Updated date:

Iron Maiden's Heart of Darkness: "The X Factor"

Author:

I've been an obsessed hard rock/heavy metal fan and collector since the early 1980s. If it's got a good guitar riff and attitude, I'm in.

"The X Factor's" original cover was too realistic for some skittish retailers, so this alternate cover was provided.

"The X Factor's" original cover was too realistic for some skittish retailers, so this alternate cover was provided.

Not Maiden's Mightiest Moment!

Iron Maiden, The X Factor

(CMC International, 1995)

The early 1990s were a rough time for traditional heavy metal bands struggling against the "grunge" tide. Even the mighty Iron Maiden, who'd been a dependable, enormo-dome filling act for most of the previous decade, were not immune to its effects. 1990's lackluster No Prayer For the Dying album and '92's Fear of the Dark. each had a few highlight tracks, there was definitely a feeling that Maiden was "phoning it in," and rumors persisted of tension between vocalist Bruce Dickinson and bassist/head Maiden-ite Steve Harris.

When Dickinson left in 1993 to pursue a solo career, the rumor mill went into overdrive. Who could possibly fill Bruce's shoes? Auditions were held under a veil of secrecy and though Michael Kiske of Helloween was rumored to be a candidate, Maiden announced fellow Brit Bayley Alexander Cooke, aka "Blaze Bayley," as their new singer. Bayley's prior band Wolfsbane had released several albums on Rick Rubin's Def American label but the singer was still a relative unknown outside of his native U.K. Maiden went straight to work on their tenth studio album, The X Factor ("X" being the Roman numeral for "10," of course), while the faithful held their collective breath.

"Man on the Edge"

The Release...

When The X Factor hit stores in October 1995, fans got a feeling that this wasn't business-as-usual Maiden before they even cracked the shrink wrap on their CDs. Instead of the usual gaudy, colorful comic-book style cover art, The X Factor's cover was a bleak, disturbingly realistic rendering of beloved mascot "Eddie" being disemboweled by a sinister mechanical contraption. The feeling of darkness and foreboding permeated the rest of the CD's layout, with Eddie in an electric chair on the back cover and muted colors throughout. Nobody is smiling in any of the band photos... not even new boy Bayley. The overall vibe is one of "Who are these guys, and what have they done with our usually-jovial Iron Maiden?"

The change in mood wasn't limited to the album's packaging. Whether it was a response to the musical climate of the time, or due to the fact that Steve Harris went through a messy divorce and lost his father while recording The X Factor, the album remains the gloomiest, most depressing disc of Iron Maiden's career. Many listeners found it to be a unrelenting slog; Bayley's lower-register vocal style was totally alien to a generation of fans that had been grown up listening to Bruce Dickinson, aka "The Human Air Raid Siren." The outcry from fans and critics alike was swift ... and savage.

"Lord of the Flies"

The Reaction...

My reaction after my first spin of The X Factor was "What the @#$% is this crap?" but my standing as a Maiden fanboy wouldn't let me simply dismiss the album after one listen. I gave it several more tries over the next few weeks hoping that it would finally "click," but eventually I gave up, traded in the disc at a used-CD store, and moved on. It would seem that much of the Metal world did the same.The X Factor briefly graced the top ten in Maiden's native Britain, but it barely made a blip on the radar in the U.S., debuting at a pitiful #147 on the Billboard Top 200. To be fair, the album's American release was handled by the small independent label CMC International, but it probably wouldn't have made any difference if it had major-label backing, since everyone was in grunge mode at the time. When they came to America for a brief X Factor tour, Maiden was booked into clubs and small theaters rather than the massive concert halls they were accustomed to. They still did decent live business in other territories, particularly South America - but the X Factor tour was plagued by several cancellations due to Bayley's frequent voice problems.

"Fortunes of War" live in Brazil, 1996

Re-assessment...

I didn't fall in love with The X Factor when I revisited it -- in fact, I still rank it at the bottom of the Maiden pile, but I didn't hate it as much as I did in 1995. Perhaps knowing that Bruce Dickinson is back in the Maiden driver's seat gave me the ability to re-assess Blaze's era more charitably.

The main problem I have with The X Factor is the dry-as-hell production and mix by Steve Harris and Nigel Green. Nicko McBrain's drumming, Harris' bass and Bayley's vocals ring through clearly enough, but the guitars of Dave Murray and Janick Gers are buried in the background and consistently hard to hear throughout the album. The performances all around seem hesitant and lack soul, as if the mighty Maiden was unsure of itself for the first time in its career. The end result would be a nightmare scenario for any band trying to break in a new singer!

