Iron Maiden’s ‘Senjutsu’ – A Superfan’s Track-by-Track Guide + Review
On Sept. 3, heavy metal legends Iron Maiden will release Senjutsu, their long-awaited 17th album and first since 2015's The Book of Souls. Offering a preview of what to expect, we have prepared a track-by-track guide and review of the 80-plus-minute double album.
Rumors had lightly persisted in recent years that the venerable Maiden had completed a new record — singer Bruce Dickinson even lightly taunted fans with prospects of something new onstage during the mesmerizing 'The Legacy of the Beast' tour.
Then came the 'Belshazzar's Feast' teaser campaign that sent fans racing to every corner of the internet to piece together clues and their ultimate significance in advance of the release of the animated music video for the lead single, "The Writing on the Wall."
As an obsessive Iron Maiden fan for over half my life, I've been where many of you are — scouring message boards and forums, eager to participate in and and all discussions and unfounded projections with the rest of the band's unparalleled global fanbase. Weeks, months even, are spent in a gleeful agony, waiting for anything new to come through the Maiden funnel.
The track listing and its respective writing credits alone have fueled countless conversations and debates, all of which have been purely wild speculation. Four songs over nine minutes long, each composed solely by Steve Harris is enough to flood the imagination of every Maiden fan with limitless possibilities.
Although the release of Senjutsu is still weeks away (pre-order your copy here), I have some food for thought — some Piece of Mind, if you will — to prepare you for the journey that lies ahead.
Up the irons!
IRON MAIDEN'S SENJUTSU — A SUPERFAN'S TRACK-BY-TRACK GUIDE + REVIEW
1. "SENJUTSU" (8:20)
Writers: Steve Harris/Adrian Smith
A solitary drum — THUD! — two more — THUD! THUD! — some noises that sound like that chattling of the silver screen’s alien villain Predator creep in… where are we?
A muscular chord now fills out the speakers, some descending chords come in and Nicko McBrain is still behind it all, an architect of disorienting, pounding, tumbling tom-kick patterns. Wherever we are, it’s unlike anywhere else we’ve been — and we’re only 45 seconds in.
Here’s Bruce! He sounds like a wise, experienced wizard, which helps explain that silvery mane he’s got now. This groove is relentless, there’s multiple vocal tracks and some shrill bits of keyboard orchestration. It’s all overwhelmingly dense. Something surely has to give, no?
No. All doom, all the time. There’s a sort of despondency here that is uncomfortable, mainly from that marauding groove. It's there from start to finish. No quarter.
Wow, impressive. This is really different. The Steve Harris/Adrian Smith co-writes are always enticing — the guy who writes all the long songs and the one who still has a knack for the quicker ones. “Senjutsu” highlights each of their strengths.
These two also wrote the intro on The Final Frontier, and it sounds like they really expanded on those opening drum sounds they played with over a decade ago now. It’s not the only subtle nod to their past on this album...
Battle! And lots of it! With enemies to the north, south, east and west, it explains the disorienting nature of “Senjutsu” and the extremely dismal atmosphere. But dynasties must be protected, even in the face of imminent defeat.
A lot of people will probably say this sounds a lot like Tool. The drumming makes the comparison easy, but that’s about the extent of that nation. The leadoff spot on an Iron Maiden album is a sacred thing and without even hearing the rest of the album, this spot feels just right for the title track.
2. "STRATEGO" (4:59)
Writers: Steve Harris/Janick Gers
And, finally, all that tension has been erased! A yearning lead and a steady gallop helps make things feel more familiar.
This has a dark, cloaked rider kind of feel (ironically, this visual dominated the video for “The Writing on the Wall”). There’s no mistaking it — this is a Gers co-write, evidenced by him playing the vocal melody on guitar underneath Bruce. There’s some sort of vocal effect here and, actually, it works quite well with Janick’s lead tone.
I love the chorus teaser — the concussive blasts have you convinced Bruce’s voice is gonna spread its wings… but it’s cut off quick and back to the gallop we go for another couple rounds and some drawn out chords and, finally, that big chorus payoff.
