I used to be one of those metal writers who would roll their eyes whenever the “old guard” writers would declare the latest album by an ’80s metal band the best of the year. “How could you be so lazy?” I would say. “How could you be so ignorant of all the great new music by so many younger underground bands? It’s your job to find those younger bands and give them a voice.”
Now, at 51, I am the old guard to many. I’ve been very vocal in my support of Iron Maiden’s seventeenth album, and have been on the receiving end of the exact same comments I used to say, not seven years ago. So I’ve had to defend my choice again and again, and this post will – hopefully – be the last time I feel compelled to do that.
Just how and why Senjutsu ranks so highly on my 2021 list is a matter of timing, dependent on where I am in my own life, what I was looking for in new music in 2021, and how much Iron Maiden’s artistic choices align with my own taste in heavy music right now. And it actually took quite a while for me to admit just how great this crazy, dense, monolithic opus really is.
I certainly was not expecting new Iron Maiden music in 2021, and little did anyone know that the band had snuck into the studio in early 2019 to quickly whip Senjutsu up before resuming their wildly successful Legacy of the Beast world tour. The pandemic scuttled plans to release the record in 2020, and the way the band announced the album in the summer of 2021 was clever, and kind of hilarious.
If you’re not familiar with Tim Burgess’s Twitter Listening Party, it’s the brainchild of the singer from longtime UK faves the Charlatans, as he gets musicians to tweet about a classic album they made in real time as the music plays. It was a wonderful way for artists to interact with their audience during the pandemic, and Iron Maiden’s gleeful participation with the Powerslave album turned out to be crazily popular. A few months later they announced they’d do another listening party, this time about the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son album. I was very excited, and followed along for that 45 minutes. When the last song ended, however, Iron Maiden posted a cryptic video in which Bruce Dickinson invited fans to join in at “Belshazzar’s feast” in a few days. What the hell, Bruce?
After days of crazy, excited speculation, Iron Maiden released a new song and video called “The Writing on the Wall” on July 15, a peculiar little departure for the band combining English folk melodies, spaghetti western-inspired riffs, and some social commentary from Dickinson. I was baffled by the song, but slowly grew fond of it, especially Adrian Smith’s extended solo break, one of his finest moments on record. The band then announced that a new double album would come in the next six weeks, which threw everyone for a loop. Not even the metal magazines were ready for this announcement, as they all scrambled to wriggle Iron Maiden features into their next issues.
I was dead set on writing another Maiden cover story, but sadly the band wasn’t available for interviews and cover stories were already set in stone involving other artists, but I was able to get an advance stream of Senjutsu in early August, a month before release date, mainly because I’ve always been on friendly terms with Maiden’s PR team and they knew they can trust me with advance music. This gave me a good advantage over New York and London-based writers, who were stuck writing reviews based on one supervised listening session. I had several weeks to form an informed opinion and write a good, detailed feature-length review, which I did for PopMatters. I’m quite proud of it.
The night of that first listen, though, I settled down on the couch with a beer, my phone’s bluetooth connected to my big living room stereo, and got ready to take in the new LP by my favourite band of all time. Needless to say, I was thrown for quite a loop by what I heard. Just like 2015’s ambitious Book of Souls, it’s a huge double album, but on first listen it felt a lot more impenetrable. Steve Harris really likes the production style of Kevin Shirley, who has been helming Maiden’s albums for the past two decades. Shirley is all about a huge, enveloping sound, with the band playing together live, guitars, bass, and drums mixed into a massive wall of sound. A lot of old-timey Maiden fans my age are bothered by Shirley’s technique, but to be fair he’s a direct descendent of Martin Birch (who produced eight of the band’s first nine albums) who made a name for himself by capturing a band’s live ferocity on record. Shirley takes it to a further extreme, however, and his Maiden records have gotten bigger and bigger. I was so dumbfounded by the sound of Senjutsu that I was quickly adjusting my EQ to accommodate the albums utterly massive tone. It was shaking the floor, and I didn’t want our downstairs neighbours to pound on the door!
An hour and a half later, I didn’t know what to think. I really liked a few songs but was on the fence with more than half of them. It was thoroughly weird that the album concludes with three songs that clock in at more than ten minutes each. I felt bad for the writers who had to make snap judgments after one measly listen, because this clearly needed many, many listens to get a handle on it. So throughout August I blasted Senjutsu in my earbuds every day while bussing to and from work, and little by little, each song grew on me. By the time I was ready to write my review I was still a little cautious in my praise, but as the months passed, the more convinced I became just how great this album is. In fact, I would rank Senjutsu as Iron Maiden’s best work of their post-1999 period.
When thinking about Senjutsu my mind always comes back to those crucial final three songs, which frankly are the deal breaker for me. I was very skeptical of “Death of the Celts”, as I instinctively started comparing it to “The Clansman” from the late-’90s as both songs follow the exact same structure, as well as similar melodies and lyrical themes. What sets “Death of the Celts” apart, though, is its grimness, its gravitas. It’s a dark, sorrowful song compared to “The Clansman”‘s uplifting, anthemic feel, and I appreciate its disciplined majesty. “The Parchment” is even better, returning to the theatricality of such classics as “Powerslave” and “Sign of the Cross”. Dickinson is on fire for the entire song, his singing steadily building in power, culminating in a an explosive sustained line that shows yet again how formidable a singer he still is. “Hell on Earth”, on the other hand, is a lot sneakier. Its pace is more upbeat, its melody instantly hummable, but Harris’s lyrics seem more personal than ever, and read as a reaction to the rise of fascism in places where democracy seemed permanent: “You think that you have all the answers for all / In your arrogant way only one way to fall.” That’s how I see it, anyway. He could be talking about the owners of West Ham United or a neighbour he doesn’t like, or a pint of beer he’s disappointed in, but hey, lyrics are subjective.
As I’ve mentioned this month, I kept going back to musical comfort food this year, more than ever before, in an instinctive effort to bring some sense of normalcy and familiarity in an increasingly unstable environment around me. It came at a time when I most needed my favourite band, and offered some comfort in what was an extremely difficult time. For all the questions and ribbing I might get over this selection, all I can say in the end is that sometimes you can’t explain instinct. Why do I love Senjutsu so much? It scratches an itch I didn’t know I had.