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.
15. The Final Frontier (2010)
The Essence of the Beast: The rumor mills started churning soon after Iron Maiden announced the name of their 15th studio album: It was going to be the band’s last stand. Every detail pointed in that direction. It was called The Final Frontier and was packed solid with over 76 minutes of music. If Maiden was going to go out, they seemed to have every intention of doing so in a blaze of glory.
The reality was a little less dramatic. The finished album is a fascinating mess made up of some strong material surrounded by a ton of meandering arrangements, padded-out interludes, and some of the most pinched production in the group’s catalog.
The highs on Frontier are still fairly dizzying for a band that had been together for 35 years by that point. “Coming Home” and “The Alchemist” tear out of the gate with force and dynamism, and the epic closer “When the Wild Wind Blows” manages to not waste a single one of its 11 minutes. Elsewhere, though, Maiden settles into their modern formula of long quiet intros leading into heavy rockers and somewhat stodgy lyrics reflecting on Celtic myths, the plight of kings, and other leather-bound folderol. This is the product of a band at cruising altitude and taking no chances.
Hallowed Be Thy Tune: “The Alchemist” remains one of the more perfectly balanced songs in Maiden’s latter-day catalog. The music sets off on a steady gallop, set with swinging intention by McBrain and Harris, that gives the three guitarists plenty of room to harmonize and explode. It’s the perfect backdrop for Dickinson’s florid ode to John Dee, a 13th century mathematician and astronomer who also dabbled in sorcery and apparently tried to communicate with angels.
Wasted Minutes: The candlelight opening moments — an acoustic guitar melody and Dickinson’s folksy croon — should be enough to ward you off of “The Talisman.” But from that extended intro, the band cranks out a by-the-numbers prog-metal endurance test all about the plight of Old World refugees seeking a better life on other shores. The intentions of songwriters Harris and Gers are good, but they get lost in the sea shanty lyrics and musical dramatics. — Robert Ham
Pick up The Final Frontier here.
14. No Prayer for the Dying (1990)
The Essence of the Beast: For most bands, a record like No Prayer for the Dying would be considered a solid effort. But that’s the problem with creating genre-defining classic albums — when you misstep, it’s blatant.
No Prayer was a glaring downgrade from Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. The clunky arrangements and corner-cutting production choices are perhaps more indicative of the somewhat faceless era of heavy metal that was 1990, but other exterior circumstances could have also influenced the creative process. At the time, Dickinson was working on his debut solo album, Tattooed Millionaire; Smith was replaced by Gers. One can assume some distractions naturally crept in, and after the amazing string of albums in the 1980s, some writer’s block or burnout wouldn’t be out of the question.
Hallowed Be Thy Tune: Opening track “Tailgunner” actually offers a bit of hope at the beginning of the album, kicking off like the bastard sequel to “Aces High.” Dickinson loves those aerial military combat stories, and he again conjures that imagery against the songs stadium chords and generally upbeat, melodic riffing.
Wasted Minutes: The bar band riffs and cowbell hits that open “Hooks in You” should be a fair warning for the clunker to come. True enough, there are no hooks here, only some forced gravely vocals from Bruce and a lackluster hard-rock pose. There’s a reason they haven’t played it since the 1991 tour. — Jon Hadusek
Pick up No Prayer for the Dying here.
13. Dance of Death (2003)
The Essence of the Beast: Even hardcore Maiden fans seem to skip this late-period gem, maybe because it follows Dickinson’s triumphant re-emergence on Brave New World but also because of its truly godawful cover art. Apocryphally, cover artist David Patchett presented the band with a digital mockup, which the band then ran with. Patchett later asked to have his name removed from the PS1-era rendering of Eddie in an Eyes Wide Shut-type sex party, and who can blame him?
The music, though, is great, taking the moody prog-iness of its predecessor and adding a little more up-tempo oomph as well as a few never-to-be-repeated experiments — Nicko McBrain’s first and last songwriting credit on “New Frontier” and the band’s only acoustic song, “The Journeyman.” Those experiments have a way of weighing the record down — at 68 minutes, it’s a far cry from the brisk workouts of their ’80s heyday.
The big wins here are the fastballs, though: “Wildest Dreams” and “Rainmaker” are each muscular singles, and “Monstégur” is a hidden gem. The only song to achieve any longevity, though, is the central epic, “Paschendale.” In retrospect, it’s the blueprint for most great Maiden songs that followed. Brave New World might have been their return-to-form, but Dance of Death is the victory lap that the band has been running on since.
Hallowed Be Thy Tune: Common knowledge would say this honor goes to “Pashendale,” but real heads know “Monstégur” is where it’s at. Gers’ sole writing credit (alongside Harris and Dickinson) on Dance of Death is a nearly six-minute mosher retelling of a climactic siege in the Albigensian crusade. Dickinson’s chorus is a tad repetitive but his performance overall sounds energized, particularly in the curveball key-change at the end. Maiden’s never played it live and likely never will — but they should.
