Virtual XI: individual album judgement by yours truly

The Dissident

Ancient Mariner
Futureal - 8.5/10
The Angel And The Gambler - 7.5/10
Lightning Strikes Twice - 8/10
The Clansman - 10/10
When Two Worlds Collide - 8/10
The Educated Fool - 6.5/10
Don't Look To The Eyes Of A Stranger - 6.5/10
Como Estais Amigos - 8.5/10

Overall 80%
 

Arturo_J

Prowler
Futureal - 7
The Angel and the Gambler - 5
Lightning Strikes Twice - 7
The Clansman - 8
When Two Worlds Collide - 7
The Educated Fool - 6
Don't Look to the Eyes of A Stranger - 4
Como Estais Amigos - 7
 

Randalf

Ancient Mariner
Revenge is living in the past
Time to look into a new millennium


But not quite yet, as the end of the 1990's - and 1900 overall - has one more Iron Maiden album to be reviewed.

Virtual XI. The gloominess of The X-Factor has stepped aside, as the attempt at more melodic, "happy" and energized sounding record is one of the most audible traits of the era. There are few instances where everything actually works, but for most of the time. the attempt ends up being just that - and not really succeeding in any other area either, since the album and the era has a handful of... eh, believability issues, even completely outside the music itself. But more of that later... Because funny enough, a bit like No Prayer for the Dying for example, Virtual XI is also one of those records that have interesting and intriguing framework going on, but just fail at execution. And this time... rather terribly.

Perhaps?

Well, song-by-song first and some general thoughts and whatnot after that.

Futureal
Futureal is far from being typical song from that era, but it's also a brilliant epitome of the more positive traits of the record: it's melodic, it has some nice if not terribly clever lyrics and it's one of the more successful songs at using the guitar sound - that is beefed up with keyboards here - of the album to a good effect. Clocking just under three minutes, there is also nothing that shouldn't be there and unlike pretty much every other song here, it repeats nothing to death. If we look at this song as a direct continuation from the writing sessions of the previous albums, it can't be overlooked that Blaze Bayley once again has a writing credit in one of the more fresh and energetic pieces. Then again, I've understood that he mainly produced the lyrics, but in any case, I think Blaze's writing input on these records provided more than just solid outcomes. Anyway, there is not much if anything to complain. It's a good-old-classic-melodic-Maiden-opener. The production has a part to play at the lack of edge and sharpness in all of the Virtual XI songs, but Futureal is not quite as aggressive and outrageous opener as Aces High or Be Quick or be Dead in the first place, nor does it have the huge, dramatic nature of the album openers like Caught Somewhere in Time, Moonchild or Sign of the Cross, but... it's good! It sits comfortably in the "tailgunner" locker, being a good opener and somewhat of a "semi-classic" of it's representative era and a great live song. Not quite on par with the biggest gems of the same song category, but it has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of when beside them either. Sometimes good enough is good enough. 8/10

The Angel and the Gambler

Ohhhhh boy.

Well this is actually a perfect introduction to the biggest problem of this album: complete lack of quality control, self-criticism and the sense of proportionality.

There are few good ideas that I quite enjoy! The verses and the general narrative works fine, the attempt at 70's rock 'n roll type of things on the arrangement is ok even if it doesn't really work out too well and the instrumental parts and solos itself aren't really bad at all, but the structural mess makes them quite unmemorable in Maiden-standards.

But then... the chorus repeat. It serves, to an extent, some narratival purpose - although not quite as self-explanatorily as the case is with Don't Look to the Eyes of a Stranger a few tracks later - but it falls terribly flat, since there is no progress in anything towards the end. Save a few guitar solo patterns going on here and there, the tenth repeat sounds basically the same as the first one. Which, of course, isn't necessarily a problem when we're talking about a chorus, but it's quite funny how the song has this calm middle-section, where the chorus starts re-building and in the end, the build up doesn't feel like it leads anywhere. The build-up itself is much more exciting than what awaits in the end. The verses are pretty good, but the last - and mind you, very extensive - bunch of choruses isn't very rewarding. The song climaxes several minutes before it ends and offers basically nothing new after the neat-enough build-up in the middle; that's - arguably - an issue with a song that is clocking near 10 minutes.

