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