Wasted Minutes: “The Journeyman” isn’t so much a bad song as it is an outlier. The sole all-acoustic song in Maiden’s discography, it makes a poetic end for one of the band’s darker records, but it also comes after an hour of more energetic fare, including two eight-plus minute epics. After all that, one would be forgiven for giving this entertaining diversion a skip. — Joseph Schafer
Pick up Dance of Death here.
12. A Matter of Life and Death (2006)
The Essence of the Beast: On A Matter of Life and Death, the group’s shift toward more explicitly progressive metal from the beginning of the Blaze Bayley period reaches a fitting smoothness. At the time it came out, this was a contentious release, but the sophistication of these compositions and the mid-tempo majesty that marks later Iron Maiden feel perhaps their most at home here.
Dance of Death may have been an uneven attempt to capitalize on Brave New World‘s innovations to their late-era prog metal style, but this is where the group finally nailed it, producing the platform that has seen them through for 15 years now. Lengthy track times are back, with only two tracks hovering around the five-minute mark. They showcase a group that was willing to be innovative and adventurous, even late into their years, but without succumbing to an indulgent lack of editorial insight.
Still, the tendency toward seemingly padding out runtimes with lengthy repetitions that began in earnest in the Bayley era returns here, admittedly balanced in a less meditative manner than the superior Brave New World.
Hallowed Be Thy Tune: This is an LP that benefits from the album-oriented structuralism of this era best of all, with “The Legacy” feeling less like a single epic and more the pitched and feverish culmination of the past hour. Maiden throws the kitchen sink at you, something they’d do increasingly often in this era, but here it works, feeling like a passionate eruption rather than a clutter.
Wasted Minutes: Unlike many of the weakest tracks of this era, “Out of the Shadows” is not a bad song but instead simply one that’s shambolic compared to the majestic company it keeps. There is an attempt at a Who-style acoustic/electric hybrid section that just doesn’t work, leaving a track that disrupts the flow of an otherwise stellar record. — Langdon Hickman
Pick up A Matter of Life and Death here.
11. The Book of Souls (2015)
The Essence of the Beast: Every album that Iron Maiden has recorded since Dickinson’s return has been marked with a sense of urgency. A desire to get as much music out of their collective system, knowing all too well that their time on this planet is finite. Nowhere does that feeling pervade more than on the group’s 16th full-length, The Book of Souls.
The specter of death hovers over every track here, either in metaphorical form as with Dickinson retelling of the 1930 crash of a British airship on “Empire of the Clouds” or more directly on the fist-pumping “Tears of a Clown,” a song inspired by the suicide of comedian Robin Williams.
The album is ultimately undone by another aspect of getting older: the tossing aside of any internal anxieties or filters. With no worries about sales numbers or chart placements, they could dare to let fattier, less fleshed out material hang out across each of Souls’ two CDs. What could have been a lean, if lengthy album instead loses its momentum, wandering into the conceptual weeds on occasion. The flabbiness didn’t ward off their fans, however, as Souls hit No. 1 in the band’s native UK and several other countries, and landed at No. 4 on the Billboard 200.
Hallowed Be Thy Tune: Even with its downcast subject matter, “Tears of A Clown” rockets out of Souls’ lengthy running time. Written by Harris and Smith, the song wonders aloud about Williams’ seemingly positive public image with the sadness and depression that apparently roiled within him. Though he didn’t write them, Dickinson gives the lyrics his all, anchoring the tune with a questioning growl and just the right touches of tenderness.
Wasted Minutes: Dickinson’s performance on “The Man of Sorrows” is a bit shaky, and the song’s sparse production and lurching progression do him no favors. Generally, when Maiden open with a gentle, nearly a cappella intro, it promises a sweeping arrangement of dynamic peaks and valleys. But this song never seems to snap together, lurching forward with clunky riffs and ultimately failing to deliver the intended emotion of “sorrow.” Instead, we’re left with The Book of Souls’ most boring chapter. — Robert Ham and Jon Hadusek
Pick up The Book of Souls here.
10. Fear of the Dark (1992)
The Essence of the Beast: Fear of the Dark would be the last Maiden LP to feature Bruce Dickinson until 2000, as the singer went on to pursue a solo career. Although a marked improvement over the album before it, Fear of the Dark again suffers from meandering ideas and a general lack of consistency across its 58-minute runtime. That said, the highs here are very high, with opening tracks “Be Quick or Be Dead” and the legendary closing title track being among the band’s strongest compositions post-Seventh Son.
The title track has since become one of Maiden’s most popular songs and a concert staple. For many younger metalheads in the early 1990s, the song and album would be their introduction to the band. So, even if it’s not top-to-bottom perfection, Fear of the Dark gets major points for nostalgia. Its colorful comic-style illustrated artwork is also one of the last of its kind in the Maiden discography.
