Review: The Final Frontier (2010)

Iron Maiden’s 15th studio album saw the band struggling to maintain momentum in the wake of the massive artistic and commercial success of the 2005-2009 period.

The Final Frontier
Produced by Kevin Shirley, co-produced by Steve Harris
Released 13 August 2010

Iron Maiden was back on top of the world. Their previous album A Matter Of Life And Death (2006) was one of their best ever, rivaling even the peak of their 1980s output, and the blockbuster world tour Somewhere Back In Time had seen them become the biggest metal band on the planet once again, as evidenced by the brilliant Flight 666 (2009) film and live album.

Singer Bruce Dickinson had been open and honest about the need for Maiden to adjust to their new level of success and carefully measure the course for their next album, but the truth is that their follow-up indicates a band that struggles to match the power and energy of Brave New World (2000), Dance Of Death (2003), and their most recent studio record alike.

After scaling the pyramids of the past in 2008-09, Iron Maiden head into the stars and the future with The Final Frontier album and tour in 2010-11.

In an apparent effort to stay in the 1980s vibe, Maiden decided to record their new album at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas, the site of their classic triumphs Piece Of Mind (1983), Powerslave (1984) and Somewhere In Time (1986). However, their latest adventure would fall far short of these groundbreaking records.

The Final Frontier’s biggest problem is that it seems plagued by a number of under-cooked and overlong songs, tracks that want to be spectacular or epic but don’t have the surplus of strong ideas going for them that the songs on A Matter Of Life And Death did. The first third is let down by the mid-tempo non-starter Mother Of Mercy, while the middle of the record buckles under the weight of the directionless Isle Of Avalon and the promising but unrealized Starblind, and the latter portion of the album struggles through the plodding yawn of The Man Who Would Be King.

The album’s opening track, the combo of the Satellite 15 intro piece and the title track, seems somewhat apprehensive and is frankly in need of its accompanying science fiction video to elicit a certain audience excitement. It is a strangely subdued opening to a very uneven Iron Maiden album.

An immediate plus, however, is the strong production courtesy of Kevin Shirley. The guitars sound thick and full, the drums and bass are powerful and precise, and Dickinson soars over the top of it as he had always done. Overall, the sound might be the best that Shirley ever captured for Maiden, working up a warm and inviting audio blanket between main recordings at Compass Point and the overdubbing and mixing done in his own The Cave studio in Malibu, California.

Second track and lead single El Dorado, one of the album’s several collaborations between Dickinson, guitarist Adrian Smith and bassist Steve Harris, is one of the three stand-out songs on the album. A riffy groove that builds into a catchy chorus, it was a sign that Maiden still had it in them to create new milestones:

Another great song by these three collaborators is the triumphant ballad Coming Home, an ode to air travel and the unity of all tribes sharing the same planet, which would prove a highlight of the subsequent world tour. There is also Harris’ and guitarist Janick Gers’ massive ocean hymn The Talisman, sporting one of those Dickinson performances that probably should not be possible to pull off, yet he does so anyway.

Gers and Harris also cook up The Alchemist with lyrics by Dickinson, a rare romp of up-tempo Maiden metal at just 4,5 minutes. It’s melodic and uplifting, but its sense of Maiden by-the-numbers is giving the impression that the band could possibly be going through the motions after three studio records that were truthfully the stuff that Maiden fans’ dreams had been made of.

An entertaining throwback to the 1950s, in Anthony Dry’s artwork for the Grammy Award-winning pre-album download El Dorado.

Iron Maiden was now experiencing a sense of anemia that would also permeat the stage production and setlist for the tour, all of which would result in the fair but underwhelming live album and concert video En Vivo! (2012). This was certainly a sign of how high their bar had been placed after the return of Dickinson and Smith, but the accolades given to Maiden and The Final Frontier at the time has the uncomfortable sheen of the emperor’s new clothes in retrospect.

Iron Maiden in 2010: Janick Gers, Adrian Smith, Bruce Dickinson, Steve Harris, Nicko McBrain, Dave Murray.

The quality of Shirley’s production and the band’s performances, including safely Maiden-sounding contributions from guitarist Dave Murray and drummer Nicko McBrain, ensures that even the less than impressive songs are still a good listen. Ultimately, The Final Frontier simply loses its battle with the immense shadow of its predecessor from four years earlier.

A fittingly ambivalent note of ending comes with the patented Harris epic When The Wild Wind Blows. The lyrics of a nuclear holocaust misunderstanding are moving, and delivered with faultless emotion by the inimitable Dickinson, but by now the overly familiar Celtic-tinged melodies and chord progressions of Harris’ modern aesthetic have become too predictable for comfort as the song drags on way too long.

