With the runway clear for the perfect landing and the new album hurtling towards release on September 3rd, Iron Maiden dropped “Stratego”, the second single from Senjutsu, like a ten-ton hammer with only hours of advance warning this past Thursday. And as the Lords of Legato prepare to reclaim dominion over a Heavy Metal wasteland ravaged and barren, the faithful drained of their lifeblood by pandemic-induced torpor, we clairvoyants at Worship Metal daresay things are really, truly, absolutely looking up. Because barely had we risen from the canvas to beat the 10-count inflicted by startling lead single “Writing On The Wall” (9.5, to be precise) before the wallop of this second blow to the solar plexus, “Stratego”, left us literally, well, breathless – in the best way. For the audacious rupture with Iron convention continues with “Stratego”, which once again consecrates new ground, albeit in a more traditionally Metal context that still ought to satisfy all those precious, uh, more “conservative” listeners for whom “Writing On The Wall” was some sort of betrayal of, uh, something.
“Stratego” – which mercifully is not a song about the board game (given some of band leader Steve Harris’s past excursuses, one might be forgiven the lump in one’s throat upon initial perusal of Senjutsu’s track list) – is a Gers/Harris composition, which means it’s a Janick Gers composition rectified to Maiden provisos by Harris. This is evident straight out of the gate – Gers’s fingerprints are all over the lead riff, dripping with echoes of Ritchie Blackmore that the ex-Gillan axeman is wont to silhouette, and it’s subtended by the axiomatic Maiden gallop, here locked into a solid up-tempo but not neck-breaking pace, Harris and drummer His Sootyness Nicko McBrain locked in rhythmically like a compressed coil spring. What’s wonderful from the get-go is that this both sounds exactly like Maiden and doesn’t sound like anything Maiden have done before. Debatable stage antics aside, Gers is Maiden’s largely unsung hero when it comes to creative resourcefulness, being responsible for some of their most daring and original ideas in the second half of the band’s career, pulling their collective feet out of a creative doldrums’ embers fire more than a few times.
Not only is the impact immediate, courtesy of this admixture of Eastern-slanted riff and adrenaline-fuelled charge, but a cursory glance at the lyrics as one is dragged through the dust by the charging phalanx reveals that instead of the standard Maiden ode to the misery, gloom, and doom of soldiers at war in a set piece context, this is an analytical piece. Yes, the title may have foreshadowed this, but there is real genius here in the way this paeon to, well, strategy is also visceral to the song’s construction and structure. After some wild theorising in the verse about reading madmen’s minds and carrying the fate of a nation on one’s shoulders, swashbuckling frontman Dickinson takes the attack to the edge with a crescendo in the pre-chorus – but doesn’t quite cross the line, holding slightly back from triumphant release; and instead of a full-throated attack and intimations of victory in the chorus proper, the chorus, rather, channelling Sun Tzu (who else), ensures the safety of the ground gained by the song by holding it in a position that cannot be attacked: “Just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions” (The Art Of War, 6:32), indeed.
And what a chorus it is! The synths (yes, synths!) that had crept in almost imperceptibly in the pre-chorus explode centre stage in a glorious raid on purist sensibilities, rendering the song accessible in an almost quasi-pop manner (and sounding almost eerily reminiscent of something Adrian Smith’s solo project A.S.A.P. might have put out in the late ‘80’s…). Yet, these are judiciously layered to caress the form of the melody without sacrificing the song’s pulsating drive, serving only to accentuate it instead and compromising none of the heaviness. What an idea! – and this is going to go down an absolute barnstormer live. The song thus hooked in one’s subconscious two listens in, Gers’s restrained solo does just enough to avoid upsetting the momentum before the pre-chorus break descends into some seriously oriental heroics (more Middle Eastern ala “Powerslave” than Japanese, but no problem!) to foreshadow the song’s coda.
The track ends on an almost mystical note after only five minutes, short by Maiden standards and the second-shortest on Senjutsu, leaving the listener suspended in a semi-delirious madness of passionate ecstasy, regrets over wars not fought, and anticipation of the campaigns of the future. Such is the power of great music. If any comparisons to the ghosts of Maiden past may be made so far, Senjutsu is shaping up to be the most ground-breaking and self-challenging album since at least 2007’s A Matter Of Life And Death, an album that stands shoulder to shoulder with Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son and Piece Of Mind in the band’s catalogue for sheer progression and growth. If anything, “Stratego” somewhat recalls that album’s “These Colours Don’t Run”, but without the chest-thumping, flag-waving hubris, replaced instead with a sagacity regarding not just matters of war, but also matters of good songwriting, musical maturity, and ageing with dignity.
Because the fact, in evidence throughout their entire career, is that Iron Maiden excel not when they repeat themselves to creative Seppuku, but when they re-engineer their formula ever so slightly to fine tune an already magnificent engine. The two tracks released so far from their 17th studio album demonstrate a band that is gaining steam at the twilight of its career, not losing it, a godlike trait in this colossus that has gifted it its 41-year-plus recording career (and these tracks date from 2019). With “Stratego”, they’re two for two on a ten-track album that so far promises to be one of the most spectacular of their career, wiping away the semi-fatigue of The Book Of Souls and re-infusing a vigour that not a few are suggesting is reminiscent of the atmosphere and sense of purpose surrounding 2000’s Brave New World, possibly the greatest and most successful comeback album of all time. If so, it would be a spectacular way of coming full circle in the band’s fifth, longest, and final act, demonstrating once and for all why Iron Maiden fans trust their favourite band more than their wives and love them more than they love their own children. Will it?
Once again, the writing is on the wall. 10/10
“Stratego” from the forthcoming album Senjutsu was released as a digital single on August 19th, 2021. Senjutsu is released on September 3rd 2021 via Parlophone Records.