Thursday 23 September 2021

ALBUM REVIEW: Iron Maiden, "Senjutsu"

By: Richard Maw
Album Type: Full Length
Date Released: 03/09/2021
Label: Parlophone | BMG

“Senjutsu” CD//DD//LP track listing:
1. Senjutsu (8:20)
2. Stratego (4:59)
3. The Writing On The Wall (6:13)
4. Lost In A Lost World (9:31)
5. Days Of Future Past (4:03)
6. The Time Machine (7:09)
7. Darkest Hour (7:20)
8. Death Of The Celts (10:20)
9. The Parchment (12:39)
10. Hell On Earth (11:19)
The Review:
Iron Maiden are back. Five years after the excellent “Book of Souls”, Forty One Years after-up their debut. The six man line-up are still together and still alive. A new Maiden album is nothing less than an EVENT. Metallica have long since descended into pretentiously arty territory, with designer clothes, mainstream acceptance (after they courted it) and an overwhelming air of disconnection from their roots. Meanwhile, Maiden continue to plough their unique furrow. As can be stated by all Maiden fans, their career follows distinctive arcs and phases- essentially in ten-year cycles.
As I have stated before, I believe that they are the greatest metal band ever. Greater even than Priest. Greater even than, gasp, Sabbath. Sabbath are just as close to my heart as Maiden, but their lack of line up stability meant that they were literally several bands across their existence. Maiden have had changes in personnel, but crucially, the main players have always been there- mostly. Maiden are a British institution and their logo, art, sound and style are IMMEDIATELY recognisable. I love them, but that won't stop a fair review being given here.
First off, let's get it out of the way: this is not a return to Powerslave”/”NOTB”/”Killers” immediacy and adrenaline fuelled metal. Instead, this is another latter-day Maiden album- lengthy, epic, maudlin in parts and dark. Very dark. In fact, its closest discography companions are “A Matter of Life and Death” and “The X Factor”. Please read on...
“Senjutsu” is long- 82 minutes long; so about ten minutes shorter than “BOS”. It is only ten tracks. That alone should tell you that you are not getting a re-tread of the debut. The band here are to be found on introspective and heavy form. In fact, some of the music here is amongst the heaviest they have ever done.
The title track opens things up- menacing and huge tom hits from McBrain kick this off. The track then builds steadily in 6:8 time with strong performances and a great atmosphere, evocative of that magnificent cover art. Maiden Japan, indeed. Advance track “Stratego” follows with a relatively short and direct approach- classic Maiden gallop with good lyrics and melody. A winner. Once again, Janick Gers proves himself to be the band's most metal writer (see also “Be Quick or Be Dead”, “Montsegur” etc.).
The other advance single follows, which is the excellent “Writing on the Wall”. It's a great, bluesy- almost southern fried- track with a wonderful loping groove and strong vocal performance. The riffs and melodies are great. The solos shine. Ah yes, the solos. They are, as ever, a strong point for the band and strong point of the album. Truly, each guitarist has his own style and some of the work on this record is amongst their best.
It is at this point that the album is really starting to shape up into a possible all time classic- or at the very least a later period classic. A moody acoustic intro kicks off “Lost In A Lost World” and for the first time, perhaps, the band really state their intentions on this record; it's a nine and a half minute track. It's moody, morose and in no way concise. In fact, the atmosphere is not at all dissimilar to the depressing and divorce fuelled vibe of “The X Factor”; a maligned but misunderstood album. With hindsight, “TXF” can be viewed for what it was: a transitional record that marked the end of Old Maiden and the start of new- or latter day- Maiden. The Blaze Bayley fronted record was much better than people gave it credit for and “Senjutsu” may just inspire a re-appraisal as it is a close cousin to this work.
“Lost in A lost World” may be epic in length and breadth, and the rhythms (of the beast) may be unusual, but it does not take off. The guitar interplay is good- reminiscent of “Afraid to Shoot Strangers”, as are the solos but... It does nothing that we have not heard before. It is very much a later-period- Maiden-by-numbers track, complete with lengthy quiet outro. Fortunately, “Days of Future Past” is a Smith/Dickinson banger with riffs, pace and bite. It's the shortest track on the record and it fairly races by. It's a solid album track and one that would be totally in place on any of the band's best works.
Next up for discussion: the production. I've read some chat online about fans not liking the mix, not liking the tones, not liking, well, anything about it. I'm not amongst them. Listening on vinyl, listening on CD, listening on MP3 through my headphones now- it sounds fine to me. In fact, it sounds like a band. Playing in a room. It does not sound like a computer. The drums are real drums. The vocals are belted out. The guitars are not overbearing and nor is the bass. I can hear everything fine as far as I can tell. It sounds like, again, latter day Maiden. I'd rather hear a band than a computer. I'd rather hear imperfection than the opposite. Hey, people love Manilla Road- me included- and their somewhat, er, unpredictable productions were part of the charm. “Senjutsu” sounds massive to me. And surely that was the aim?
The first half of the album finishes with the impressive “The Time Machine”. This is epic Maiden done right. Good hooks, hints of sci fi, Bruce going to the top of his range. One production note I will make is the use of synths. They are here. They are all over the album. Piercing, shrill keyboards. Their necessity? I'm not sure. Some colour is fine- “Seventh Son…” proved that, as have most recent albums. However, if they need to be as omni-present as they are, is another question. It doesn't take anything away, really- but nor does it add much. That said, there are some great changes on “The Time Machine” and it is a strong way to round off the first half of the record- Maiden trademarks are in full effect.