The 11 minute plus "Sign of the Cross" was a terrible choice for the album's opening track. Its interminably slow plod sets a bad tone for the rest of the album. I find that Bayley's voice is better suited to faster-paced tunes like "Lord of the Flies" and the great "Man on the Edge" (the best song of his tenure with the band). "Look For the Truth" takes forever to get moving and "Fortunes of War" is blah. Late inning cuts like the bleak "2AM" and "Blood on the World's Hands" show that Blaze is actually a pretty powerful singer. He just doesn't sound like an Iron Maiden singer, if that makes sense. "The Unbeliever" is another impressive performance by Blaze but by then it's too late, as it's the last track on the album.

"The X Factor" Tour live in Brazil (1996)

The Final Word:

Though it has garnered a cult following in the years since its release, I think most fans still agree that The X Factor is a non-essential album that only Maiden's most obsessive-compulsive collectors/fanboys need to own. I guess that group includes me, since I've now paid for the album twice. (Haha!) If I had to choose between the two Bayley albums I would pick 1998's Virtual XI, which is apparently an unpopular choice in Maiden fandom....but that's another story for another time.

© 2014 Keith Abt

Comments

Jayson on December 04, 2018:

I kinda did the same thing with your re-assessment of X Factor. Didn't like it at first but now I appreciate it for what it was... A maiden album released during dark times without Bruce. Sign of the Cross no doubt was a strange choice to lead off the album (Would of been a great choice to finish the album IMO) but has really grown on me plus Blood on the Worlds Hands and Man on the Edge are great tunes. I like this album better than No Prayer for the Dying.

Jimmy on December 04, 2018:

Where was the Sheriff of Huddersfield in all this? Rod always had good quality control.

CN on May 30, 2017:

This album is a slow grower. By that, I mean it has taken about 20 years for it to grow on me. I now place it solidly in the middle third of my rankings of the Maiden catalogue.

Jeff Rutter on June 16, 2015:

Yeah, we were called Empire.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on June 15, 2015:

Hi Jeff...a Queensryche tribute band? Cool! Thanx for stopping by.

Jeff Rutter on June 15, 2015:

I was in a Queensryche tribute band from Ohio in the mid 90's and played a show at Birch Hill Night Club. I thought it was a very cool place. Just throwing that out there, lol.

But a couple of months ago I saw The Foundry (which consisted of a much older and bald Blaze Bayley, Rick Plester, John Moyer of Disturbed and the late great AJ Pero 2 weeks before he passed) when they played at Tim Ripper Owens "Ripper's Rock House" in Akron.

At the end of the night I grabbed one of their set lists and had them sign it for me. Some of the song titles I saw on the set list were unfamiliar to me until I got home and googled Blaze's stint with Maiden and then realized they were songs from the X Factor and Virtual XI albums.

I pretty much lost interest in Maiden after Somewhere In Time and even with that album I had a hard time choking that one down at first, but it grew on me. My defense on that issue was how can you follow an album like Powerslave with something like S.I.T?

I think the biggest thing that turned me off of Maiden after Somewhere wasn't just the overuse of the rhythmic harmony guitars in almost every song, but the consistent bassline structure underneath those harmonies. Steve Harris is the absolute shit on the bass, but the E-C-D bass run under those harmonies just gets old. But my love for early Maiden hasn't waivered, lol. Sorry if that makes me a little contrdictive.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on March 06, 2015:

Hi Chris - thanks for the comment... I think many fans' initial dislike of The X Factor has cooled with the passage time, mine certainly has. It doesn't rank among my all time Maiden favorites but I do give it an occasional spin nowadays.

Chris on March 06, 2015:

I was about 13 and a huge Maiden fan (as I still am) when X Factor came out. Of course I bought it on day of release and whilst I never felt the revulsion you describe, I didn't love it. I listened to it a good deal cos hey, it was Maiden, but after a couple of months the record (I had it on picture vinyl) went back in it's sleeve and that was that. A few years went by, Bruce rejoined and life was once more rosy.