I'm not doing this very well now, but I guess you get the point. I don't hate the song and I do quite enjoy many things in it. But the way pieces are put together, starting with far too stiff arrangement and monotonous vocal approach, not to even mention serious lack of any edge in it, there's no way this song can carry itself for almost ten minutes. Blaze Bayley has recently embraced this song in his live sets and those arrangements underline the rock'n roll aspect of it. There's power in it, but it's not taken too seriously. And the kinda interesting lyrics are given more nature. Whether it's just Steve's approach, Blaze's flat delivery or production, the album version lacks all of that.

In a way, at it's best, this song could have been a more refined "Sanctuary" of the late 90's. Regardless what it could, would or should have been if this or that was done differently, it's obvious that despite few interesting qualities, it's far from being musically ingenious. And for a song of such position - and especially for a lead single - diminishing it's strongest qualities through production and structure while gloriously highlighting the biggest pitfalls through the most monotonous chorus repeat of the discography, isn't exactly how a first single should work.

Hard to score, for the good things would kinda justificate and ok-scoring, but there's just so many things dragging it down... Oh well, 5?

Lightning Strikes Twice
Dave didn't have any writing credits on The X-Factor, but now he's back in the business! And with quite good results, I'd say, for Lightning Strikes Twice does indeed have typical melancholic bluesy Dave-melodies! The "plastic" guitar sound manages to muffle -an reoccurring issue on this album - some of the sharpness and heaviness off, not to even mention rather unimaginative drum fills. But all things considered, I think it's one of the more musically interesting pieces on the record - especially the instrumental section after the first chorus is very neat and overall, it's rather pleasant song to listen, even though Blaze doesn't make the chorus work too well, but other than that, his delivery is ok. Some more development (maybe vocal harmonies to chorus or something) might have improved the overall package, but nonetheless, I consider this one as good one. 7, maybe?

The Clansman
While Futureal is definitely a quality song and a "semi-classic", it is The Clansman that is often seen as one of the redeeming songs from the 90's - probably due to it's presence in the setlists over the 1998-2003 period. Being a very powerful live song, it's return in 2018 was definitely a glorious one. The original album recording still holds up, but it does lack a few things that (for me) make the song really come alive: the theatrical, aggressive vocal delivery and intense performance. The album version nails the atmospheric intro very well, but Virtual XI is definitely showing it's trait at "failing sonically" here: such an epic song and yes, it DOES work, but basically every single live recording makes it sound at least times as intense and powerful. As for Blaze, he does good job here and I appreciate this studio recording a lot more than back in the day when I first heard Rock in Rio version and then, when listening to the album version, the conrast was... huge. And it still is, but the album version does appeal to me a bit more now. Granted, it makes differences between Bruce's and Blaze's input to this kind of songs very poignant. Anyway, The Clansman is a great one, but like a few tunes on the previous record, it does not quite soar as a song of it's nature should. Still, very good! 8,5

When Two Worlds Collide

One of my favourites about... 11 or 10 years ago, and I still quite like this one! Dave Murray strikes once again and Blaze's(?) lyrics take us to the sci-fi world he later discovers further on his solo stuff. And while cheesy, the whole thing works pretty ok! As far as songwriting on this album goes, it does have a lot of pitfalls, some poor decisions and you can tell a more dominant producer might have helped, but at least in this case I think they managed very well. In my opinion though, the song goes for a bit too long, as the end with Blaze shouting "WHEN TWO WORLDS COLLIDEEEEEE THE ANGER THE PAINNN" doesn't really add much to it, where as the "woo-oo" chant works very well and in a way, provide a nice climax to the song along with some great guitar parts. So yeah, while the closure isn't the best, I think it's a solid effort anyway. 7

The Educated Fool

Now this is a tricky one...