“Darkest Hour” starts off the second half in a rather downbeat way. Telling the tale of Churchill's lone stand against the monstrous Hitler regime in 1940, it chooses an imperfect historical figure and a supremely dark subject- as the title suggests. Effectively, it's a ballad based around a supremely Maiden theme: doing the right thing, no matter what the cost. It's an allegory of their own career, really; pressing on no matter what, going against the grain, following their own beliefs even if at tremendous risk. It's a good song- but adrenaline junkies should look elsewhere.
“Death of the Celts” follows and pushes us into absolutely familiar Steve Harris territory. Historical epic, ten minutes of music, quiet intro, dark atmosphere: it is all here. It is, I suppose, a distant cousin or descendant of “The Clansman” (again, a Blaze era track). It's quite magnificent, really. It is everything that Maiden do well in this vein- once again in 6:8 time signature. There is a quintessential Maiden middle section- complete with a Thin Lizzy esque (circa Black Rose) solo passage. The tempo stays up until the inevitable quiet outro- with Dickinson sounding a little strained to my ears.
If one were to look at the track list at this point, it would be realised that this is in fact the first of THREE Harris penned tracks that exceed ten minutes- “Death of the Celts” is actually the shortest (!) of them. It certainly shows confidence. “The Parchment” is the second of these epics and has a signature Harris bass intro that builds to a grim and foreboding riff- which is great. We get a guitar echoing the vocal melody as a counterpoint to the main riff (standard at this point) and a rather atmospheric tale told by Dickinson's grandiose vocals. It's fairly classic Maiden on all levels. The tempo shift comes only for the last two and a half minutes- meaning that there is close to ten minutes of single paced- albeit superbly realised- riffage. Again, there is a quiet outro- but it is mercifully shorter than others on the album.
The final statement here is “Hell On Earth”. Again, there is a quiet mood setting intro that stretches to over two minutes, but when the band kicks in it's upbeat and McBrain's single kick work is to the fore. This is Maiden, circa 2021. They may have lost a lot of the speed- but the recognisable parts of their sound are all present and correct. The song makes good use of dynamics and changes without repeating the acceleration towards the end that the band often pull out the bag. It's an epic closer to what can only be described as an epic album.
How can all this be summed up?! Well, firstly this is an album of depth and will require repeated listens and some time to fully wrap your head around. I think its merits and flaws will only be revealed in that way- you'll get out what you put in. It's long. I'd say too long. Kevin Shirley or the band themselves must step in at some point and start editing. It seems churlish to complain about getting more music, but it would be more than feasible to lose a couple of minutes (at least) off the majority of tracks here. I don't think the character of the album would be changed by it, either. It is certainly dark, moody, sombre and sprawling- and songs of eight minutes can be described in that way just as easily as songs of eleven minutes,
It doesn't have the immediacy of the up-tempo tracks on “Book of Souls” or “Brave New World”. It has more excitement than “AMOLAD”, but less than “Dance of Death” (which was uneven but when it put the pedal to the metal...). It is very ambitious and works as an album- it is not just a collection of songs. It is a dark sibling to “The Final Frontier”, perhaps or the grown up version of “The X Factor”- an album which I listened to directly after “Senjutsu” and suddenly... it all made sense.
To compare this to “Piece of Mind” or “Powerslave” would be impossible. This is firmly Maiden from 1995, or 2000, onwards. It's huge and crushing and, dare I say it, quite brilliant. It's a listening experience and one not to be missed by any fan of the band. I'm just so pleased they are still around and still making music- ambitious and challenging music at that. I like all but one of the songs on here- an impressive tally. The return of the kings. Kneel, you dogs.
Five years ago I committed to a ranking of all Maiden albums. Today, I do the same- having not reviewed my list from half a decade ago. To be clear, I view all of these albums as at least worthy of your time; even the worst is better than what most bands can even get close to. I recall I failed to pick a top spot back last time out. Right now, I feel that fortune favours the brave so...
1). Killers
2). Seventh Son of A Seventh Son
3). Powerslave
4). Somewhere In Time
5). ron Maiden
6). Piece of Mind
7). Number of the Beast
8). Book of Souls
9). Brave New World
10). Fear of the Dark *(special nostalgic placing!)
11. The X Factor
12). Dance of Death
13). The Final Frontier
14). A Matter of Life and Death
15). No Prayer For The Dying
16). Virtual XI
And “Senjutsu”?! Somewhere around the number 10 spot, I think. Time will tell. Objectively, it is a better album than “Fear of the Dark” (which was both more and less of the same) but “FOTD” was my first Maiden record and I'll always love it for that. For further clarity, I've split the placements into brackets of albums- they are essentially on equal footing with others in the bracket. Only the last two listed albums come across as undercooked. Even if “The Clansman” and “Futureal” are amongst the band's great songs.
“Senjutsu” is available HERE

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