Okay, I'm going to keep this brief. In my opinion Virtual XI is the worst Iron Maiden album so far. Unlike The X Factor I don't think its reputation can be saved by calling it a side-project for Steve Harris and his friends - this one is just not a great collection of material. Collectively it's the sound of five pairs of eyes being taken off the ball, to borrow a football metaphor - and why not, as of course Harris himself decided to here
But first, a matter of catching up. Iron Maiden haven't been idle since album number ten, having put out The Best of the Beast - my re-entry into their canon, as it were, and with it the non-album single Virus. Virus is Harris’ answer to critics of the band’s recent direction and despite a rather rough video is a pretty decent song for this era, recalling bits of Edge of Darkness and Metallica’s One in the intro. The main guitar again has the weird, thin overdub sound referred to in The X Factor, and it returns on Virtual XI, a number of songs from which sadly don’t meet the standard set by Virus or the album before it. Did Harry burn himself out with that one song, I wonder?
XI certainly starts reliably enough, with the pre X Factor quickfire opening track reinstated. Futureal is one of two songs here which survived the Bayley era for a while and still goes down well. It’s an energetic, spiralling song which doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s immediate successor does, however, and is probably the biggest, ugliest nail in the album’s coffin. The Angel and the Gambler is Iron Maiden doing a crowd opening stadium song, years after they perfected such tracks. The result is a plodding, hackneyed and overlong mess with a really really really repetitive filler trio of lines (‘don’t you think I’m a saviour, don’t you think I can save ya, don’t you think I can save your life” – around 21 times in succession). It’s simply too much, and its Superbowl keyboard stabs punctuating the verses kill any attempt at ‘rock’. Oh, its video references the sleeve for Stranger in a Strange Land, by the way. Dave Murray’s Lightning Strikes Twice is mostly good, with the main weaknesses being the verse to chorus leads in and a dated guitar rhythm. Plus the song is about… lightning striking. It’s not asking too much, but in the wake of outside criticism of a new lead singer I’d imagine that a reasonably decent composition like this with a gift of a song title could have had farther reaching lyrics to match – maybe, I dunno, thematically addressing the possibility that another great frontman for the band could be a possibility? Instead it, like Angel, is detached from the album at large – it’s the second filler song in a row. Things pick up with The Clansman, another ‘epic’ song based around the story of William Wallace, probably. Well, based on the recollections of someone who once saw Braveheart perhaps. There’s more lazy songwriting here with harks to ‘the land of the free’ and biscuit tin Highlands ‘they’re taking our land/that belongs to the clans’ – the sort of thing Irvine Welsh called ‘Jocksploitation’. It’s a shame, because Bayley clearly believes in the song and it served him well, as it did Janick Gers’ rather soulful into. Clansman is the second survivor of the album, and has probably aged better as a live song for it.
I’m coming down hard on the lyrics and composition of Virtual XI mainly, but I have to say I’m not impressed by the production either. The album was made using Pro Tools, and it has a shallowness to it that exacerbates the impression that for a lot of the songs there seems to be only one guitar really working. I’m not sure what’s going on, but Maiden’s signature twin guitars have fled the studio by this album, and the result means that these track in particular sound overlong and over linear. I mean absolutely no pretence or ambition in saying they sound like something I could have composed in my band days – and I was a rubbish composer. When Two Worlds Collide is a prime example – maybe the worst song on the album for boneheaded lyrics (it’s about an approaching asteroid, not a planet) and very straight structure that again does Bayley no favours. The Educated Fool is where Harris opens up a little more and has become a highlight for me. It’s still not great in all, but does have a variety in touch that makes you forget the songs before. Don’t Look To The Eyes of a Stranger is a Killers-era theme which could have been shorter and would have been better for it. At last, and the last song of Blaze’s days, is Como Etsais Amigo, co-written again with Gers and after nearly an hour’s inane plodding it serves to end the record on a dignified note. Initially about the Falklands War (though not actually about the war but the need for rebuilding friendship afterwards), I can’t hear it without imagining it as a fitting farewell to Bayley himself as frontman. Probably the best song on the album.
I don’t know much about Virtual XI’s creation, but I’m guessing it wasn’t good. The album was launched alongside a themed video game (never a good idea) Ed Hunter and images from that litter the booklet along with the aforementioned football shots and merchandise offers. We’re a long way away from the young chancers posing in the London Dungeons or in the sun-drenched Barbados. Distracted, tired, and maybe looking for an escape clause, I just don’t think Maiden were trying hard enough here, and it shows.
The Angel and the Gambler (4-minute version)
Lightning Strikes Twice (album version)
The Clansman (album version, bad fan art?)
When Two Worlds Collide (live , and better for being faster!)
The Educated Fool (live, Canada)
Don’t Look to the Eyes of a Stranger (album version)
Como Estais Amigo (album version)