It's all just a painful memory now, but Maiden conoisseurs had to endure a lot of gritting of the teeth during the 1990's.The albums the band produce during that period ranged from half-baked 'No Prayer For The Dying' through to the turgid 'Virtual XI'; the bands knack of making exhilarating heavy metal records seemingly knackered by the loss of guitarist Adrian Smith and, later, frontman Bruce Dickinson.
But how times have changed.One timely reunion, and one magnificent comeback album later, and suddenly Iron Maiden are just about the coolest thing on the planet.The number of bands currently aping that trademark gallop and those scintilating twin-guitar harmonies has risen dramatically in recent years, with everyone from blatant worshipers like Iced Earth and In Flames through to more unexpected acolytes such as Atreyu and 3 Inches Of Blood ass 'fessing up to the self-evident fact that there is no sound on this earth more glorious and celebratory than Iron Maiden on top form and in full flight.
All of which means that 'Dance Of Death' marks the point where the pressure on Steve Harris and co to deliver a blinder has increased tenfold. 2000's 'Brave New World' was a strong return to form. The tension between Dickinson and Harris was crackling once again, and the edge that Adrian Smith brings to the band's songwriting made the band's 12th album an enormously satisfying experience for die-hards and newbie fans alike. But was it a false dawn? Was it bollocks!
Put simply, 'Dance Of Death' is Iron Maiden's best album since 1988's 'Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son'.Heavier and darker than 'Brave New World' and with none of that albums long winded-rambling,this is as passionate and fired-up as the band have EVER sounded.
First single and opening track 'Wildest Dreams' is arguably the weakest thing here. but it is a grower; a thunderous heads-down race to the finish with a deceptively catchy chorus and the kind of dramatic, rythmic flourishes that have been conspicuous by their absence from Maiden albums for far too long. 'Rainmaker', with it's explosion of triple-guitar harmony histrionics and another devasting chorus, is one of the finest songs Maiden have ever recorded.'No More Lies' is the kind of song that Steve Harris has been attempting to pull off for years: a punchy and progressive seven-minuter that trounces the lumbering durges of the Blaze Bayley era. Three tracks in and anyone still doubting that Maiden have recaptured the magic of their heyday should be foaming at the mouth by now.
'Montsegur' is the heaviest thing to appear on a Maiden album since the band's early days; a brutally melodic anthem that strongly recalls 'Where Eagles Dare' from 1983's 'Piece Of Mind' album. The title-track is another one of Harris' convoluted epics, with strong shades of 70's prog legends Jethro Tull and a faint, but forgivable, whiff of Spinal Tap. 'Gates Of Tomorrow' and 'New Frontier' follow; both surging, mid-tempo bursts of muscular melody and percussive bluster. The latter features the first ever writing credit for drummer Nicko McBrain and positively reeks of single potential. Next comes 'Paschendale' another epic and possibly the finest thing here; eight minutes of structural invention, cavalier aggression and lyrical poignancy.
The final three tracks on 'Dance Of Death' are all stunning. First come 'Face In The Sand' - a stately, kick-drum powered waltz with a dash of orchestral elegence.T hen 'Age Of Innocence' delivers the album's most gripping affecting melody, allied to a crafty, world-weary lyric.
'Journeyman' brings the album to a close with sweeping strings, understated dynamics and another chorus to die for.
It's all stupendous stuff and concrete proof that Maiden are as electrifying and important as they have been in a long time. Ten years ago, it was unthinkable that they could make more albums of this quality. This is their second out-and-out belter in a row. Long may they reign.
- Dom Lawson
Kerrang rating: KKKKK