In many ways, it's one of the most overlooked and intriguing songs on this album, with very personal lyrics by Steve and some great melodies. I like the first verses and how they grow one after another towards the chorus a lot and the choruses aren't bad either, but I don't find them very climatic either. The "TIME WILL FLOW..." part is cool, but suffers from the general lack of intensity and dynamic on the production side of things. The Educated Fool should sound a bit heavier, darker and deeper, but it doesn't quite find any of that. Still, it's a good effort writing-wise, but it can't quite avoid the typical VXI pitfalls. I can't quite decide if it's closer to being 6, 7 or 7.5 than 6.5, but there you go... Despite consisting of many great elements and ideas, it doesn't quite succeed at executing it's potential the same way Blood Brothers - or Fortunes of War or Judgement of Heaven from the previous record - eventually did. Still, I think it's fairly good, just hindered and compromised here and there.

Don't Look to the Eyes of a Stranger
The infamous chorus repeat part II! But this time it serves a bit more relevant purpose in the narrative. I really like the intro motif and the main melody and the more or less "spooky" atmosphere. The vocal lines are cool and there's bit of an attempt to Fear of the Dark type explosion when the verses start, but they've never been the biggest appeal of the song for me. Once again, the lackluster production with "plastic guitar sound" along with general lack of "edge" and excitement does make it much less intense than it was probably intended to be, but in a way, I might even call this one one of my favourites from the record, as it's definitely a bit different, even if the final execution does not quite carry all the way to the end. A complete re-arrangement would do miracles, but it's just another "couldwouldshould" thing... 6 - I kinda like it though!

Como Estais Amigos
Very sentimental, but definitely beautiful lyrics by Blaze. Neat melodies. Strong chorus. A very tasteful guitar solo - I really like what Janick was doing during those days. Altogether, it's a very powerful track and leaves a good taste as a closer. It suffers from the same problems as the rest of the album: while being on the better, more creative side of songwriting on this record, it's not exactly too powerful sounding, as the production and the overall performance does fall a bit flat. Still, it's one of the more dynamic performances on this record and after various songs that feel more or less stretched, repetitive and recycling same bits and pieces a bit too far, Como Estais Amigos is refreshingly "light" - it's not too busy nor repetitive and has a beautiful musical and lyrical narrative that concludes very satisfyingly.

In other words, it's a very beautiful, evoking song and one of Blaze's better and most comfortable vocal performances.

There's not much more to it, really... I mean, it's not another infinitedreamsrevelations and it might not quite tackle Afraid to Shoot Strangers either, but as it is, it's a very nice song that breathes a lot of life to this album. 8

Virtual XI. As the scoring suggests, it's far from being total garbage, but for record consisting of eight songs, very melodic songwriting approach and attempt at a brighter, more energetic sound it's disappointingly lifeless, which is far worse than just being mediocre. I don't think any of the songs are "bad" the way some other really lackluster attempts have been, say Weekend Warrior for example. While Steve takes a step into very repetitive ground with chord progressions, he does present some glorious melodies and there is a lot more to dig out from song concepts like Donn't Look to the Eyes of a Stranger and The Educated Fool that they eventually do. And of course, The Clansman has definitely deserved it's "semi-classic" status as a huge live anthem. While not quite as instrumentally ingenious as Alexander the Great for example, it's really a worthy addition to the company of "Maiden epics." In the end, it's the lack of quality control and willingness to step outside what's comfortable what kills a lot of the record, but then again, those are just the elements that a few years took Iron Maiden back at the top: the persistent nature of doing things their way.

