Forgotten Hard Rock Albums: Iron Maiden "The X Factor"
Not Maiden's Mightiest Moment!
Iron Maiden, The X Factor (CMC International, 1995)
The early 1990s were a rough time for many traditional heavy metal bands. As the scene struggled against the "grunge" tide, even the mighty Iron Maiden were not immune to its effects. Maiden had been a dependable, enormo-dome filling act for most of the previous decade, but a sense of complacency seemed to start creeping in around 1990's lackluster No Prayer For the Dying album and '92's Fear of the Dark. Each album had a few highlight tracks, there was definitely a feeling that Maiden were "phoning it in," and rumors persisted of tension between vocalist Bruce Dickinson and bassist/head Maiden-ite Steve Harris.
Things came to a head in 1993 when Dickinson said he felt creatively stifled and was leaving Maiden to pursue a solo career. The rumor mill went into overdrive. Would Maiden continue without The Mighty Bruce? Who could possibly fill his shoes? Auditions were held under a veil of secrecy and though Michael Kiske of Helloween was rumored to be a candidate, the band eventually 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 Maiden faithful held their collective breath.
"Man on the Edge"
When The X Factor hit stores in October 1995, many fans got a feeling that this would not be 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 featuring beloved mascot "Eddie" in some sort of mystical/fantasy situation, The X Factor's cover was a bleak, disturbingly realistic rendering of 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 dark clouds and muted colors throughout. Most disconcerting is that nobody is smiling in any of the band member 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 merely to the album's packaging. Whether it was Maiden's response to the musical climate of the time, or the fact that Steve Harris experienced a messy divorce and the death of his father during the writing and recording process for the disc, The X Factor was the gloomiest, most depressing album of Iron Maiden's career. Listeners found it to be a mostly 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.
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 numerous cancellations due to Bayley's frequent voice problems.
"Lord of the Flies"
Maiden forged on through the rest of the 90s, releasing one more album with Bayley as frontman (1998's Virtual XI) before reuniting with Dickinson and regaining their stadium-filling status in 1999. Blaze's brief stint with Maiden became little more than the answer to a trivia question for most 'Edbangers.
As for this writer, the Bayley-sized hole in my otherwise complete Maiden CD discography began to bug the hell out of my O.C.D., so I decided to revisit ol' Blazey's two discs with the band. I first acquired a copy of his swansong Virtual XI, and enjoyed that album more than I expected to. Thus, when I came across X Factor in a Pennsylvania used-record store five or six years ago I took it as a sign from Eddie himself that I should finally complete my collection.
"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