Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we follow Iron Maiden’s legendary career, from their 1980 self-titled debut to their most recent effort, 2021’s Senjutsu.
For over 40 years, Iron Maiden have proven to be one of heavy metal’s most consistent and enduring institutions. They’ve come to define the genre, prolifically releasing albums and touring relentlessly. Their music is a world language, with the British band garnering dedicated audiences on practically every continent.
The Maiden fanbase can be obsessive to the point of zealotry, dissecting the nooks and crannies of every song and collecting the band’s T-shirts and records with fervor (the red Iron Maiden logo and their skeletal mascot, Eddie, remain timelessly metal). Better yet, the band feed the frenzy, continuing to serve the fans with new material and merchandise. If Maiden’s not making a record, they’re on tour. If they aren’t touring, they’re releasing a live album or filming epic music videos or documentaries. The Legacy of the Beast cannot be disputed, nor can the band’s intense work ethic.
Formed in 1975 by bassist Steve Harris, Iron Maiden’s first established lineup — featuring vocalist Paul Di’Anno and drummer Clive Burr — released their self-titled debut in 1980. The daring and aggressive album launched the band to the forefront of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) movement, alongside acts like Judas Priest, Diamond Head, and Angel Witch.
Maiden would follow that up with Killers in 1981 before Di’Anno was replaced by ex-Samson singer Bruce Dickinson, with Harris, Burr, and guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith rounding out the five piece. 1982’s The Number of the Beast introduced the epic songwriting and literary lyricism that would become the band’s trademark. It also provoked controversy with its hellish cover art, resulting in the cultural misconception that Iron Maiden and its fans were Satanists.
Drummer Nicko McBrain would replace Burr the same year The Number of the Beast was released, and more legendary albums would follow in the 1980s, as the band incorporated more progressive influences and dynamic production. Always savvy on the commercial end, Iron Maiden made to sure to cut a few widely heard singles (“The Trooper,” “Wasted Years”) for the casual headbanger while also delivering colossal full-length albums that play out with cinematic grandeur (Powerslave, Seventh Son of a Seventh Son).
Changes would affect the band beginning in 1990. Smith departed (to be replaced by Janick Gers) and Dickinson began a solo career, eventually exiting after 1992’s Fear of the Dark. British vocalist Blaze Bayley took over for two ill-fated LPs until Smith and Dickinson rejoined the group in 1999, unleashing the excellent comeback Brave New World in 2000. Gers remained alongside Murray and Smith, with the band now boasting a potent triple-guitar attack.
Since then, the band has released five more studio albums, the latest being 2021’s Senjutsu. It’s one of the most diverse Maiden records in years, often recalling the band’s ’80s material, and it got us thinking about the entire Iron Maiden discography. How do the albums measure up against one another? Take a trip through Maiden’s iconic discography below.
— Jon Hadusek
Senior Staff Writer
17. Virtual XI (1998)
The Essence of the Beast (Analysis): The ’90s found Iron Maiden flailing. The band’s popularity started to plateau, due in no small part to the departures of vocalist Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith, not to mention the rise of grunge and nü metal. Though the group soldiered on, it was with increased desperation, attempting to court fresh fans via a video game (1999’s Ed Hunter) and lashing out at critics in “Virus,” a song recorded for a best-of compilation.
Then there was Maiden’s creative nadir: 1998’s Virtual XI. Working once again with former Wolfsbane vocalist Blaze Bayley, the band cranked out a sluggish and uninspired batch of material weighed down by strained lyrical metaphors and arrangements that mistake repetition for complexity.
Those musical choices feel redolent of peak CD-era hubris — an irresponsible mindset that convinced many artists to pad out their albums with lesser tunes, and, in Maiden’s case, unnecessarily epic material. Here, the band let the underwhelming “The Angel and the Gambler” and “Don’t Look to the Eyes of a Stranger” drag on and on and on, with Bayley endlessly repeating lyrical phrases to no logical end. Not even the occasional spark of guitar fireworks (the dueling solos on “The Educated Fool” are particularly heated) can pull this album from the brink of oblivion.
Hallowed Be Thy Tune (Best Song): Inspired by Mel Gibson’s 1995 opus Braveheart, “The Clansman” is founding member Steve Harris’ ode to Scotland’s fight for independence in the late 13th century. It’s the kind of fist-pumping triumphal epic that Maiden can do so well, and actually benefits from Bayley’s rigid vocal bark. This tune has the dual honor of being one of the only Bayley-era songs to remain in the band’s setlists after Dickinson’s return and being sampled by megaproducer Timbaland for R&B artist Brandy’s 2004 album Afrodisiac.
Wasted Minutes (Worst Song): For the better part of nearly 10 minutes, “The Angel and the Gambler” sticks in a dull groove of power chords and strained lyrics about addiction and risk-taking. Leaden enough for the first few minutes, the song is completely submerged as Bayley spends an interminable amount of time repeating the chorus at various volume levels. It’s a drag on the senses and, as it is the second track on Virtual, a bad omen for the rest of the album. — Robert Ham
Pick up Virtual XI here.
16. The X Factor (1995)
The Essence of the Beast: Iron Maiden’s 10th studio album, appropriately titled The X Factor, introduced Bayley as the new frontman in place of Dickinson, who had left to pursue his solo career.
Bayley was a bit of an unknown, hailing from an underground UK street metal act called Wolfsbane. For all intents and purposes, he fit the Maiden mold, despite a courser bark to his voice.
But the ’90s were a strange time for classic metal bands, and Iron Maiden weren’t spared. The tides were shifting toward more industrial and groove metal styles, away from traditional metal production and songwriting. Meanwhile, the band were in a creative bind of trying to sound recognizably like Iron Maiden without too much rehash or prog meanderings. Lacking the charismatic familiarity of Bruce Dickinson’s voice, Bayley-era Maiden fell into an identity crisis of sorts. Suddenly, one of the most influential metal band’s in the world sounded… kinda generic.
Hallowed Be Thy Tune: The 11-minute opener “Sign of the Cross” might sound sluggish and drawn out on an immediate cursory listen, but repeat plays unveil the moody masterpiece that lies within. Bayley’s vocals are rough yet passionate, and the guitar playing has an almost doom-metal voicing at times. The track opens to more prog turnarounds and fast shredding on the back half, as the arrangement careens through various tempos and segments. A reimagined version with Dickinson on vocals highlighted the band’s Rock in Rio live album — a testament to the song’s longevity and compositional integrity.
Wasted Minutes: If you heard “2 A.M.” without knowing it, you might just think that’s Bruce singing. Here, the band attempt to replicate the classic Maiden sound, but in doing so, expose the faults specific to the X albums. The energy and performances don’t stand up to those of a decade prior, made more obvious by the redundancy of the song. — Jon Hadusek
Pick up The X Factor here.