This reminds me a lot of “Ghost of the Navigator” the way they play around with the pre-chorus/chorus/post-chorus bits. That was a Harris/Gers track too, but with added help from Dickinson. Janick continues to bring forth some of Maiden’s best material.
The keys, that same shrill effect from the title track, help give this a big, big Dance of Death vibe.
“How do you read a madman’s mind / Teach me the art of war / For I shall bring more than you bargained for” — Surprisingly, the operatic Dickinson is completely laid back singing this part, as if the battle has already been won, or, more likely, perhaps, he sticks to the notion of the “eye of the storm,” which is mentioned in the chorus. It feels like the eye after that swirling storm that was “Senjutsu.”
No references to the best-in-class ‘Stratego’ board game either. At least, not that I could tell. That’s probably a good thing. There’s more history and culture to mine before turning to games intended for children ages 8-15 for lyrical fodder.
There’s not many short songs on here and, fortunately, this one is great. Just because Maiden’s songs are longer these days doesn’t mean they can’t still pull off these quick-hit tracks with maximum replay value.
3. "THE WRITING ON THE WALL" (6:13)
Writers: Bruce Dickinson/Adrian Smith
In tandem with one of their most memorable music videos ever, this track was the very first taste of Senjutsu every Iron Maiden fan around the world got. Adrian loves the blues and old school hard rock while Bruce has quite the affinity for Jethro Tull, and both of their passions merge on “The Writing on the Wall.” The quasi-country western flair is a fairly new touch and, if anything, is just slightly reminiscent of the vibe on “El Dorado,” the lead single off 2010’s The Final Frontier.
As expected, this feels even better nestled next to the feel-good “Stratego.” The atmosphere is quite positive, despite some heavy subject matter.
Maiden play to Smith’s strengths here, too, letting his expressive guitar playing rip over the song’s back half with fantastic embellishments that are typical of what he tends to add to songs when played live. These are also some of Maiden’s finest folk melodies ever.
Despite the brilliant ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ teaser campaign, this song is not at all about the story from the Bible. It seems to, instead, be directed at those in positions of power who desperately cling to their less than righteous ways and fail to see their own downfall is inevitable. The earthquake that is a coming is the rumble of the powerless gathering together to force a systematic overhaul. The animated music video made this assertion quite obvious.
Three songs into the album and it is impossible to determine a direction. With an hour of music left on Senjutsu, anything feels possible. The tempo on “The Writing on the Wall” is somewhat stubborn or restrained, which relays enough tension to connect to the lyrics. This will definitely get a kick in the arse onstage where it will inevitably be played just a bit faster.
Iron Maiden, "The Writing on the Wall" Music Video
4. "LOST IN A LOST WORLD" (9:31)
Writer: Steve Harris
Here we have the first of Steve Harris’ four epics, all of which eclipse the 9-minute mark.
Some delicate acoustic strumming and breathy “ahhh-ahhh” vocal passages set the grim scene for “Lost in a Lost World.” Bruce, whose voice is draped in a ghastly effect — a spectral energy hanging listlessly in the air like smoke running from a burning stick of incense — comes in almost immediately.
What consistently makes these acoustic intros exciting is the uncertainty of how Steve is going to shatter the still. With utmost urgency, this inevitability strikes — a sturdy riff, trademark Steve Harris style. These verses have a much stronger melodic delivery than the mountainous pile of words ‘Arry usually hands Bruce to deliver in a more rigid fashion as Maiden’s venerable air raid siren still warps them into impossible feats of operatic splendor. These are all good things, however.
Whoa — did not see that X Factor type chorus coming, especially after that buildup passage where Janick’s lead follows Bruce some more. All the fluidity just came to a hard stop right there, a turning point in “Lost in a Lost World” as this jagged rhythm now carries the rest of the track forward. Nicko accents this all brilliantly from there, even in moments of relative simplicity. Restraint is the hallmark of any great drummer.
This one is about the slaughter of indigenous tribes, as reflected by those still here, descendents of ancestors long gone, wiped out by bloodthirsty warmongers. The chorus makes a lot more sense now — something historic and beautiful quickly brought to an end in a jarring fashion. These are the things that make Steve Harris such a brilliant songwriter and storyteller.
