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Forgotten Hard Rock Albums: Iron Maiden, "The X Factor" (1995)
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, a sense of complacency seemed to be 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 Maidenite Steve Harris.
Things finally came to a head in 1993 when Dickinson, claiming he was creatively stifled, announced that he was leaving to pursue a solo career. The band released two largely pointless live albums to mark Bruce's departure (A Real Live One and A Real Dead One) and then the rumor mill went into overdrive. Would Maiden 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 and held their collective breath.
The X Factor hit stores in October 1995, and before they even cracked the shrink wrap on their new CDs, the fans got a feeling that this album would not be business-as-usual Maiden. 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"
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.
"Lord of the Flies"
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. 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.
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
What do you think of Iron Maiden's "The X Factor?"
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.