What we get instead is their longest album ever, with most songs over 7 minutes. That wouldn't be a good or bad thing, but every Maiden fan knows that the longer the song=the more pretentious and "literary" and repetitive. Well, I'm not sure that *every* Maiden fan knows this. In fact, the more die-hard of a Maiden fan one is, probably the more that person is likely to find "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" or "To Tame a Land" to be works of art on par with Wagner's Ring Cycle-- but better! because it's metal, maaan!
I digress. Well, not really. Because this gets to the heart of the matter: Iron Maiden's track record with "epic" songs is terrible. On their first album, the longest song ("Phantom of the Opera") may also be the best, but it's also the only one. Killers isn't burdened by any such tracks. But at some point, the band decided that songs like "Alexander the Great" were the way to go, and doubtless many of you have agreed.
That is not entirely true, though, because the band also panders like no other--and toss off some disingenuous "singles" that are patronizingly straight-forward. You can just see them, having composed their arduous masterpieces, reflecting that "Now we need a single. Something really anthemic!" Some bands can do this very cannily--Nirvana comes to mind, or 80s Ozzy--but I've always found it embarrassing when Maiden act like "The Wicker Man" (for example) is "Jumping Jack Flash" or what have you. It ain't.
So, you get more of this here. "The Final Frontier" is just such a song. I suppose I'm meant to find it a number-one hit from an alternate universe where the mainstream (boo! hiss!) has been set to rout and metal rules, but it's kind of bland.
When it comes to the very long songs here, the listener runs headfirst into a problem with Iron Maiden's creativity and limitations: the pleasures of listening to Iron Maiden, even at their best, are not very profound. It's not Beethoven. Occasionally they "rock," and their discography is littered with strong hooks, but their idea of "big" is usually ponderous instead of fleet-footed and truly epic (in the Homeric sense, as interpreted by Matthew Arnold in his classic essay on translation).
On the other hand, unlike Metallica's St. Anger, this is not an album made by the band for themselves; Iron Maiden make every attempt to please, and the record is dominated by Dickinson's would-be tuneful performance, which comes across as quite same-y and also pretentious. It's "catchy," if you like, in every sense except that it doesn't "catch."
I can't resist another comparison. Take Black Sabbath's Sabotage, which is no stranger to long songs and some pretention. But one is immediately struck by the movement, the dynamism, of Iommi's riffs, and even the very-long "Megalomania" is rushed along by a cycle of memorable parts. Compared to this, Iron Maiden's long songs come across as improvisations--not in the jazz sense, but in the somewhat flabby dialogue of Curb Your Enthusiasm compared to the tightly-written pacing of Seinfeld. There is a certain spacing in which everything is clearly intended to happen, but this is a matter of schematics rather than real creativity.
In a way, I feel bad for Iron Maiden. They are doomed to keep creating Iron Maiden Albums until the end of time.
score: 2.5 (** 1/2) stars
best songs: "Where the Wild Wind Blows," because it sounds like Oasis