron Maiden are back with a burning vengeance.
The first four tracks on Brave New World are strong enough to make any album good: Opener and first single The Wicker Man with its heavy emphasis on Smith’s riffs and hooks, the majestic Gers/Dickinson/Harris collaboration Ghost Of The Navigator, the melancholy Murray/Harris/Dickinson collaboration Brave New World, and then Harris’ singalong-classic-to-be Blood Brothers.
All these tracks are top-drawer Maiden songs.
Yours truly can remember being impressed by the first two on first listen, but it was the slow build-up of third track Brave New World that really clinched it. When the hauntingly beautiful quiet intro gives way to the controlled fury of the verse, with Dickinson soaring over the top on the wings of a brilliant melody, Maiden magic is happening once more and goosebumps are officially back. As Dickinson intones that “You are planned, and you are damned, in this brave new world,” there is no denying that everything works.
What it comes down to is the fact that Maiden had finally regained the ingredients needed to turn Harris’ basic aesthetic and philosophy into world-beating songs that would blast from stereos and sway stadiums once again: A good producer that could capture both the fire and the nuances of Maiden’s performance, musical and lyrical songwriting forces in the shape of Smith and Dickinson, and not least the frontman of frontmen to deliver world-class vocals and the proper onstage spectacle. It’s a sign of Maiden’s powerful return that songs would again inspire artists to create cool works like this Dan Mumford image of the navigator’s watery grave:
Many fans seem to endlessly lament the absence of the legendary Martin Birch from Maiden’s post-1992 productions. Criticism of the Harris-helmed 1993 live albums, plus the studio records The X Factor and Virtual XI, are no doubt valid, but in this reviewer’s opinion Maiden found the right man for the job when they set out to record their 2000 comeback record: Kevin Shirley. The balancing of three guitars would get better with future albums, but the solid sound that Shirley facilitates takes Maiden into the 2000s without sacrificing their trademarks.
However, after the infectiously uplifting first four tracks on the record, there comes something of a snag. Truth be told, none of the rest of the album comes up to the quality of the opening. Worst of all is The Mercenary, a Gers and Harris throwaway song that sounds uncomfortably close to the uninspired run of tunes on the previous two Maiden albums. Without the great production and Dickinson’s delivery this would have been disastrous.
Then there is Dream Of Mirrors, another Gers/Harris song that seems to generate lots of love among fans and critics, but which this reviewer must admit to not liking. The build-up is promising, but the track gets annoyingly frantic and repetetive the rest of the time. Smith and Harris’ The Fallen Angel is much better, but it admittedly pales in comparison with the equally short and muscular The Wicker Man.
The album struggles through this middle part before finding its feet again with the Murray/Harris epic The Nomad. The Eastern raga-flavored riffs and melodies could easily have come off as Spinal Tap-ish, but this line-up in the hands of producer Shirley makes it sound good. The absence of guitar solos for the benefit of extended Eastern melodies in the song’s middle section is a refreshing change of style.
The album’s second single, the video seen above, is the Gers/Dickinson/Harris collaboration Out Of The Silent Planet. It’s a decent singalong romp, even if the band played it live just once or twice, but again the repetetive nature of the chorus (and the rabid intro should be mentioned as a point of shame) makes it a less fun song to revisit than many on Brave New World.
The most surprising track on the record is saved for the end. Dave Murray and Steve Harris write The Thin Line Between Love And Hate, a melodic and introspective song that could have fallen short with a different singer and a less powerful guitar team. But the ingredients are there, including the right producer, for the song to become a thoughtful and uplifting coda to the album that also points ahead to future Maiden music to come. In fact, this song made our list of the top 10 deep Iron Maiden cuts.
In sum, there are four absolutely great tracks up front on this album. This includes Blood Brothers, which is the most successful iteration yet of what would become the perennial Celtic tones of Harris’ Em-C-G-D progression, in short you might call it Harris’ most completely realized folk epic so far. There is another jewel at the very end in The Thin Line Between Love And Hate, while The Fallen Angel and The Nomad are runners-up in the middle section. But The Mercenary, Dream Of Mirrors and Out Of The Silent Planet are simply not good enough in this company.
Brave New World would come to achieve a status similar to The Number Of The Beast. The latter marked the start of Maiden’s classic era, while the former ushered in a new golden age. For the younger generation of Maiden fans in particular, Brave New World would simply be their entry point and thus a classic album. It is a huge compliment to band and producer that the album worked for older and newer fans alike. At the dawn of a new millennium the suddenly growing fanbase where thrilled to once again see the world in Eddie’s hands:
Stay tuned later this year for our look behind the scenes of the 1999 Maiden reunion and the making of Brave New World!
The key to Maiden’s longevity in the decades since 2000 has been the urge and ability to create new music alongside their period-revisiting world tours. New albums don’t come along very often, but regularly enough for Maiden to be much more than a nostalgia act. The quality of their new music is ultimately what makes the retro setlists valid, and here is the bottom line.
Brave New World was so much better than what fans had gotten used to in the 1990s. It was indeed the best Iron Maiden album since Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son 12 years earlier. Not as great as the best of Maiden’s 1980s output, to be sure, but even so: An impressive reassertion of intent that would set the band on course for two decades and counting of ruling the world of metal once again.
Christer’s verdict: 4/6