It’s a big thing, a new Iron Maiden release. Not least when the masters haven’t released new music in over half a decade and we’ve largely been ‘rona-banished from most of our regular enjoyment, such as it is, going on two years now, including the almost annual palliative of the Maiden live experience. It stands to reason, then, that a typical fast-paced Maiden guitar attack gobsmack would have done the trick for “The Writing On The Wall”, and that everyone would have been more than sated in the habitual AC/DC manner of simply being content with the return of soothing familiarity in this evermore bizarre world. But instead of playing it safe, the Beast this time is armed with a daring surprise.
That surprise is instantaneous, and immediately welcome: at first, this doesn’t sound much like Iron Maiden at all, and in this instance (unlike, say, “The Angel And The Gambler”…), that’s a refreshingly good thing. An almost Latin-flavoured acoustic intro gives way to a folky road-rat southern-rock riff that (production and drums aside) only starts to sound vaguely like Maiden when Dickinson discharges his trademark warble. Wot’s going on ‘ere then, one wonders, scrambling for the songwriting credits to find that “The Writing On The Wall” is a Smith/Dickinson composition (so often the portent of great things), until the penny drops – aha, Smith the songsmith is bringing decidedly un-Maiden influences like the ones expressed in the superb Smith/Kotzen blues project back to the mothership, while Dickinson is no doubt dipping into his reservoirs of superior solo material. This, surely, is a good thing?
Yes. As the song progresses via typically sharp lyrics from Dickinson – “Now we are victorious we’ve become our slaves / A land of hope and glory building graveyards for the brave” – into a wistful chorus followed by a more typically Maidenish Celtic atmosphere, which becomes even more pronounced in the solos (but listen for some seriously Somewhere In Time-style soloing in the second one!), it becomes evident something rather serious is afoot. The song is thoughtful social commentary in the best Maiden tradition, the “Writing On The Wall” from the Biblical story of Belshazzar’s feast a mirror to the waning hours (but how long they are) of Neoliberal rule of gluttonous excess that has forced civilisation to lose its way. The fact that it is enveloped in sonic dynamics Iron Maiden have rarely deployed, and that without losing a shred of their identity, almost helps to make the intellectual point even more forcefully. “The Writing On The Wall” is a song of tremendous maturity mercifully shorn of endless repetitions, in which Iron Maiden not only prove themselves immediately relevant in today’s world, but also break new musical ground, an admirable feat for Heavy Metal’s most beloved elder statesmen.
The accompanying animated video is also something of a minor masterpiece which only becomes more engrossing with each view. Stylistically and conceptually reminiscent of Disturbed’s video for their cover of the Genesis masterpiece “Land Of Confusion”, this is even more nuanced to match our decline into even more irrational and incomprehensible times. A cortege led by the grotesque, porcine manifestation of Western Capitalism in a limo bearing American flags in distress drags what remains of the last vestiges of a fallen civilisation across a modern Gobi Desert through the crenelation of modern technology (they are one and the same; ‘welcome to the desert of the real’), where Adam and Eve are divided by test tubes and horrendous homunculi pass for humans – all just so the putrid orgy of Belshazzar’s feast can continue for a few hours more as the world asphyxiates.
Naturally, Eddie (in a spectacular new Samurai guise I was fervently hoping is his next veritable incarnation until the revelation today that it is – best Eddie in forever!) and his various biker manifestations overthrow the fascists amid a welter of references to Iron Maiden history and mythology. Somehow, though, the basic triteness of this concept, a storyboard also written by Dickinson, assumes genuine meaning and authority given both the restrained and reflective nature of the song and the seriousness of the context it so brilliantly addresses. The slow-motion socio-political catastrophe we’ve been witnessing for at least well over a decade means civilisation has only one recourse left, which, as ever, is to turn to its artists, the thoughtful, the marginalised – so, basically, Heavy Metal – to rebuild it once again, as the song and its video intimate.
That, yes, Trump is struck by an axe to the forehead and the supplicant English vassals slavishly following his cortege have Union Jacks on their buttocks like the asses Trump’s UK imitators are is especially satisfying, but it simply wouldn’t work if the song wasn’t as intelligent and elegantly restrained – more an elegy than an attack – as it is. Iron Maiden’s decision to use this song and concept video to signal their return – details of the album to come were only published five days after the single release, portending a fascinating Last Samurai trip to revisit the codes of honour of pre-modern Japan (fuck my old boots, this is exciting) – bodes extremely well for what may well be their final studio offering. The writing, indeed, is on the wall, and for Iron Maiden, unlike for Western civilisation, it doesn’t appear to indicate a fall. Senjutsu! 9.5/10
“The Writing On The Wall” from the forthcoming album Senjutsu was released as a digital single on July 15th, 2021. Senjutsu is released on September 3rd 2021 via Parlophone Records.