Iron Maiden is legendary, no one would dispute that (and if you would, kindly slap yourself). But like any band, they have an era that is often forgotten, dismissed, or simply deemed as bad. By 1993, Maiden wasn’t in the best of spots; their two most recent albums, No Prayer For The Dying and Fear Of The Dark, received more mixed to negative reception than their predecessors and Bruce Dickinson had left the band. So the band recruited Wolfsbane singer Blaze Bayley and put out two albums: The X Factor and Virtual XI. Most fans would probably put both of these albums at the bottom of the bin mostly due to Bayley vocals among other things. Today, I’ll be focusing on the The X Factor, which has a lot more to offer than fans give it credit for.
First thing is first: this is Iron Maiden’s darkest album, no doubt about it. That sets it apart right off the bat. Many of Maiden’s songs are known for their high energy and galloping basslines or sweeping epics, but this album tones it down a bit and goes for a more dark and depressing approach. That already sets it apart for fans expecting to hear the usual Maiden, but this isn’t a bad thing. Maiden has gone through many different changes in sound despite continuing to adhere to certain staples in songwriting: the Paul Di’Anno albums had more of a punk tinge and Somewhere In Time and Seventh Son of a Seventh Son were more experimental. In this case, The X Factor takes a darker turn that requires a few things to keep in mind so as to appreciate it fully. This includes the nature of the material and, of course, the participation of Blaze Bayley.
You can’t go into this album expecting high energy Maiden. Yes, we all love “Run To The Hills” and “The Trooper,” they’re classics. But this came out during a rough time for not only the band, but also chief songwriter and mastermind Steve Harris. In 1993, his wife of 16 years, Lorraine, divorced him and he later dealt with the death of his father. Put that together with the fact that his band (which is basically his life) was in dire straits and you can see why the album is so dark. Songs like “The Aftermath” are slow and pensive, debating whether it’s even worth it to keep fighting on in a seemingly hopeless situation. The lyrics do refer to a “war”, but if you don’t think that’s a metaphor, give it a listen and read the lyrics.
I mentioned that Maiden still manage to stick to certain songwriting troupes on this album despite the overall departure. The two songs that are still distinctly Maiden are “Sign of the Cross” and “Man on the Edge”. The latter is most obvious because it’s the most upbeat track on the album and arguably features some of Harris’ best bass work. The former is one of the best epics Maiden have ever penned. Dark, catchy guitar midway through, and, most importantly, it clocks in at over 11 minutes but doesn’t feel like a chore to listen to. In addition, these are two of three songs from The X Factor the band has played live since Bayley’s departure, the third being “Lord of the Flies”.
But of course, for many, it’s not just the nature of the material that makes them steer clear of this album; it’s Blaze Bayley. Bayley is not the operatic powerhouse Dickinson is, but that doesn’t make him bad. In fact, there’s something to be said for the fact that the band chose to go with a different type of singer instead of trying to find a one who would replicate Dickinon’s style. I’d go so far to say that while Bayley’s style is not what people associate with Maiden, Bayley was a great fit for the tone of The X Factor. His lower, rougher register brings out the depressing and tired emotions within the songs. This isn’t an album about big sing-alongs and spectacles, it’s about delving into the more grim corners of the mind, and Bayley’s voice helps brings those emotions out. In addition, Bayley is credited as a co-writer for five songs on the album, including the previously mentioned “Man on the Edge” “The Aftermath”, which is pretty good for a new singer with big shoes to fill. Nobody is going to call Bayley the signature voice of Maiden, but his work with the band is unfairly maligned.