It was probably about 2005 ish before I listened to X Factor again, and re-evaluating I found it is a bloody good album, which I stand by to this day. I'm listening to it now, as it happens. Of course there's stuff on their that isn't that great and God knows it isn't Powerslave, but who says it has to be? The mistake I, and let's be honest the majority of the metal fraternity made, was judging the album in the context of Bruce Dickinson and traditional the Maiden sound, and I simply wasn't able to see past the fact it isn't those things. It's taken a decade and more, but I think people are more likely to judge it for what it is, a bloody good album, and I'm pleased there are a growing number of people who think similar.

As an aside, especially to the guy who says Blaze can't sing, he bloody can! I've seen him play I live acoustic set in a small pub here in England and he is fantastic, and a damn nice guy too. Bruce is my hero, but it isn't a competition, you are allowed to like both!

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on February 18, 2014:

The 1990s were a dark time for Iron Maiden, and for metal in general.

Anna Haven from Scotland on February 18, 2014:

Exploring a dark past..Interesting.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on February 17, 2014:

Haha, damn. Tell us how you REALLY feel Shawn!!

Shawn Dudley from Los Angeles, California on February 17, 2014:

Blaze is just a horrible vocalist, that he somehow managed to keep a solo career going just baffles me. Paul DiAnno is friggin' Freddie Mercury compared to Blazing Shits.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on February 17, 2014:

Hey Witchfinder... so in other words, you won't be applying for membership in the Blaze Bayley Appreciation Society? Haha

Witchfinder on February 17, 2014:

Like you, when I cracked open this album and put it in my cd player, I was sickened. WTF is this crap?! - was my first thought. I tried to like it, but to no avail and sold it a few months later. I haven't added to my collection since then, but I might if I see it cheap. Blaze was a terrible choice for IM. What were they thinking with that selection? Baffling. I still have Virtual XI for some reason - I think I found it used years ago - but it's just as bad as The X Factor. Blechh...

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on February 17, 2014:

Hey Freedom - as I said, even having Bruce sing "Sign of the Cross" didn't save it for me... as the saying goes, "ya can't polish a turd." Haha

FreedomMetal from Somewhere In Time on February 17, 2014:

I also have to disagree with you on Sign Of The Cross...... I didn't like it until I watched it with Bruce and Adrian Smith on Rock In Rio. I think that both Bruce's vocals and Adrian's guitar add greatly to the song.

As far as the album, I remember seeing it in a record store at a "listening booth" - I clearly remember putting on the head phones, listening, and leaving the store without buying the album. Now, I do like the songs on it, but Blaze was 100% wrong for Maiden. As mentioned, the other issue was the production. If you play X and Rock In Rio versions of SOTC back to back, the album version sounds like a demo and seems lifeless.

Maiden was clearly dead in the water in the US at this point, playing the small clubs. Even in Europe, they were only playing small to mid sized theaters. Whereas they were still selling out Arenas and headlining festivals during the No Prayer and FOTD years.

I do agree that it is easier to look back at the Blaze years now that Maiden are bigger than they were during Bruce's first stint behind the mic. Now I can look back and say there are some good songs on both of those albums.... at the time I didn't buy either of the albums and I didn't actually pick them up until sometime after A Matter Of Life & Death was released.

Keith Abt (author) from The Garden State on February 17, 2014:

Hi Shawn -

CMC International was definitely a "has been" label but that was OK by me because they gave a lot of my 80s favorites a home after the majors started dumping them all (Maiden, Judas Priest, Overkill, Accept, KIX, etc.)...haha

As for "Sign of the Cross," I know a lot of fans dig that one but it's always bored the p*ss outta me, haha. Even when I heard Bruce D. sing it live (on the Brave New World tour) it almost stopped the set cold. It's too long, too drawn out, too...too... zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Thanks for stopping by as always.

Shawn Dudley from Los Angeles, California on February 17, 2014:

My best friend and I called CMC International the "over-the-hill metal label" in the mid 90s. It seemed every 80s metal band that had suffered the loss of a major band member ended up doing low-budget albums on CMC for a largely disinterested populace.

I was living in Seattle when this album came out, Maiden ended up playing this tiny 500 capacity club where I had just seen Forced Entry about a year earlier. The mighty had definitely fallen.

I've never been able to listen to the album all the way through, I've found versions of some of these Blaze-era songs with Bruce singing and that's all I ever need or want from this era.

The only thing I disagree with is Sign Of The Cross, I think that's one of the better Maiden songs from the entire decade. I first heard it on the Rock In Rio live DVD and while the beginning of the song doesn't blow me away the instrumental mid-section most definitely does, I think that's one of their best faux-prog songs.