Blaze Bayley does well enough here, but his performance on this record - for most of the time anyway - does not really provide that dynamic edge that a vocal performance in a Maiden song arguably should have. He's more on to the top of things than on his debut Maiden record, but the overall sound approach does play with his strengths and best fit elements quite as well as the (more or less deliberate) dark and gloomy world of The X-Factor. Blaze's vocal presence is much bigger on this record, as he's much more audible and while that's a good thing itself, it also underlines the main problem: Blaze is not to blame for the issues of Virtual XI, nor is he actually a huge part of the initial problems with the music quality either, but despite providing some great writing input, he does not quite manage to elevate things at all. Simply put, he's an ok fit for the songs and co-wrote many great ones, but he's not really a force enough. Obviously it's not his fault, but more of a indicator that the band lacked some "inner challenge" from characters like Bruce (and Adrian). That being said, given how two significant songwriters left the band on the first part of the decade, Blaze did quite well filling one of those particular boots - even if rest of the shoe selection was absolutely impossible to make fit for his foot.

The album artwork is, in my opinion, pretty neat, save the football game... And the visual side of those days has some kinda cool potential, but relying on (even then) clumsy CGI and Ed-Hunter graphics basically shot that kinda fun idea down. It's like they had a strong visual side of things in mind, a bit like SiT era, but didn't know what to do and how.

Virtual XI is a step into more traditional, melodic and bright soundscape of their late 80's heyday - and not very successful at that. Failing to find the spark, intensity and energy of the earlier days or properly and boldly enough continue the darker, more progressive narrative of The X-Factor (and Seventh Son before that, even though two more straightforward records sit in between) Virtual XI ends up being almost impressively dragging and repetitive for a record of just eight songs. All of the songs have some good ideas - some more than the others - and there a couple of true gems, but the overall package would have needed a rethink or two and a huge shake in the production department to really make it work. It's not entirely bad album - just rather lifeless one, despite many intriguing and impressive individual elements thorough the record.

7

... surprisingly high.

Iron Maiden: 8
Killers:
around 7.5
The Number of the Beast:
around 8
Piece of Mind:
around 9 or even above?
Powerslave: Another 9, maybe
Somewhere in Time: 9 (A BLASPHEMY?)
Seventh Son of a Seventh Son: 10
No Prayer for the Dying: 6.5
Fear of the Dark: 6.5
The X-Factor: 7
(I honestly think it should have a bigger margin from the previous two though...)
 

Diesel 11

As you scream into the web of silence...
It’s funny that the band was trying to go for a lighter album than TXF, because you me the result is probably their bleakest album. And that’s not a negative because I really really like it, it’s just interesting.
 

karljant

Ancient Mariner
IRON MAIDEN - VIRTUAL XI (2020 re-listening)

1- Futureal:
Maiden's 11th album starts with a brief, action packed classic fast metal tune. The initial harmony is really infectious and the song as a whole has somewhat of a late Killing Machine/ British Steel Priest era flavor to it but utterly "Maidenized". While being way less brooding than The X Factor stuff, it's also more obvious but nonetheless almost everything here sounds great. The vocal line on the pre-chorus is absolutely cacophonous but other than that the singing's ok and the sci-fi inspired lyrics are also decent. Adding the fact that it works wonders as an opener, Futureal is surely an exciting way to start an album. 8.5/10

2- The Angel And The Gambler:
Along with the next track this was the first song I've heard in advance. It was the single edit and from the get go I really disliked that We Won't Get Fooled Again meets Van Halen's Jump keyboard effect. Not that it was absolutely awful but it sounded empty as a composition full of bass strumming and a kind of heavy rock n' roll feel to it that I simply wasn't buying. Plus that chorus... boring, flat and unimaginative. Well perhaps the single was just a "outside the box" experience. I mean, comparing with some other outside the box completely awful stuff the band did in the 90's it wasn't that bad and was a quite brief tune. Or so I thought until I bought the album and saw the official version was 9 plus minutes! And much of that added time is the chorus being repeated... something that shouldn't even exist being repeated DOZENS OF TIMES. "Don't you think I could save your life?" No you couldn't... because during the few times I listened to this it was not at danger. But you know what would make it way happier? Not having to listen to the band repeating this crap for an eternity. Really... who thought this was a good idea? So, if the song was way shorter like in the clip version I would give it 1 more point, but since these dudes decided it was a good idea torturing me with this extended and pointless loop I must subtract from its already mediocre value. 4.5/10

