I will admit that Iron Maiden going all Japan-esey, with a very thematic album at least in terms of title and imagery – but also certain songs, was an idea that both bewildered and excited me and maybe gave me a bit of an anxiety too, thinking that if this sucked – it would suck a huge wang – monumentally that is (political correctness just left the building, thank you)!
Now when the singles were unveiled, at least the first one being “The Writing on the Wall”, things were that much clearer, but it didn’t mean much, since the post reunion band has a tendency to put out some of the shorter, more rocking songs as singles, not necessarily the best compositions. “Stratego” – when released managed to bestow a bit more legitimacy to the still unreleased album and to allow the fans to breathe a sigh of relief at the same time.
But for a band with a story as long an illustrious as Maiden, nearing their 50th anniversary soon and with some seventeen studio albums and still brisk live activity (covid era excluded of course) a new album is not only a chance to go out and do the “greatest hits” (which they’ve been doing pretty much), but also a chance to validate themselves as musicians and creators.
It might be so that Maiden’s music is quite as formulaic as some of the better known bands, but the fact that this far in their career they’re still able to craft interesting melodies and engage the listener is also a testament to their ability and their tenacity.
If one were to dissect “Senjutsu” (the album) like a katana wielding Eddie, what would its secrets be? The one of immortality? Or the magic of rich fantasy and lore steeped into post feudal Japan?
Or maybe both?!
In a rather bold move, the title track, “Senjutsu”, opens the album, neither rushing nor falling behind, with its slow militaristic march allowing Dickinson to sound stentorian as he sharply and coldly orates the story of an attack. An “Invasion” – if you will. It does so in a way that might be somewhat familiar, but is so interestingly and strategically staged that does take you by surprise.
This slow unfolding epic marches on, with excellent bridges that extend into glorious choruses. The guitar solos are spirited and fitting and the band manages to really sound interesting after some time. I even didn’t mind the bizarre sound effect of something burning and crumbling at the very end.
“Stratego” picks up the pace slightly, in a typical Maiden gallop – mind you not their fastest, but is quite satisfying. One notices the keyboard layers – even more prominent than before adding layers below Dickinson – at the slight expense of clarity. While the balance of instruments in the mix is the best Maiden had in a while, Dickinson seems to struggle a little, shouting out, over the heavily orchestrated backdrop. Still due to every building block of the song being great, it manages to be one of the most enjoyable songs on the album. Gers copies himself a little here solo wise, but if the end result is that good, he can get away with it.
While “The Writing on the Wall” did make me, as well as a lot of other people raise a worried brow in disbelief, it’s amalgam of “Flight of Icarus”, “From Here to Eternity” (storytelling-wise) and a beyond generous swig of Molly Hatchet, moonshine, made it earworm itself and grow on me upon consecutive listens of the album. And no-one could argue with the wailing solos of one Adrian Smith-no, sir-e!
“Lost in a Lost World” in its near ten minute duration – experiments with some things, one would not expect from a Harris penned “epic”. Gor the first couple of minutes, Dickinson sings softly in a rather subdued manner with guitars and harmonies, reminiscing of an atmosphere ala say Cockney Rebel that sort of weird vibe. Past that and a rather predictable break, the song takes another direction altogether. Think “Revelations” or “To Tame a Land” but don’t revel yet, cause despite the more epic and metallic musings things to get a little wonky. While up to the bridge/pre chorus things work out beautifully, the chorus seems forced and even not perfectly rhyming – meter wise (5/6 slbs), which really sticks out. Otherwise it’s a nice song… but with this major flaw… imho.
The tried and true bipole of Smith and Dickinson shines on “Days of Future Past”, which answers the question what if a BD solo song was Maidenized…. something that I’m sure nobody asked, but is offered anyway. It probably is the best song on the album, short, sweet, to the point, with everything falling into place perfectly. Mission accomplished, even if some’d say it was impossible.
Next is another song from the songwriting partnership of Gers and Harris, a combination that has worked well in the past, for the most part. “The Time Machine” is a song that departs little from the Maiden stereotype, but it doesn’t completely lose sight of the blue print. Think something ala “Empire of the Clouds”, but much shorter and with a couple of those traditional “maidenesque” Harris breaks thrown in for good measure. If you could make it through an almost twenty minute song, something just a little north of seven, will be child’s play.
“The Darkest Hour” is a Smith/Dickinson tune – a ballad (possibly WW2 inspired) that veers for quite a long time, without resolving into a proper chorus. When it finally does, it’s a rather underwhelming. Bridge with a chorus that repeats the title a couple of times. Not exactly anticlimactic, but one would not tear down the city walls due to its splendor. Dickinson sings with conviction and Smith offers some of the best solos on the album, but… something feels slightly amiss. This could have been a monumental song, if only. A bit of a wasted opportunity.
“Death of the Celts” is a cauldron in which a lot of maiden tropes, interwoven with celtic themes and melodies bubble and boil. Maiden have done Celtic epic, right in a song like “The Clansman”, whose ending echoes in this songs chorus… and things are not too bad, until the solos begin and what begins as one, ends up as a three minute jigathon of “stuff” that seems to have found its way in the middle of the song. A little editing would have elevated this somewhat derivative, self-referencing tune, to pretty dizzying heights. Or at least away from the infamy of being the tune that most listeners have admitted to skip when they listen the album.
And if two Harris penned epics that clock around ten minutes each are not enough for you, we have what the doctor has ordered. Another one. The slow burning, mysterious and certainly eastern flavored “The Parchment” feels as if someone took something like the “Nomad” and transposed it over To “Tame a Land” at half the speed, forgetting to gift it with a chorus as strong as in any of the aforementioned tunes. It builds and builds – but the crowning jewel of a chorus that would make it truly memorable – is nowhere to be found, replaced by a tropey Maiden melody. Even the solos don’t do much to lift the song from its slower pace, despite the pyrotechnical displays towards the end. Close enough due to the nice atmosphere, but no cigar, due to the lack of a chorus.
Last but not least and taking its title either from the second episode of Doom, or our current human condition (take your pick), “Hell on Earth” is the Harris’ epic, where El Capitan Steven Harris manages to dial it all in and deliver a tune that works well on every level. It flows more naturally and doesn’t feel cobbled together or unnecessarily extended beyond the point that it would feel meaningful. Yay!
The album feels a little, more hard and prog rock oriented, with the metal character not being diminished, but somewhat overshadowed. It’s not necessarily a bad thing mellowing down and I can’t say that I was expecting Cannibal Corpse like intensity which I didn’t get so…
An overall quite satisfying album, which somewhat feels a little bogged in its latter part due to grouping all the longer songs together at the end when a listener is either fully engrossed or tired, which is a little bit of a gamble. It’s uneven that way. Still it feels a little more consistent than “Book of Souls” that might have had a few more dizzying heights, but had a lot of valleys as well. I think it’s something to be expected from doing albums this long. Despite KS, being ok at his role as producer, I’d really be interested to see what say an Andy Sneap or someone else could do with them. Provided there’s a next time, which in all truth is a little up in the air, but doesn’t look all that impossible… So, grab your Katanas and go all Samurai over this!