Iron Maiden's Senjutsu Shows Band is Rusting, But Intact
Iron Maiden Senjutsu Album Review
Iron Maiden, one of the undisputed mammoths of heavy metal, is back with their seventeenth studio effort, Senjutsu.
A double album named after the Japanese word for the art of war, Senjutsu is the band’s first studio project since 2015’s The Book of Souls. Released on September 3, 2021, Senjutsu continues the band’s long-standing tradition of epic, lengthy albums, running over eighty minutes in runtime. Of the ten tracks here, none are shorter than four minutes long, and half of them run longer than eight minutes. What results is a project that requires a degree of commitment. But as Bruce Dickinson proclaims on this record, “patience is no sin”.
I found my own commitment increasingly difficult to offer as this album continued. Eighty minutes is on the long side for any album, but with a record like Senjutsu, it only gives the listener more time to recognize its blemishes.
The list of elements the band is working with indicates a firm decision to remain in their stylistic niche, which is no surprise given their output of the last twenty years. Galloping guitar and bass riffs nearing on thrash metal, harmonized dual guitar solos, mysterious acoustic introductions, endlessly melodic vocal lines, the occasional atmospheric sample; they’re all here, and the fact that they’ve done it all before doesn’t seem to bother them.
As for heavy metal drama, Senjutsu is filled to the brim with it. This isn’t a concept album, but the songs are linked by themes of war and triumph against adversity. Images of God, angels, kings, dead friends and dead enemies run through the whole album. There is indeed a militaristic feeling to this music that is rousing, determined, and generally fitting the subject matter.
Bruce Dickinson’s vocal performances appropriately fit the operatic cantor role he is known for, reciting poetry including lines like “pour thy scorn upon the realm” (“Death of the Celts”) and “across a painted desert lies a train of vagabonds” (“The Writing on the Wall”). Alas, this is Maiden through and through.
The instrumentation is just as superb as on their previous recordings. Steve Harris on bass and Nicko McBrain on percussion are consistently brilliant on the record, tightly locking the whole band through complex songs. Harris especially shines on “The Parchment”, with his dense chords providing the backbone of the track’s ominous intro. Every rhythmic change on the album is articulated with precision, reinforcing the band’s strengths in arrangement.
Dickinson sounds like he’s pushing his vocal cords when he reaches for the high notes, but he generally sounds far better than a sixty-three-year-old has any right to be. While I’m not a huge fan of the rhythm guitar tones, the production job brings out some sharp and satisfying sounds for the solos, which are performed as immaculately as one would expect from Maiden. Additionally, I did not find myself bothered by the usage of synthesizers that some have criticized as excessive; I thought they were tasteful and appropriate in the arrangements.
The main element lacking in Senjutsu is compelling songwriting. The band’s most prog-metal moments throughout their career, like on Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, have proved them capable of constructing ambitious songs with long-form arcs. At this point, though, most of Maiden’s ideas feel redundant, and at their worst, directionless.
There are plenty of exhilarating moments in these songs, but also just as many that don’t work. “The Time Machine,” the final track on the first disc, features no less than five different section fragments. But rather than manifesting into a coherent composition, the song’s sections sound like a list of unrelated riffs played through in random order.
A song will make a dramatic change into a different tempo and drum pattern for a brief moment and then go someplace else, diminishing its sense of directionality. I’m all for compositional variety, but I’m also of the opinion that just because a song can be twelve minutes long, doesn’t mean it should be. Upon finishing some of the longer songs on Senjutsu, I found myself confused about the structure of what I had just experienced.
I don’t want to sound entirely negative, because Senjutsu is clearly the work of a band with many years of development under their belt, and there is not a single track on here that comes close to being bad. But I can’t help but feel like I have heard these songs before, and that there is are multiple superior Iron Maiden albums that can check off all the boxes in a more satisfying way. It appears that Maiden is stuck in the same predicament that many a long-lasting artist has encountered (for instance the Rolling Stones, or Prince): they keep doing everything right as they understand it, and are remaining true to themselves, but the strength of their vision has begun to wear off.
The lack of compositional and tonal variety makes this difficult to sit through. This is not an album that I would come back to with any regularity, but that is no cheap jab; it’s merely an acknowledgment that the band has set the bar incredibly high for themselves. Those dedicated Iron Maiden fans (and there are many, many of you) who love their post-Brave New World direction will find a familiar experience here. If you’re new to the band, though, I would encourage you to explore their earlier material for their peak.
I will offer this: it’s great to hear that they’ve still got it. Even if Iron Maiden’s recent output is comparatively mediocre to their astonishing 1980s run, it does not diminish the significance that they are still able to kick ass a full forty years since their debut. And it doesn’t look like they’re done yet.
Iron Maiden Senjutsu Album Review Track-by-Track
Track 1: "Senjutsu"
I really like the thundering toms on this track, serving as a proper introduction to the militaristic themes of the record. There isn’t much variation in mood or tempo over the eight minutes of the track, making this drag a bit.
Track 2: "Stratego"
My favorite song on the album; this is a tight and concise song. Rather upbeat, and making good use of galloping palm-muted riffs, this song is melodically quite memorable.
Track 3: "The Writing on the Wall"
The first indication of the epic-style compositions that are all over this album. This song is the strongest one, with an evocative acoustic intro and a great chorus. Also, the main riff sounds humorously like Boston’s “Feel Like Making Love”.
Track 4: "Lost in a Lost World"
Another solid one. I especially enjoy the harmonized vocals in the background of the intro, and some beautiful bass playing can be heard as the song winds down. I didn’t find the middle section very cohesive.
Track 5: "Days of Future Past"
A shorter track which sounds like a less memorable version of “Stratego”; the melodies and structure are very similar. As a shorter track, this one proved a good breather before returning to the longer tracks.
Track 6: "The Time Machine"
As mentioned above, the lack of compositional cohesion is particularly evident here. The riff changes are dramatic but don’t sound very logical. Bruce sings in his high register throughout much of the track, and it’s evident that he is pushing his voice.
Track 7: "Darkest Hour"
If we’re being honest, this is about where the military theme of this album wore off me. This is another long-winded song with riffs that are forgotten when the song concludes, though I really enjoy the arpeggiated guitars in the intro.
Track 8: "Death of the Celts"
The first of three ten-minute-plus songs to close the album; I found this final stretch to be the least memorable section of the experience. This song is excessively long, featuring an endless list of guitar solos that all sound the same.
Track 9: "The Parchment"
Following a harrowing introduction, this song quickly becomes bland. The midtempo riffs and chord progressions here have been used numerous times, possibly even earlier on this same album.
Track 10: "Hell on Earth"
We finish up with an eleven-minute track. The intro meanders for a full two minutes before bringing the full band in, and the song proceeds to take its sweet time exploring familiar-sounding material. I’m left with the thought that there is a lot given here...but does there need to be quite that much?
Favorites: “Stratego”, “The Writing on the Wall”
Least Favorites: “Death of the Celts”, “Hell on Earth”