One of the most divisive incarnations of Eddie, the space monster taken from the album artwork by intestines-fixated Melvyn Grant, appears on stage as an inflatable.

On the one hand, The Final Frontier proved that Iron Maiden had by now become what they were in the 1980s, unbeatable. In many people’s view they could simply do nothing wrong. But in the view of many fans, the album signaled the start of a period where the band’s creativity did not match their commercial force.

Click here for the full story of how Iron Maiden reconquered the globe in their second golden age, the 2005 to 2014 period that included The Final Frontier.

On the other hand, the drop in songwriting quality from A Matter Of Life And Death is actually quite staggering, echoing the similar lapse from the career-high of Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son in 1988 to the lukewarm No Prayer For The Dying in 1990. Their audience would remain intact this time, but it would take a number of years for Iron Maiden to regain their creative spark.

The Final Frontier was thankfully not the final Maiden album.

Christer’s verdict: 3/6

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

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10 thoughts on “Review: The Final Frontier (2010)

  1. Totally on board with this review although I’d rank Starblind a bit higher as I really enjoy the track but it never really lifts up as it should in the chorus.

    TFF was the first time that I felt Dave’s songwriting contribution felt unfinished and clumsy. It got worse with his Man Of Sorrow contribution to BOS. His playing on Coming Home was spectacular though.

    Standout tracks for me: Coming Home, Talisman
    Very Good tracks: Starblind, Alchemist, El Dorado

  2. For me this is worst of the post 2000 albums. The great Maiden albums provide a feeling and overall aura. The songs and sound lend to one another and feed off one another. TFF is disjointed in that regard. There’s no flow to it. The Book of Souls also suffers from it, but not as prominently. There’s really no awful tracks, but many lackluster unforgettable songs, with exception of the Man Who Would Be King (a boring uninspired song that could be found on FOTD in between Weekend Warrior and The Apparition). I agree with the “good” rating because it’s just an average album with some decent highlights. Those being, Coming Home, El Dorado, The Talisman, and Starblind (lyrically spectacular). As far as the “epic”, WTWWB, is decent, but when compared to the other reunion “epics” such as Paschendale, TBOS, The Parchment, and EOTC, again it’s just average.

  3. Talisman and El Dorado are great songs for me. The rest don’t really move the needle. The last two in particular, I’ve listened to them quite a few times, but they’ve made no impression on me. I couldn’t hum a single phrase from either of them.

    I wasn’t following the band when this came out, so never did the “new Iron Maiden album listen a million times” thing, which maybe doesn’t play in it’s favour. But either way it lacks memorable hooks.

  4. As I’m in the distinct minority that did not enjoy AMOLAD, I feel The Final Frontier is something of a return to form. But I agree with the 3/6 rating. The Talisman is *classic* Maiden. Most of my comments here include some complaint about Janick’s guitar playing but as a songwriter he can be formidable, and The Talisman demonstrates how essential he is. Eldorado, with its groove, is superb. Coming Home is nice (quite Bruce solo in feel) and Starblind is not bad. I agree with Christer about The Alchemist. It should be a brilliant burst of galloping Maiden but something is lacking. The title track is about as interesting as Wildest Dreams and Mother Mary is worthy but dull. The remaining epics range from bland to boring. WtWWB is the most formulaic and predictable of Steve’s compositions.

  5. First time commenter, but long time reader – I enjoy your writing and your takes immensely, Krister! Especially when I tend to disagree somewhat, as is the case here. I know I am in the minority, but I mostly love TFF, and I would even dare to say that there is a classic album hiding in plain sight if the following adjustments were made: remove the first two and the last two songs, and rejiggle the running order a little (maybe start with The Alchemist) and you have a great album in my point of view. There are two songs that I would like to highlight in particular: Starblind and Isle of Avalon. The former sounds like nothing Maiden have done before, the atmosphere is incredible as is the lead break (amazing, amazing work by Adrian) and the latter is one of the songs I absolutely cannot believe has not been played live. Can you imagine the audience erupt in the chorus? Gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. I totally agree with your assessment of the sound, one of my favorite Shirley productions.

    • No doubt, Karol. That song is one of the many Gers compositions that have really upped Maiden’s game in the post-2000 period, in my opinion.

      • Agree. While Gers stage antics and live solo performances are criticized and rightfully so on some occasions, he has composed some great tunes. Dance of Death, Montsegur, The Legacy, The Pilgrim (a guilty pleasure and under appreciated song, like Judas Be My Guide), and Shadows of the Valley.

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