I’m a lifelong, hardcore IRON MAIDEN fan. I’ve gone to incredible lengths to see them live as many times as possible over the last nearly 20 years and I own over thirty MAIDEN shirts. Regardless of my thoughts on the first single, “The Writing on the Wall,” I still preordered the lavish €120 collector’s box and the €71 limited silver and black LP. So for me, there is no easy way to say this: “Senjutsu” may well go down as the worst IRON MAIDEN album, in my eyes.
This album is not devoid of any merit. I don’t think… or at least I’m trying not to gripe over minor details like a poor scorned fanboy. The title track is promising! It has a certain originality to it and an intriguing atmosphere. The intro builds up mysteriously, priming the listener, and Nicko McBrain‘s drums are really uplifting. Couple that with Bruce Dickinson‘s aggressive vocals on the verses, throw in an epic chorus, and Bob’s your uncle! “Stratego,” “The Writing on the Wall,” and “Days of Future Past” are also songs with genuine potential. “Stratego,” for example, is clearly going for a “Brave New World“ vibe with its guitars. It also has the best hook on the album, as well as one of the most hummable choruses they’ve done on the last few records.
If it wasn’t for that damned production! This is the fifth IRON MAIDEN studio album produced by Kevin “Caveman” Shirley and if you ask me, they’ve all gone downhill as production goes. I’ve become convinced that Shirley is more of an engineer than a producer, since Steve Harris looks to be listed as a co-producer (yet, again). What does that leave us with? An impossibly muddy sound quality. The low-end is clearly cranked up to a level where the notoriously deaf bastard, Harris, can hear it, so it’s a sludgy mess to the rest of us. You can barely even make out the vocals half the time.
Then we add in a layer of what Harris seems to think are “epic” keyboards, but he plays the same kind of simple matte sound as on “The Book of Souls,” except they don’t just punctuate the choruses here – now they’re all over the place. The sound of them is so shrill and overpowering, rendering parts of the album almost unlistenable. Note that they also mostly appear on non-Harris written songs. Perhaps this is an ego thing?
The band brags that they wrote and rehearsed the songs at the studio and recorded them while they were still fresh in their minds, as if that were a positive factor. Unfortunately, that seems to be the cause of most of the problems on “Senjutsu.” There are guitars that are supposed to be playing the same melody as the vocals, but are consistently out of time with one another, while at times the vocals seems to not have worked out what the melodies are. There are points when the lyrics change the melody out of nowhere, as if they couldn’t fit all the syllables in and just left it that way. In “The Writing on the Wall,” the first verse ends in a long line, “the land of hope and glory building graveyards for the brave,” where Dickinson has to take a breath in the middle. Could you not have made that a separate take? Or could you not have done the same melody as on the next verse? There is an overt sloppiness to almost every aspect of the record, as the lyrics all feel life first drafts due to repetitions of words such as “sin” and “ground” that don’t seem to be necessary.
The Harris-penned epics are the death-nail on the whole endeavor. “Death of the Celts” is as dull as it is creatively bankrupt. At its best, it’s reheated leftovers from “The Clansman” and at worst, its entirely forgettable. “The Parchment” seems the most promising Harris epic at first: the opening riff has a good, heavy swing to it. Then you begin to realize how close it is to “Book of Souls.” Furthermore, I’ve read through the lyrics three times now and I still can’t make heads or tails of it. It seems to start off using a whole lot of fancy terms and clever looking wordings but quickly devolves into gibberish. On top of that, the song does nothing and goes nowhere. The final and most egregious offender is “Hell on Earth”: yet another lifeless rehash of “X Factor” riffs. Then you notice you’re two verses into the song and you have no idea what the melody from the main verse is. Top this off with the cringiest line masquerading as an epic chorus: “love in anger, life in danger.” This is the kind of stuff that would make METALLICA blush, and they wrote “Nothing Else Matters.”
Apologists will cry “it’s prog, actually,” as if that was a catch-all defense that just inherently makes it better… but is it, though? At 9-12 minutes each, these “epics” aren’t even that long, per se, but boy do they feel like it. They mostly just have a main riff and a few solos and time changes that seem to just pad up the runtime. A good prog anthem like “Close to the Edge” by YES will run through lots of sections and moods. This is just one mood: I just want to do “Where the Wind Wind Blows” again. It’s as if Harris has forgotten all his old material and thinks he’s presenting it to us for the first time. Like almost any band that’s been around for a while, MAIDEN have always repeated themselves, but to have practically four songs stuck on the same idea on the same album… it’s too much to swallow.
The saving grace of this album is the number of good choruses, excellent riffs, and a generally good atmosphere. In a lot of ways it reminds me of “X Factor,” which also has a handful of good songs, but is mired in dull, uninteresting, and self-important schlock.
As of the time of writing, I’ve listened to the first half of “Senjutsu” an estimated thirty times. As bad as the production is, it’s still MAIDEN. It’s been 6 years since the last record, after all. I’m living in a desert and MAIDEN is my water, so even if that water is recycled through a stillsuit (like the Fremen do in Frank Herbert’s Dune), I can’t afford to waste one precious drop. I’m giving this 5/10, because half of it is good while the other… not so much. It’s difficult to enjoy the best parts because the half-assed production taints every nook and cranny of the sound. It’s like they did the fun part of making an album, which is coming up with cool riffs and sounds, but then they skipped the hard part, which is putting in the work to make it a coherent, disciplined product. This is a band that needs to take a step back and re-evaluate what they think a producer’s role is. I still feel like these are the demos for the album and they sent them out by mistake. Hey, is that why the LP was €71? Because they’ll send us the finished product later? I’ll be at my mailbox waiting. I bet it’s gonna be awesome when it comes…
Written by Vincent Parkkonen