Hallowed Be Thy Tune: Easily one of the finest heavy metal songs of ’90s, “Fear of the Dark” taps into Iron Maiden’s strengths while maximizing the effects of a slower tempo. For a band that could go fast with the best of them, a doom-like atmosphere and crushing arrangement suit Dickinson’s theatrical delivery just as well. He hits some of his highest and longest sustained notes on the track, and his ability to replicate it live (listen to the jaw-dropping Best of the Beast live version) makes it a beloved standout during every Maiden concert.
Wasted Minutes: Much of the criticism laid on early ‘90s Maiden comes down to the overt hard-rock influences that seemed to creep into the songs. The band rarely made concessions toward popular music, but tracks like “The Apparition” sound suspiciously like the dead-on-arrival hard rock that was languishing on major labels after grunge exploded. There are far better examples of Iron Maiden flirting with this style of commercial arena metal on this LP and No Prayer for the Dying. — Jon Hadusek
Pick up Fear of the Dark here.
9. Senjutsu (2021)
The Essence of the Beast: A new Iron Maiden album is always a cause for celebration, and both the band and its fans made sure the rollout for 2021’s Senjutsu was one to remember.
Initially, fans were “invited” to “Belshazzar’s Feast,” a mysterious tease that eventually led to the epic animated music video for the lead single “The Writing on the Wall.” The video’s concept was conceived by Dickinson and executed during the wealth of downtime caused by the pandemic. The band followed the video with the proper album announcement for Senjutsu, unveiling the “Samurai Eddie” artwork.
The release campaign proved an overwhelming success, with the new album reaching No. 3 on the Billboard 200 — Maiden’s highest charting LP ever. It’s also their most musically diverse in years.
Perhaps writing and recording the album during the career-spanning “Legacy of the Beast Tour” in 2019 tapped into the creative portals of yore. Epic song structures, an increased keyboard presence, and inventive riffing (i.e. the Southern-rock licks on “Writing”) result in highly memorable arrangements and beguiling melodies from song to song. Overall, Senjutsu feels less safe, yet more exciting than The Book of Souls (if a bit less cohesive).
Hallowed Be Thy Tune: Iron Maiden have been known to save the best for last, and closing number “Hell on Earth” is absolutely the finest track on Senjutsu. It concludes the 82-minute opus with an atmospheric burner that builds from hypnotic guitar lines to galloping, ride-into-battle riffage. Of the four tracks that push nine-plus minutes on Senjutsu, this one is the most balanced and fulfilling on repeat listens.
Wasted Minutes: On the other hand, the longest track here, “The Parchment,” pushes 13 minutes and isn’t nearly as captivating. Stacking three 10-plus-minute epics at the end of the record is a power move only Iron Maiden and a handful of other bands can pull off. But it’s hard to not just queue “Hell on Earth” when you know there’s eight more minutes of “The Parchment” left to go. The verses are far too repetitive and a slog on the ears, despite some solid riffs. — Jon Hadusek
Pick up Senjutsu here.
8. Brave New World (2000)
The Essence of the Beast: The past 20 years of the band’s life and legacy would be radically different if not for this one. After the middling Bayley years, in which the band introduced many new ideas to their repertoire but struggled to integrate them successfully into their overall sound, Maiden added back not just iconic vocalist Bruce Dickinson, one of the very best of the genre, but also radically under-appreciated guitarist Adrian Smith, author of key elements of the group’s iconic sound.
Importantly, they did not relinquish Janick Gers, allowing the band full access to the instrumentalists carrying out those newer experiments but bolstered with the key greats that anchored their position in the ’80s as one of the greatest of all time.
The result is a record that not only stands toe-to-toe with any of their greats, here scraping just below the golden period but in others places reaching deep into the stratosphere of ranking, but also an album that critically and commercially relaunched the group, producing a lineup and sonic era that now has far eclipsed the relatively narrow window of their own golden age. It’s a revolutionary record, in retrospect the first of the luminous era of brilliant comeback records from bands of their period and one of the first to make us heavily reconsider our cynicism on those positions.
Hallowed Be Thy Tune: Quietly a tremendously difficult choice in this album-oriented era, “Blood Brothers” manages to barely squeak into the lead due to the combination of its intense passion, being a song about the recent passing of Harris’ father, as well as perhaps the greatest execution of Maiden’s deep desires to emulate the greats of ’70s progressive rock. Maiden is often exultant but rarely commands you to tears; “Blood Brothers” does both in fire, spirit, and passion.
Wasted Minutes: The very notion of the worst song on a record that is wall-to-wall solid is a befuddling one admittedly but, gun to my head, it’s “The Mercenary.” The reasons are mostly nagging issues; lots of repetition across its already short runtime, albeit of melodies both catching and powerful. The idea of this being the very worst is a testament to the incredible power of this album. — Langdon Hickman
Pick up Brave New World here.