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‘Senjutsu’: How Iron Maiden Triumphed In The Post-Pandemic World
In Depth

‘Senjutsu’: How Iron Maiden Triumphed In The Post-Pandemic World

Iron Maiden’s colossal 17th album, ‘Senjutsu’ reveals why the group are still the troopers every other metal band tries to topple.


If ever there was a band capable of surviving fad, fashion and just about everything short of full-scale nuclear war, then that band is surely Iron Maiden. Though Maiden’s influential legacy as heavy-metal titans has been secure ever since they released their stellar third album, The Number Of The Beast, in 1982, the group somehow just get bigger and better with age. The critics immediately bracketed their 2021 album, Senjutsu, among the band’s most essential releases – and its dynamic music shows that Iron Maiden still had their sights set on ever higher creative peaks as the 21st century progressed.

Listen to ‘Senjutsu’ here.

“I’m more interested in looking forward than looking back”

“This deep into our career, we know how to work together and read one another,” frontman Bruce Dickinson said, reflecting on his band’s longevity in a 2021 Classic Rock interview.

“When Steve [Harris, bassist and Iron Maiden founder] and I sit down to work on the vocals and melody lines, he’ll have the arrangements nailed down very precisely, and he’ll often have, in his mind, a very specific place for every syllable of the lyrics worked out. As a singer, my job is to look for the spaces where I can put in the performance. If you visualise his writing as being like a city skyline, with blocks of skyscrapers, I’m rolling and diving, undulating around that grid, finding my own path.”

Forty-five years into their singular career, Iron Maiden’s modus operandi – and their apparent invincibility – is set in stone. Yet, in the six years since they released their previous album, 2015’s The Book Of Souls, there were some anxious times where the band felt they might just be facing down their own mortality.

During this period, Dickinson was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue, and while he made a full recovery, the state of his health cast doubt on whether the band could still withstand their rigorous touring schedule. Thankfully, however, when Maiden embarked on the first leg of their hugely successful, career-spanning The Legacy Of The Beast Tour in 2018, Dickinson smashed it out of the park. In fact, the whole band played so well, they began looking to the future again.

“We’re all excited at the thought of starting some new stories”

“When Bruce came back to this band, we all agreed that Maiden wasn’t going to be resting on our history,” Steve Harris told Classic Rock that same year. “The Legacy Of The Beast Tour is a nice way of telling the old stories in new ways. But I think we’re all excited at the thought of starting some new stories, too.”

As it turned out, Maiden were close to starting work on Senjutsu, as guitarist Adrian Smith had already shown Harris the outline for the album’s future title song, for which he wanted an introduction using booming Japanese drums. The guitarist envisaged the dramatic, stirring music to be the soundtrack to an epic battle, thus setting the tone for the new record’s content – and its title, which translates from Japanese to English as either “tactics” or “strategy”.

Creatively, the juices were flowing, and by the time the band convened in the studio with long-time co-producer Kevin Shirley, in the spring of 2019, they had plenty more material to work on.

“It helped that the studio, Guillaume Tell, in Paris, is familiar territory for us, as we’ve made two albums there before,” Smith said in a video interview on the band’s official YouTube channel. Having already played host to the Brave New World and The Book Of Souls albums, the facilities helped the band to feel right at home from the off. “It’s got a nice big live room and it’s convenient and comfortable to start working there,” Smith enthused.

In the same interview, the guitarist also revealed that the band embraced new songwriting methods, some of which involved harnessing new technology.

Senjutsu came together pretty easily,” he said. “We didn’t rehearse before we went into the studio. I had quite a lot prepared in fairly advanced demo form. I’d finished about four songs and I had a ton of other ideas. Steve brought in stuff, too. He’d have an idea on his iPhone and we’d expand on that.”