There’s some fans out there that will just never accept that this is where Steve wants to be, at least when left to his own devices. As typical as the acoustic intros have become regarding songs of this length, these epics are far from being stuck in any sort of comfort zone. Differentiating these is a ridiculously huge task, especially after authoring so many like this.
Even so, there is much sweeter fruit to be tasted elsewhere on Senjutsu. There’s a bit of a disconnect on some of these parts.
5. "DAYS OF FUTURE PAST" (4:03)
Writers: Bruce Dickinson/Adrian Smith
Cool intro! No, seriously, really cool intro! A bit of an eastern flavor, too.
“Days of Future Past” is the hard-charging, single-oriented type track we have come to expect and love whenever Bruce and Adrian team up. The verse screams vintage Maiden with a proper, ripping lead from the long-standing guitar player, but that chorus is firmly rooted in the modern day and Bruce belts out his best vocal performance so far.
There’s a lot of push and pull on this one and Smith always knows how to pull out from a pit-stop tempo and bring everything right back around the track at cruising speed. The double time on the chorus at the end is so very “Out of the Silent Planet” of them — it should’ve gone on for longer!
Eddie, if you’re reading this, could you please nudge the boys to play both “Silent Planet” and this on the next run? Our pen is not mightier than your sword, mate, help us out. This keyboard of ours is rubbish, too — whale oil beef hooked.
“The days of future past / To wander on the shore / A king without a queen / To die forevermore / To wander in the wasteland / Immortal to the end / Waiting for the judgement / But the judgement never ends.” That has got to be the best refrain on the album and not just lyrically. Fantastic rhyme scheme on the verses and nicking a title by the Moody Blues sits just fine here— the Moody Blues rule, folks.
Those fans frustrated by Maiden’s winding prog ambitions mentioned above are going to be all over this one. At this point, we’ve reached what is the strongest song yet (and not just because it’s a short one), which puts the rest of the tracks in prime pole position as Senjutsu begins its fast-rising upward arc.
6. "THE TIME MACHINE" (7:09)
Writers: Steve Harris/Janick Gers
The acoustic opening brings me straight back to the shipdeck on the treacherous journey that was “The Talisman” off The Final Frontier, which coincidentally happens to be my favorite on that album.
Part of me hoped Maiden to embark on a wild Emerson, Lake and Palmer Tarkus sort of run here and it could’ve been possible if they chose to write movements for individual escapades enjoyed on this time-traveling contraption. Anyone else? No? Just me?
Still, there’s loads of excitement, carnival-esque melodies, and even some acoustic strumming to support the chorus, which is quite near the level of the one on the previous track. Let’s call it a tie. The forums can sort that one out. Nicko gives it exactly what it needs, elevating everything.
Two halves make up the whole of “The Time Machine,” all bound by that powerfully arresting chorus. Bruce kicks the vibrato into overdrive on this song a lot, too.
That little prog jam breakdown does feel like we’re in a time machine, right back to 2010 in the midsection of “Starblind.”
“The Time Machine” focuses on the magnitude of the very concept of visiting bygone eras in Earth’s timeline, rather than cycling through a series of tales.
“Stand among the steeples, stand upon the walls,” sings Bruce with an overly jubilant swagger, like a figure bounding from rooftop to rooftop, eager to share the world’s mysteries with any and all who will listen.
Since this entire track-by-track breakdown is based around the opinions of this one megafan writer, don’t mind me as I label “The Time Machine” my favorite track on Senjutsu.
It was an immediate standout on my very first runthrough of the album and retains its lofty status after repeated listens. It’s just FUN. I wish this was 20 minutes long — it’s that catchy. There are so many opportunities to experiment.
Unfortunately, this marks the end for Janick’s writing credits. Two-for-two though — we’ll take it!
7. "DARKEST HOUR" (7:20)
Writers: Bruce Dickinson/Adrian Smith
The sounds of crashing waves and prickly guitar leads that resemble noisy seagulls open “Darkest Hour,” not just that last Dickinson/Smith co-write on the record, but the last song on Senjutsu not authored exclusively by Harris.
