Forgotten Hard Rock Albums: Iron Maiden, "The X Factor" (1995)

"The X Factor" (1995) album cover
"The X Factor" (1995) album cover

Not exactly Maiden's mightiest moment....

Iron Maiden, The X Factor (CMC International, 1995)

The early 1990s were a rough time for many traditional metal bands as the scene struggled against the "grunge" tide. Even the mighty Iron Maiden were not immune to its effects. While Maiden had been a dependable, enormo-dome filling act for most of the previous decade, there seemed to be a sense of complacency surrounding the band on albums like 1990's lackluster No Prayer For the Dying and '92's not-much-better Fear of the Dark. While each album had a few highlight tracks, there was definitely a feeling that Maiden were "phoning it in," and rumors persisted of near-constant tension between vocalist Bruce Dickinson and bassist/head Maideneer Steve Harris.

Things finally came to a head in 1993 when Dickinson, claiming that he felt creatively stifled within Maiden's confines, announced that he was leaving to pursue a solo career. The band released two largely pointless live albums to mark his departure (A Real Live One and A Real Dead One) and then the rumor mill went into overdrive. Would Maiden even bother to continue? If so, who could possibly fill The Mighty Bruce's shoes? Iron Maiden began auditioning vocalists under a veil of secrecy and though former Helloween vocalist Michael Kiske was once rumored to be a hot candidate, the band eventually announced that fellow Brit Bayley Alexander Cooke, aka "Blaze Bayley," had been elected as their new singer. Bayley's prior band Wolfsbane had released several albums on Rick Rubin's Def American label and had even opened some Maiden concert dates in 1990, but the singer was still a relative unknown outside of his native U.K. The band then went straight to work in Steve Harris' own Barnyard studios (located in an actual barn on his home property) on their tenth studio album, to be titled The X Factor ("X" being the Roman numeral for "10," of course), while the Maiden faithful waited with bated breath.

Blaze Bayley (with badass sideburns)
Blaze Bayley (with badass sideburns) | Source

The Release...

The X Factor hit stores in October 1995, and fans likely had a feeling that this album was not going to be business-as-usual Maiden before they even cracked the shrink wrap on their CD. 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 (by famed photo manipulator/sculptor Hugh Syme) of Eddie being disemboweled and lobotomized 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, who you'd think would've been over the moon that he was now fronting one of Metal's most legendary bands. 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 in response to the musical climate of the times, or the fact that Steve Harris had experienced a messy divorce and the death of his father during the writing and recording process for the disc, The X Factor turned out to be the darkest, gloomiest, most depressing album of Iron Maiden's career. Listeners found it to be a mostly unrelenting slog, with Bayley's lower-register vocal style sounding totally alien to a generation of fans that had been grown up with the power and theatrical style of Bruce Dickinson, aka "The Human Air Raid Siren." The outcry from fans and critics alike was swift ... and savage.

"Man on the Edge"

"Alternate" X-FACTOR cover supplied to skittish retailers who thought the original was too gross.
"Alternate" X-FACTOR cover supplied to skittish retailers who thought the original was too gross. | Source

The Reaction...

My reaction after my first spin of The X Factor was something along the lines of "Dude, what the @#$% is this? The new guy sucks!" before I yanked it out of my CD player and flung it across the room. My standing as a Maiden fanboy wouldn't let me simply dismiss the album after one listen, however, so I gave it several more tries over the next few weeks. Honestly, I really wanted to like it and kept hoping that it would finally "click," but when it continued to leave me cold I eventually gave up, traded the disc in at my local used-CD store, and moved on with my life. It would seem that the rest of the Metal world did the same. While The X Factor briefly graced the Top Ten chart in the band's native Britain and several other European territories, it barely made a blip on the radar in the U.S., charting at a pitiful #147 on the Billboard Top 200. To be fair, the album's American release was handled by a small independent label (CMC International Records) that didn't have a lot of marketing muscle, but it probably wouldn't have made much difference if it had been released on a major, since the entire country was in Seattle mode at the time.

When Maiden came to America for a brief X Factor concert tour, they were being booked into clubs and small theaters rather than the massive halls they'd become accustomed to during the previous decade. Maiden's X Factor stop In my home state of New Jersey was at the Birch Hill Night Club in Old Bridge - a scuzzy-but-cool, capacity-1000 (give or take) working-class rock bar that provided a dependable, welcoming tour stop for many has-been hard rock acts during the '90s. Even though I hated the album, hearing that Maiden was playing THERE was a tough pill to swallow as a long time fan and the surest sign that the band was in free-fall. I was actually invited to attend that Birch Hill show by a friend who had an extra ticket, but I declined because at that point in my life, I had yet to see an Iron Maiden concert, and my hatred of The X Factor and Blaze was so white-hot at the time that I was afraid I'd throw a bottle at the stage and wind up in jail. Of course, nearly 20 years later I realize that was a stupid decision - let's face it, it would've been pretty cool to say that I saw IRON FRICKIN' MAIDEN in a little shoebox sized New Jersey nightclub, no matter who was at the mic, but that's hindsight for ya. It should be noted that outside of the U.S., Maiden still did decent live business, especially in South America - but the X Factor tour was also plagued by numerous cancellations due to Bayley's frequent voice problems.