As it turned out, Senjutsu took longer to execute than expected, primarily because the COVID-19 pandemic struck while Iron Maiden were midway through the sessions. However, when the band returned and finished what they’d started, they realised they’d come up with something special, even by their exacting standards, with the Senjutsu material ranking among the most diverse they’d recorded to date.

“There are a few songs which are a bit of a departure for us”

Amid songs that ranged from the thunderous title track through to the soaring, female-choir-enhanced Lost In A Lost World, there was also room for quintessential Maiden rockers such as the melodic Janick Gers/Steve Harris co-write The Time Machine and the album’s first single, The Writing On The Wall: an Adrian Smith and Bruce Dickinson collaboration.

“We try not to stand still, so there are a few songs which are a bit of a departure for us,” Smith reflected. “Writing On The Wall, actually, is a concoction of styles. Some people have said it’s got a country flavour, but I’d say it was more folk-based.

“I think writing singles is an under-appreciated art form,” he added. “People often see singles as throwaway, trashy pop, but I got into music through Jimi Hendrix and Thin Lizzy singles, so I appreciate the skill behind a short, sharp, three-minute song as well.”

Yet while Senjutsu’s initial seven songs were sometimes concise – and always impressive – the album really earned its stripes with its closing trio of Steve Harris-penned tracks. Each clocking in at well over ten minutes in length, Death Of The Celts, The Parchment and Hell On Earth were all widescreen, mood-shifting epics which Classic Rock proclaimed to be “remarkable, thrilling encapsulations of everything a metal fan could love about Iron Maiden”.

With their light, shade and myriad moods, all three songs demonstrated exactly why Harris and company continue to lead the field in heavy metal. Indeed, the band even startled themselves with their ambitious approach.

“A modern gem from one of the greatest heavy metal bands ever”

“I have to say, listening to the album now, I’m blown away with it,” Adrian Smith told Classic Rock at the time of Senjutsu’s release. “When I’ve listened to albums we’ve made in the past, the memories are still raw, and I end up picking up on tiny things I wish had been done differently. But having had a year or more to live with the album, hearing it afresh is thrilling. The fact this band can still surprise us all is a huge tribute to what we do.”

By the time Smith was reflecting on Senjutsu’s virtues, most of the critics had already delivered their verdicts – and they were uniformly positive. The Guardian expressed high praise, calling the 80-minute double album “an ambitious, eccentric masterpiece”, while Rolling Stone suggested the band had “matured their sound on album No.17 without sacrificing any of their epic grit”. Putting it the most emphatically, though, were Blabbermouth, who simply declared, “Senjutsu is a modern gem from one of the greatest heavy metal bands ever, if not the absolute greatest.”

Released on 3 September 2021, Senjutsu came in one of the very best Iron Maiden album covers, with designer Mark Wilkinson depicting the band’s legendary mascot, Eddie, dressed as a samurai and holding a Japanese katana sword, ensuring the artwork brandished an attitude that mirrored the remarkable music within. The album also rewarded the band’s protracted studio work with sizeable sales, going to No.1 in no less than 24 countries and peaking at a career best of No.3 on the US Billboard 200.

“There’s a lot more for Iron Maiden to look forward to”

Several of Senjutsu’s standout tracks quickly muscled their way into the best Iron Maiden songs, helping to shape the group’s epic live set (reviewing their triumphant 2022 Download Festival headline slot, Record Collector magazine wrote, “Iron Maiden provided jaw-dropping classics… they never get old!”). Yet, even as the band took their Legacy Of The Beast Tour on the road following a pandemic-enforced hiatus, they were once again prioritising their future.

“What you’ve done in the past might be great but, for me, it shouldn’t be a guarantee of a meal ticket for years to come,” Bruce Dickinson recently told Classic Rock. “I’m not a big one for anniversaries or nostalgia, I’m more interested in looking forward than looking back. Which is good, because right now there’s a lot more for Iron Maiden, and Iron Maiden fans, to look forward to.”

Find out where ‘Senjutsu’ ranks among our best albums of 2021.

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