3- Lightning Strikes Twice:
This was the other song I listened to in advance in the radio and I must confess that at first listen I was impressed. Cool intro, dramatic stuff, good crescendo, strong verses and intense chorus. Plus Blaze's voice is showing a bit with more range and sounding more solid. But I must confess the song kinda lost its charm in little time. Not that it's awful but there are some aspects here and there that really cause it to degrade the more you listen to it. First of all it creates a great ambiance... but portraying what? The lyrics are really weak, as they first focus a solitary man waiting for something to happen and then simply describes a storm... so what is this guy waiting? A lightning to strike two times? God this is bad. Then, once its atmosphere is completely undermined we come to the conclusion that the riffs on the verse while being decent are too generic. As for the the chorus it's well put together but once again Blaze chooses to squeeze in it another cacophonous vocal line that sounds a bit goofy (especially live). Plus, with such ambiance building on the intro, what comes out of it is really brief: the song has no length to breathe. So with some decent lyrics, a better vocal line on the chorus and a couple of minutes more with some decent content I believe this track would be quite nice. But as it is I label it merely ok. 7/10

4- The Clansman:
Rightfully so recognized as the best track from the album, it's not by accident this Braveheart inspired epic is the only track from Virtual XI that is systematically played live. It starts with an array of soothing melodies (one of them being yet another case of self plagiarism - in this case Infinite Dreams) along with a simple yet well placed acoustic bass line. Blaze's humming tone does a great job painting the highlands' scenario and when he raises the tone also reinforces the sense of oppression of its people. Then the chorus explodes and if a refrain is suited to scream "freedom" this is the one. Also love both harmonies before the somehow generic solos and then the song returns to the initial acoustic bass line/ guitar melodies... and while the "No we can't let them them anymore" also sounds fine I would repeat it one less time since it's exactly the same melody that's repeated several times on the "oh oh oh" section. The next harmony is yet also great but nothing compared with that splendid folk like guitar Dave places upon the last two chorus. Absolutely killer lead! So there you go... another great epic tune with lots of juice that works wonders when played live. 8.5/10

5- When Two Worlds Collide:
This time the catastrophic collision of a massive astral body with our planet is the main theme here and either being inspired by the big screen (taking Armageddon as a basis) or by some BBC documentary, fact is the lyrics and rimes on this thing are absolutely poor. And what's worst than bad lyrics? Bad lyrics with bad vocal melodies. With the exception of the intro, Blaze's singing is absolutely annoying on this one. Not that he's out of tune or struggling. It just sounds utterly flat. And you know what's even worst than all this? Is when half of the instrumental melodies are equally boring. Curiously enough the intro part also sounds great to me as does the galloping verses (although the latter are plagued with awful vocal melodies). But the chorus... and the harmony that comes after... ugh! Not that they sound bad... they're just uninteresting and an absolute snoozefest. The only exciting part is the one before the soloing work (quite interesting BTW) that actually serves as its support. But then we're thrown again into that boring the refrain and equally dull subsequent section in variations with "oh oh oh's" and higher vocal tones. Hell, screw this! Yes it features a couple of cool passages but the rest is the epitome of tedium. 5.75/10