"Lord of the Flies"

1998's VIRTUAL XI  was Blaze Bayley's 2nd and final album as Maiden's frontman.
1998's VIRTUAL XI was Blaze Bayley's 2nd and final album as Maiden's frontman. | Source

The Re-Discovery...

Maiden forged on through the rest of the 90s, releasing one more album with Bayley as frontman (1998's Virtual XI, which I completely ignored when it was current) until they inevitably bowed to fan pressure and reunited with Dickinson, thus regaining their stadium-filling status. Blaze's brief stint with Maiden eventually became little more than a curiosity item or an answer to a trivia question for most 'Edbangers.

As for this writer, a funny thing happened: after a few years, having a Bayley-sized hole in my otherwise complete Maiden CD discography began bugging the hell out of my O.C.D., and I started thinking about revisiting ol' Blazey's two discs with the band. I first acquired a copy of his swansong Virtual XI, and found myself enjoying that album a lot more than I'd expected. Thus, when I came across a copy of The X Factor in a Pennsylvania used-record store five or six years ago I figured it was a sign from Eddie himself that I should finally complete my collection...

"Fortunes of War" live in Brazil, 1996

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Re-assessment...

Make no mistake, I didn't instantly fall in love with The X Factor when I chose to revisit it, and as far as I'm concerned it still ranks at the bottom of the Maiden pile, but I didn't hate it as quite as much as I did in 1995, either. Maybe the knowledge that Bruce Dickinson is now back in the Maiden driver's seat has allowed me to re-assess Blaze's era in a slightly more charitable light.

The main problem I had with The X Factor this time around is in the dry-as-hell production and mix (which was done by Steve Harris himself, with an assist from Nigel Green). Nicko McBrain's always-dependable drumming, Harris' bass and Bayley's vocals ring through clearly enough, but the guitar team 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 long and proud career. The end result would be a nightmare scenario for any band trying to introduce a new singer to the world!

The 11 minute plus "Sign of the Cross" was a TERRIBLE choice for the album's opening track, with its interminably slow plod setting a bad tone for the rest of the album right off the bat. (It's not all Blaze's fault, either.."Sign of the Cross" is simply an awful song. I have heard Bruce Dickinson perform it live and even he couldn't save it!) 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" (which is the best song of Bayley's entire tenure with the band, bar none). "Look For the Truth" takes forever to get moving and "Fortunes of War" is simply blah, but late inning cuts like the bleak "2AM" and "Blood on the World's Hands" show that Bayley is actually a pretty powerful singer. He just doesn't sound much like an IRON MAIDEN singer, if that makes any sense. "The Unbeliever" features another impressive Bayley performance but by then it's a case of too little, 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 managed to garner a cult following in the 20 years since its release, I think most fans still agree that The X Factor is a fairly non-essential album, and only Maiden's most obsessive-compulsive completist collectors/fanboys need to go out of their way to track down a copy. (I guess that group includes me, since I've now paid for the album twice. Haha!) If I had to choose which of the two Bayley fronted Maiden albums I preferred, I would pick 1998's Virtual XI, which is apparently an unpopular choice in Maiden fandom....but that's another story for another Hub.

Iron Maiden has released five more studio albums and a seemingly endless number of live/compilation CDs and videos since Bruce Dickinson returned to the fold in 1999, and Bayley-era songs such as "Futureal" and "The Clansman" still occasionally find their way into current set lists.

Blaze Bayley carved out a prolific solo career after leaving Maiden, and now boasts a catalog of six studio albums and two live discs as of 2013. He continues to record and tour around the world, and even took part in a series of tandem concerts with another former Maiden vocalist, Paul Di'Anno, in 2012-13.

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Comments 15 comments

Shawn Dudley profile image

Shawn Dudley 2 years ago from Los Angeles, California

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.


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 2 years ago from The Garden State Author

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.


FreedomMetal profile image

FreedomMetal 2 years ago from Somewhere In Time

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.


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 2 years ago from The Garden State Author

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


Witchfinder 2 years ago

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...


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 2 years ago from The Garden State Author

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


Shawn Dudley profile image

Shawn Dudley 2 years ago from Los Angeles, California

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.


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 2 years ago from The Garden State Author

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


Anna Haven profile image

Anna Haven 2 years ago from Scotland

Exploring a dark past..Interesting.


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 2 years ago from The Garden State Author

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


Chris 21 months ago

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!


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 21 months ago from The Garden State Author

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.


Jeff Rutter 18 months ago

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.


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 18 months ago from The Garden State Author

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


Jeff Rutter 18 months ago

Yeah, we were called Empire.

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