When I first heard that Iron Maiden would continue to write and perform music after their newest album, the first feeling I experienced was of relief. Although it may sound trite, I confess my relief didn't really stem from the prospect of Iron Maiden continuing the make music, but from the implicit conclusion that their newest album, The Final Frontier, would not be their final album.
The reason why that was such an overwhelming feeling was because of the fact that Iron Maiden hold such an interesting position when it comes to professional musicianship. 2010 has already seen its fair share of final statements (Jack Rose, LCD Soundsystem, Daughters) and most of them were forcibly caused, as most are, by either a break-up or the death of a member. I am confident that Iron Maiden can continue to play music until they feel like stopping. They're just as dynamic as they were when they were half as young and still have the personally distinct honor of never releasing a bad song. If they're going to end that legacy on an album, I don't think it's unfair to expect a truly fantastic or at least excellent farewell in return.
If The Final Frontier was that last goodbye, it would not have met my criteria. Don't get me wrong; the album is pretty good. My qualm is that it sounds more like a transitional release than anything else. And no, I don't mean that just because the first song of The Final Frontier is some industrial reverb-swarthed crack at new wave. In fact, that little ditty is probably the album's weakest track (not bad enough to constitute as a "bad" song mind you). No, The Final Frontier sounds transitional, because we finally see Iron Maiden pull away from the homogenized sound that characterized the band's 2000's material, and move towards a different sound. That different sound is, essentially, that of Powerslave. The Final Frontier can be boiled down to this: The riffs of Powerslave with the song structures of the band's aughts material (Brave New World, Dance of Death, A Matter of Life and Death. Take your pick). "Coming Home" copies this blueprint, verbatim, the beginning flowing from a descending melodic twin guitar lead with a distinct bass presence into the slow and reliable metal trudging on the verses and chorus that wouldn't sound unfamiliar on A Matter of Life and Death. It sounds corny to say, but it may very well be possible that the time the band spent playing their old deep cuts on The Somewhere Back In Time Tour has dusted off a style that Maiden has sanded down for quite some time now.
I don't want anyone reading this to think that I view the aughts material of Maiden to be bad. A Matter of Life and Death was one of my favorite albums of 2006 and I see "Dance of Death" as right up there in quality with "The Number of the Beast" and "2 Minutes to Midnight". When I say "trudging" and "homogenized", I mean that they're less caustic and sporadic and more plodding and epic. It's literally dinosaur rock; moving slowly and irrevocably from release to release and concert to concert, and I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is when I hear that slow intro into that bombastically fast verse formula one too many times. "The Talisman" and "The Man Who Would Be King" are, overall, very good songs, but I would be lying to you if I said that I've not once skipped each respective song's first few minutes out of impatience.
Do I even have to tell you how the musicianship is? Steve Harris is unsurprisingly superb, even if, at times, he's too much Robert Trujillo and not enough... Steve Harris. Bruce Dickinson continues to shame singers less than half his age (Some have criticized the guy's performance on this album, accusing his vocal chords of waning, but the most technically fascinating part of the man's voice-- that he can make a squeaky high note sound organic-- continues to inspire awe. If I have one problem with his performance, it's not when he hits those high notes, it's when he double-tracks them on songs like "El Dorado", which just sounds like the brazen smoothing over of vocal kinks that I'm not sure exist). Ultimately, the guitar earns my highest praise, though. Kudos to the band for continuing to have the creative clout to house each guitar solo with a distinctly different groove from the melody and arrangement that preceded it. The breakdown in "The Talisman" isn't even a solo, but it's epic and insatiably clever. If you're interested in The Final Frontier to hear the band shred, A. You already own the album, and B. You're on the right track.
Otherwise, it would still have been a good decision. The Final Frontier won't earn the band many new fans (unless you count the kids and grandkids of current Iron Maiden fans), but it's a good stopgap in a career I hope will continue to expand and reward upon itself. A Matter of Life and Death might have been a better final piece, but, as their current live shows have shown, Iron Maiden don't see themselves as a peddler of more of the same.