Iron Maiden-A-Thon: Virtual XI Review

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As I sit typing this, Iron Maiden is currently embarking on their Legacy of the Beast tour. Legacy of the Beast is Iron Maiden’s mobile game. If you didn’t know, Iron Maiden rule the world. So because their Los Angeles show is coming up; what better time to write a review of all sixteen of their albums leading up to it. Their show is Saturday, September 14th at the Banc of California Stadium. So every work day (including one day with two), there will be a song-by-song Iron Maiden album review. Over the past weekend was a hugely personal review of The X-Factor. This time around it’ll be a review of the last Blaze Bayley album, Virtual XI.

Background on Virtual XI

The X-Factor was a deeply personal album for Iron Maiden. The album was their darkest to date. It was filled with powerful but deep songs that showed a more emotional side of the band. Blaze Bayley wasn’t a perfect fit for the Bruce era songs but he was masterful with his own material. The tour that followed the album titled, The X-Factour, was a grueling one. Blaze Bayley had vocal issues stemming from his inability to perform the Bruce Dickinson songs on a nightly basis. It didn’t help that the band refused to tune down for him to match the songs. His voice was strained on multiple nights. Multiple tour dates had to be cancelled as a result. The band was also under constant duress from fans due to the backlash from Bayley.

The band would return home having survived that tour. Up next would be the writing and recording of their new album. Blaze Bayley summed it up pretty perfectly, “Virtual XI was a more upbeat album [in comparison to its predecessor], because we’d survived the ‘X-Factour’… we were a band and, I felt, we were on our way.” The album would have to be more upbeat than the previous as you can’t get much darker than The X-Factor. It was recorded from 1997 to February of 1998 and it released around the world on March 23rd, 1998. The critical and commercial reception were not good for the album, it was given middling reviews and it was the lowest selling album in their catalog. But enough with that, let’s get to the review.

Track 1: Futureal

This is already a good start for this album when compared to the dark and dreary X-Factor. A straight up rocking tune about getting stuck in virtual reality. “Futureal” is a song that will make even the most jaded and hateful Iron Maiden fan want to jam along with the band. It’s an up-tempo song that was much needed for the band. It opened all of the concerts for the Virtual XI World Tour.

A song that would continue it’s life post Blaze Bayley, Iron Maiden included it on setlists into Bruce Dickinson’s second tenure with the band. I really enjoy this song and consider it to be an Iron Maiden classic. The energy that the band shows while playing it is contagious. It’s one that’s hard to hate.

Track 2: The Angel and the Gambler

The version that Iron Maiden used for the album is different than the version on the video. On the album the song is about five minutes longer and it has a long interlude in the middle of the song. It’s a bit repetitive, especially on the album but it’s a song that I can definitely enjoy. Another sort of poppy sounding metal song. The album version is much better because of the song being stunted and sort of rushed in the music video and single version.

Iron Maiden’s music video lineage is pretty great, this one shows the band members playing a game of poker with their mascot Eddie. The effects in the video are really dated today but it’s a fun look into 1998. The song isn’t perfect though, you hear “don’t you think I”m a savior, don’t you think I could save your life” more times than you need to. I like it, but it has it’s flaws.

Track 3: Lightning Strikes Twice

This album really chose to upend the dark tones of the previous one. “Lightning Strikes Twice” is a truly uplifting song that speaks about how you should never say never. It’s hopeful and positive. The song will make you want to scream out with Blaze. “Lightning Strikes Twice” builds and builds to the point where the chorus kicks in and by the time you get to it, you’ll be feeling the fury and power of the band. It’s one of the underrated cuts from this album.

Track 4: The Clansman

Now we get to the greatest Blaze Bayley song in his time in Maiden. There are a lot of good ones that he made but nothing comes close to this track. “The Clansman” is not only Bayley’s best song with the band but it’s one of the finest songs they’ve ever recorded. Heavily inspired by William Wallace and the story of Braveheart, the song is an epic in the lines of “Hallowed Be Thy Name”. This one gets even better when it’s performed live because the “FREEDOM!” of the middle of the song is even more powerful and furious.

The guitar work and vocals by Bayley and the rest of the band are perfect here. It’s a testament to the vocal abilities of Bayley. A song that personifies the need and want for freedom among communities and peoples; it’s one that you’re going to want to listen for yourself. You’ll feel empowered and enlightened after listening.