6- The Educated Fool:
I really like this song. First because of its simplicity. There's nothing here too far fetched both musically and lyric wise. But IMO there's a sense of frailty and exposition where both the lyrics and melodies converge in an almost perfect manner. The brooding bass line that opens the song and guitar solo (that presents what's to be Blaze's vocal line) create this intimate and self wondering atmosphere and the tone on the vocals during this section is on point while reinforcing that emotion. The same basis is used as the song gets going with the voice getting a bit harsher and although I think it works really nice, Blaze should put a bit more fire on his approach to create even more sepparation from the previous part. The pre-chorus on the other hand is great as it is: the vocals are almost spoken, tossing the manny points that surround the character's aspirations and doubts in a really well put together syncopated section. As for the chorus it sounds huge and Blaze's harmonies (especially the higher voice) are really on point as is the melody that follows the refrain. Not that the track is devoid of less interesting parts. The guitar harmony before the solos is a bit lackluster and unnecessary (particularly the second time around) pushing the song to an excessive length. But overall The Educated Fool is the perfect example of a simple yet really good composition. 8/10

7- Don't Look To The Eyes Of A Stranger:
So, to begin with, and so that there are no questions left this song is a living mess! The first notes of Heart Shaped B... I mean, Don't Look To The Eyes Of A Stranger already reveal themselves to be a bit off as so does the humming voice, but hey! Let's see where this will lead us to. Ah... it leads to the same thing but Blaze's singing in a higher tone with some keyboards thrown to the mix and a lazy drum line. Let us wait a bit more and see if this develops into something interesting. Oh... Listen! It's The Fugitive but crappier! So not only this is weird and lacks coherency but now it is a recycling of a somewhat lackluster track! Greeeeat... so what's next? Ah... back to the previous section! Just perfect. Hey, what's now? More humming? And with the guitar mimicking it? Excellent... this thing just gets better and better! Ok boys: by now everyone knows it's wrong to look to the eyes of strangers. It's not like you said it a thousand times in the last minutes or something is it? Ah... now we have a crescendo with the same phrase being repeated and by now this is already as pleasant as a sampling loop of nails scratching a blackboard. But at least we're leaving this limbo so what abomination of a section may lie ahead? Mmmmm... an interesting up tempo Aces High like guitar harmony with some solos and variations. Problem is while being kinda cool it has nothing to do with the rest of this damned thing. And after one last passage through that delightful initial part this essay in cacophony finnaly (and fortunately for my sanity) ends. 4.75/10

8- Como Estais Amigos? :
To close the album the band composed a song about reconciliation. A call for a burying of grudges between British and Argentinians on the Falkland Island wars matter. Overall I like the calm and sad melody, lyrics and feeling. This is also a really simple composition and the initial semi acoustic part really works wonders (special props to Blaze's performance). Then after the first chorus the distortion enters and I think it loses a lot of the ambiance. IMO the best option was to do the whole thing semi acoustic with lots of room for the strings and keyboards to reverbate. Another good solution would be only to turn the distortion pedals on at the 2,50 minute mark as the instrumental part (that overall is pretty cool BTW) kicks in. In my opinion had potential to be better but hey... even as it is it's pretty decent song and a good closer. 7/10

So there you have it. I believe that the band tried to go with a more easy listening and fresh sound than its predecessor while still being epic and sounding Maiden. And If it's true that the majority of the songs here have some epic flavor, have many Maiden traits all over and the record is surely softer than The X Factor, when it comes to the "fresh" goal is where the band really blew it. Overall this album sounds forced, tiring, lacking imagination and stamina. Plus we're also presented with poor compositions here and there and the 19 minutes clusterfucks that are TAATG and DLTTEOAS. And that really hurts an album that´s only 8 songs long. Production wise it also sounds quite funky and although the majority of Grant's cover is truly great the inclusion of the footbal match is another WTF moment. Plus why is the kid using the VR device doing siiting in a rock in the middle of a river? As for Blaze's voice it sounds better (and with a widder range) in some songs but way worst in others (especially the melodies he picks). The other members also have some questionable approaches here and there and Steve seems to start to loose interest in his signature galloping hertas. So, yeah... this is a band that tried to come even closer to the 80's formula than what they did in the previous album (where they re-ashed their likes for epic metal although with a darker tone) but seems to have lost their mojo. Hey... at least some great songs were made here, some of them still played live to this very day. But as a whole Virtual XI is indeed far from being a solid album for Maiden's standards. 6/10
 
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