September 3, 2021 Iron Maiden – Senjutsu (Album Review)
From their humble beginnings in East London pubs to ruling the world at the absolute summit of heavy metal glory, Iron Maiden has survived every trend and fluctuating fortune offered by the passing years. On Friday, September 3rd, 2021, they will release Senjutsu, their 17th studio effort, and it is safe to say that few albums will be this heralded, anticipated, and speculated upon by fans the world over.
Released six years on from 2015’s Book of Souls, the writing and recording for Senjutsu actually occurred before the pandemic swept in to cast our way of life into mandated chaos. The band must be chomping at the bit to unleash it, and now that time is upon us. Fans were treated to the lead single “Writing On The Wall,” a tuneful triumph complete with an immersive animated video. Following on, fans got more of a glimpse into the album with “Stratego,” a somewhat brief and beefy driver of a tune to whet appetites for the rest of the double album.
That’s correct, the good ship Maiden is setting sail with another triple-vinyl length set of tunes, similar in scope to the aforementioned Book of Souls. If there is a division point to be had amongst the Iron Maiden faithful (besides the griping about Janick Gers, enough already it’s been over 30 years) it is the copious amounts of songs as well as massive epics which comprise much of the band’s latter works. When the music is as substantial and the band is as legendary as this, though, more definitely doesn’t translate to worse. 82 minutes might seem a bit ludicrous, but Steve Harris’ writing style over the past two-plus decades has lent itself to a sprawling, storybook-epic modus operandi.
The longest song on the album, “The Parchment” clocks in at over a dozen minutes, and in a world geared toward us having smaller and smaller attention spans, this sort of aural craftsmanship is refreshing. Band mastermind Steve Harris pens a chunky yet soulful melody line, with a keyboard tone and a host of lovely guitar leads to help paint the picture. Guitar solos, leads, and melodies stream from the six-string trio of Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, and Janick Gers in some of the best arrangements the band has put forth in years.
Bruce Dickinson, the air-raid siren himself, has endured throat cancer and came out killing it on the other side. If the upper edges of his range are not as robust as they were in decades past, he avails himself well on this album. The Kevin Shirley production seems geared at helping his voice be as effective as possible. Always emotive, the poetic nature of “The Parchment” makes it a gorgeous and soon-to-be-classic Maiden epic. When Bruce’s singing crescendos around 9:50, and the pace quickens to the Maiden gallop we know and love, the listener will know they’re experiencing something rather special. Nicko McBrain beats the hell out of his kit, the solos come soaring in, and voila – Iron Maiden kicks the same amount of ass they always have.
“But where are the fast songs?” some will ask. “Days of Future Past” is the sort of straight-to-the-point rocker that balances out the sitcom-length juggernaut of epic songs which closes Senjutsu. When Dickinson dominates like this, Maiden fans will rejoice. Eminently sing-able, this one will sound so good bouncing off the cavernous walls of arenas the world over. When the tune transitions a little over halfway through, that keyboard tone rings out again. This is a bit different touch for them, but it works.
“Lost In A Lost World” is another gem, its dreamy beginning reminiscent of Dickinson’s solo work. Wordless harmonizing and acoustic strumming build atmosphere and tension, then when the band comes in and Harris’ fingers pluck the Iron Maiden ‘sound’ into life, the song goes to great heights. Double-tracked vocals (or perhaps back-up singing from the boys) lends some extra weight and gravitas. This is an exuberant song; there had to be an electric studio energy when they laid it down. The somber war epic of “Darkest Hour,” a subject with which the band is intimately familiar, will evoke the same gravitas reached on songs like “Paschendale,” if with a bit less bombast. This one connects and it connects hard.
If there is anything negative to be said, the intriguingly titled “Death of the Celts” felt just a tad plodding, almost as if it wanted to go elsewhere musically but does not. It isn’t bad by any stretch, just not as compelling as the epics which surround it. Speaking of which, the epic which closes the album, “Hell On Earth,” comes in at just over eleven minutes, and keeps up the superb quality exhibited by “The Parchment.” Just like the closing salvo on 2006’s A Matter of Life and Death, Iron Maiden manages to write back-to-back works of magic to close out an album. This one manages to be as catchy as it is sprawling, again flavored with helpings of magnificent solo work. Robust chorus, emotionally charged, the song is fraught with the greatness fans have come to expect from the English superstars.
With even more to dive into than was mentioned here, they have shown that more than 40 years after their inception, through cancer, a pandemic, and reaching the age where many folks sit back in the recliner and doze off to infomercials, Iron Maiden still have the hunger and the knowledge to get after it and make something vital. Senjutsu is among their stronger albums, and while the band’s classic period in the ’80s is as unassailable as it is legendary, this one can sit proudly alongside anything they have written. In the more relatable metric of albums that Iron Maiden have produced since the dawn of the 1990s, an argument can be made that Senjutsu will come to be regarded as the best of the bunch, or damn near it. For this reason, Cryptic Rock gives this album 4.5 out of 5 stars.