On this Sabbath Sunday, we comely inhabitants of the Sleeping Village have been dipping our toes in the dangerous waters of 80’s era Black Sabbath. As one does. In the grand scheme, the general sentiment is that if it ain't Ozzy or Dio, it ain't Sabbath. While I personally tend to agree, we are talking about Iommi, the Rifflord Most High, and as such, there are certainly some diamonds in the rough. Case in point: 1983's Born Again, the blackest of the black sabbathian sheep.
Is it fair to say I'm disappointed that Born Again was Ian Gillian's only foray with the boys? My rational is that this one-off album, despite repeatedly getting the short end of the stick--often deservedly so--actually demonstrates a lot of unactualized promise.
In the early hours of dawn, a motley crew of marauders arrived unannounced at the Sleeping Village, swords and pillaging spirits raised high. After burning the church & slaughtering our swine, they demanded what they so desperately sought...our 5-star albums. “Give us your all-time favorites,” they roared, “so that we may judge your taste.” And so, to save our own lives, we complied, casting open the reliquary. Avert your eyes in the presence of perfection & cue the air raid siren: Ed the Head is up first.
Iron Maiden is one of the (very) few bands in my repertoire that has reached exalted perfection across the span of multiple albums. A Matter of Life and Death, their 14th album, is certainly the best of their efforts post-reunification. Recorded in-studio without mastering, this (and by “this,” I mean the pre-remaster edition) feels & sounds like the real deal. Blemishes are not plastered over, &, more importantly, Bruce’s voice is allowed the natural space to flow with an intimate dynamism. The choruses of tracks such as For the Greater Good of God display an energy and sincerity seldom found outside a live environment. The raw production plays directly into the hands of Maiden’s greatest assets, allowing flawless songwriting to shine. It’s like a found footage film--rough around the edges, but utterly immersive in an unadulterated way.
The album fires off with Different World, which is perhaps the most traditional Maiden track found within. The first side is largely this category: fired-up runaway train guitar & bass, with the trademark vocals soaring. Track length, as Maiden has proven in the past (Book of Souls notwithstanding, who dropped the ball on that one?) is not necessarily an Achilles heel. Look to both These Colours Don’t Run & Brighter than a Thousand Suns, the former of which has a riff that earworms with the best of them, & the latter, which has it all--trademark galloping riffage, sweet melody, & a Dickenson chorus for the ages. Easily one of my favorite Maiden tracks period, and with a band whose discography oozes single after quality single, that’s no small compliment.
Side B presents a slightly proggier approach, including highlights such as acoustically dependent closer The Legacy & the aforementioned For the Greater Good of God, with its refrain of godlike proportion. Again, individual song length, while significant, never appears an issue. The songwriting never allows for a stale moment, displaying a strong willingness when it comes to pushing a bridge or solo into a nontraditional direction.
Representing a sum greater than its (already remarkable) parts, A Matter of Life and Death is a conceptually cohesive whole. Tackling topics surrounding war, death, and religiosity, every song feels as though it plays in integral part in a nonlinear yet thematically bound story. It is this unity that sets albums above and beyond. Maiden, in true legend fashion, do not falter in this regard. While an admittedly divisive album among the fanbase, A Matter of Life and Death bares the soul of this particular villager’s ideal metal album--not a mere collection of songs, but rather a complete experience. This is what near-perfection looks like, marauders.
Written by a groggy-eyed, highfalutin peasantry