Track 5: When Two Worlds Collide

“When Two Worlds Collide” is a multi-faceted song about an Earth with another world on track to hit it and the life of Blaze Bayley before and after joining Iron Maiden. When you move up in the world, people sometimes get hurt and angry about your success. This echoes the life of Bayley who was in Wolfsbane and then joined the biggest heavy metal band in the world. You have to adapt to things like he did on the fly.

The song itself might be the most underrated on the album. If “The Clansman” is a classic, this should be up there. It’s catchy and will get stuck in your head for days after you listen to it. The solo that kicks in at the 3:03 mark is a great one. The whole song is just a fun experience to listen to.

Track 6: The Educated Fool

This one is one that I’m torn on. “The Educated Fool” isn’t a particularly great song but it’s one that I have a great attachment to. Like most of the Blaze Bayley material, I found it at a somewhat vulnerable point in my life. I had just gone to college and was working my way out in the world. The song has a positive message. Even if you’re educated and know a lot in this life, there’s always more to learn. So the song spoke to me in that way. Also the song is pretty good musically, it’s just not an amazing one on the record. I listen to it a lot, but you might not share the same sentiment.

Track 7: Don’t Look to the Eyes of a Stranger

Another song that’s subpar on the record. A long, plodding, song that doesn’t build as well as a song like “Lightning Strikes Twice”. It has some redeeming qualities such as the blistering solo that starts at 5:22. This solo has some Scottish/Folky sounds to it that picks up the song from the boring beginnings. The last section of the song is worth sitting through the beginning of it. Steve Harris said that this song is about being a parent and having to pay attention to every stranger.

Track 8: Como Estais Amigos

Finally a song that slows it down a bit on Virtual XI. “Como Estais Amigos” is about the soldiers on both sides of the Falklands War. A beautifully written and performed song that will move you emotionally. Everything about this song from Blaze Bayley’s vocals and Murray and Gers’s guitars will make you feel something. To me, it’s a deeper song than just the historical aspect. It’s about the atrocities of war that we must not forget. We can’t forget those who sacrificed before us. To forget them would be a disservice to everyone who fought for freedom and against oppression before us. Mourning the past doesn’t make us any better in the present, remembering what is right and wrong makes the world better. It’s just a passionate song from the band that closes out the last Blaze Bayley album perfectly.

Aftermath of Virtual XI

Blaze Bayley would go on to tour with Iron Maiden for the Virtual XI World Tour. The tour would prove to be even worse for his vocals than the past one. Allergies and repeated strain on his voice would be the cause for more cancellations on the tour. Iron Maiden were having him sing songs that were outside of his vocal register. Blaze Bayley would be asked to leave the band in January 1999. Iron Maiden were without a lead singer again.

Virtual XI wouldn’t leave a great impact in the history of Iron Maiden. It has some classic tracks but at the end of the day it was their most commercially unsuccessful album to date.

Iron Maiden wouldn’t have to look for a new singer for long. After some deliberation and convincing to Steve Harris, Bruce Dickinson was asked to rejoin the band. His only demand was that Adrian Smith be brought back with him. Adrian Smith and Bruce Dickinson came back to the band and they embarked on a reunion tour called the Ed Hunter Tour. Another album was on the way, but that’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

Review Score and Final Thoughts

Blaze Bayley’s tenure in Iron Maiden is seen as a failure by a lot of Iron Maiden fans. I don’t view it like that. I have a deep personal connection with the material that Bayley did with the band. He led Iron Maiden through a hugely stressful and perilous time in the band. He’s not Bruce Dickinson, but no one is. The X-Factor and Virtual XI are both parts of Iron Maiden’s history and they should be respected as such. Iron Maiden performs songs off these albums to this day. Blaze Bayley is a great guy and someone who you can root for. If you ever read or listen to an interview with him, he’s appreciative and respectful of his time in Iron Maiden. He doesn’t resent Bruce Dickinson coming back, he’s an Iron Maiden fan himself, Iron Maiden needs Bruce. The world needed Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith back in the band.

Virtual XI doesn’t reach as high as The X-Factor for me. But I don’t think it’s the worst Iron Maiden album by a good stretch. I’ll give it a 7.5/10. The songs are long, the choruses get repeated too often, but it’s a solid album from the band. Tomorrow will be the review of the much-anticipated comeback album from the band, Brave New World.

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All images and audio courtesy of Iron Maiden.

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