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Being a casual Iron Maiden fan must be one hell of a love/hate relationship. On the one hand, the band are essentially immortal and don’t seem to want to stop what they’re doing – releasing new music and selling out every stadium in South America is a casual Tuesday morning for Bruce Dickinson and co. There doesn’t seem to be any sign of slowing down, so more new music never seems out of the question.
On the other hand, it feels like Iron Maiden doesn’t ever want to settle for doing the same thing twice. For fans like me, that’s perfect. I don’t need to listen to “Fear Of The Dark” seventeen times to know I’m listening to Iron Maiden, you know? Or to know that I enjoy listening to them at all. But for those who want to relive the thrills of “Powerslave” or “The Number Of The Beast” again, the fact that the band don’t re-tread ground must be frustrating. Iron Maiden shift and evolve and mature with every release, adding a little of this, losing a little of that. It gives every album a tonal stamp, a defined notch on the timeline without ever having to resort to pandering to the older (or should I say younger?) versions of themselves.
And at this present juncture lies Senjutsu, the 17th studio entry into the annals of Iron Maiden history. It’s a huge, ambitious and thoroughly imaginative effort that only gets better and better the longer you listen to it. The record follows in 2015’s The Book of Souls footsteps in being a two-disc affair and while there are no eighteen-minute epics to be found here in the same vein there are plenty of stamina builders in the up to and over ten minute plus range. But it feels like The Book Of Souls was merely a starter course for the banquet we get from “Senjutsu” all the same.
Title track “Senjutsu”, which Google Translate reliably informs me is the Japanese word for tactics, is the perfect call to arms to lead into the rest of the record. War is brewing, plans are being made, and the song starts at a crawl before it builds, builds and builds some more. Then, almost without warning, “Stratego” starts, war has broken out and we’re treated to the fast-paced, familiar sound of the much more modern Maiden. It’s a stunningly effective one-two punch to kick things off.
The first single “The Writing On The Wall” follows with a bluesy southern-rock opening so out of nowhere, you’ll swear that someone on the production team slipped a Jethro Tull song in there by mistake. But it works like a charm; the rest of the track is a stomp-along piece of brilliance that, despite its upbeat charm, still manages to fade perfectly into the gloomy, downbeat acoustic strums that mark the start of “Lost In A Lost World”.
“Days Of Future Past” is over in the blink of an eye at four minutes compared to its much beefier brothers and sisters here but it’s another chance for Bruce to spew the fire he has accumulated, in that gloriously solid voice of his. “The Time Machine” is a sometimes cheesy, but never disappointing jig that fizzles and shines throughout. It’s amazing to listen back again and get a sense of the range of sounds that this album incorporates from one song to the next. They’re all identifiably Iron Maiden, that’s for sure – but there’s always something else there to bring them up another notch.
Disc Two opens up with “Darkest Hour”, which is as close as you’re going to get to a ballad here. I’m not sure many rock ballads have been sung about Winston Churchill to begin with (though Maiden certainly has featured him enough times to make it an approaching 100% chance that they will in the future). And then we’re thrust into big boy territory, with the final three songs approaching the 35 minute mark between them.
Remember what I said earlier about revisiting old ground? “Death Of The Celts” might evoke fond memories of “The Clansmen” with its wonderful acoustic bass arrangement opener, but then it veers off into territory all of its own. Then “The Parchment” swaggers into view, a brash and punchy wonder that plays guitar solos first and asks questions later. Given the space is shared by three different guitarists, the whole thing is woven together so well and is bookended by possibly the best set of Bruce Dickinson vocals yet.
That title is short-lived, however, because then there’s “Hell On Earth”, the closer to end all closers. Man, oh man, this song is nothing short of immense. Eleven minutes of the best that the band has to offer, from that distinctive chugging bass to Dickinson putting on a clinical showcase of practically every element of his vocal range. It swoops and soars, then slows and builds to new climaxes before it’s brought home low and slow, and you’re left wondering why there can’t be more.
If I believed in numbered ratings to end reviews Senjutsu would be taking home a mightily impressive score. It’s nothing short of a masterpiece in places, particularly towards the back end of the tracks on the second disc. But that isn’t to discredit the other tracks where new things are tried, as there simply isn’t a bad track here – it’s all a matter of taste as to which you’ll prefer over the others. It’s hard to say any Iron Maiden album is their “definitive” one, given that they all have a little something the others don’t, but “Senjutsu” is pushing as hard as any of them on the way to proving that Iron Maiden might be better than ever as you’re reading this.
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