The title speaks to the overall mood of this song, which is dark, brooding and pensive, driven by desperate chords and mystic melodies throughout the stripped back verse. Adrian, again, lays down textured guitar parts that help build to a grand midsection, one that is still rooted in overt misery.
Of all the songs on Senjutsu, it’s “Darkest Hour” that fully encapsulates the enormous range and dynamism of the ageless wonder, Bruce Dickinson.
Do we really have a bona fide ballad on an Iron Maiden album? Maybe not in the lovelorn, weepy, just-got-dumped way, but yes, we do. There’s muddy guitars underneath and soul-screaming, divebomb blues that underscores Smith’s specialty in the band as the expressionist guitar player.
This is a heavy one. A ballad written through the eyes of a soldier who dreads the oncoming day. That darkest hour is the one before the dawn breaks, and the fight and struggle begins anew.
Metaphorically, there’s a lot happening on “Darkest Hour.” We’ll see what other fans think come Sept. 3.
“Darkest Hour” would be a snug fit on Dickinson’s Accident of Birth or The Chemical Wedding solo albums, both of which boasted Smith’s presence.
This is a very atypical Maiden track and is emotionally stirring. It’s rare we get to hear Bruce truly take the spotlight without much instrumentation vying for attention. I expect this will be one of the “grower” tracks for fans who will gradually come to appreciate its splendor.
8. "DEATH OF THE CELTS" (10:20)
Writer: Steve Harris
Our beloved ‘Arry has nothing left to prove to anyone in this world or the next (shoutout to anyone who caught that “Can I Play With Madness” reference), but it would seem he is not done proving his worth to himself.
Putting the last 34-plus minutes entirely on one person’s shoulders is a bold, bold move. In many ways, the entirety of Senjutsu will be judged by its three closing tracks.
Within just seconds, “Death of the Celts’ feels like a sequel to the Virtual XI favorite “The Clansman.”
The — yup, you guessed it — quiet intro progresses in a similar manner and all of it has a certain aura of greatness soon to come, shifting back and forth between major to minor keys.
Bruce’s folky, storytelling cadence flows right into the crashing distortion as tension builds… and builds, and builds. Steve likes writing a lot of lyrics, what can we say?
It’s a full five minutes before that tension breaks and “Death of the Celts” becomes a song of two distinct parts, the latter marked by soaring, simple melodic breaks. Think “The Red and The Black.”
Now, where did my sword and shield go? Time to go answer call...
It should be no mystery to anyone what “Death of the Celts” is about.
The eighth song on Senjutsu will kick up some dirt ‘neath your kilt. On this closing trio, Steve is one for one. This is a much stronger nod to the Blaze era than parts of “Lost in a Lost World.” Some may gripe that this is just a recycling or 2.0 version of “The Clansman,” but with a catalog this deep and subjects this rich, why limit yourself to just one?
9. "THE PARCHMENT" (12:39)
Writer: Steve Harris
Quiet intro? Quiet intro!
Listen, it’s just gonna be what it’s gonna be. Steve has been setting his songs up as individual, cinematic pieces for decades now, so if you want something else, that’s just too bad for you. The lack of traditional structures and songs without obvious choruses are a really unique way of writing, and you just have to take the plunge.
There’s a big “Powerslave” meets “The Book of Souls” vibe on “The Parchment,” the only one of those three not bearing their respective album title’s name. The mid tempo pace remains a constant for three-quarters of the song and Nicko maps out every drum stroke perfectly with the enigmatic melodies and orchestral synths. Suddenly, a galloping break, as if the secrets of this parchment were unleashed upon the world and all is right and good again.
It sounded like Bruce referenced ancient Hellenic ruler and tyrant king Herod the Great, but having already filled their one “The Great” song title back in 1986 (“Alexander the Great”), “The Parchment” is the glove that fits here. Considering how damn dark this song is, perhaps Herod’s order to kill all boys under the age of two in the vicinity of Bethlehem (known as the Massacre of the Innocents) is the subject here, as he sought to rid the world of the baby prophet Jesus.
Without the traditional song structures in place, it can be difficult to remember what sections came from what songs without a few extra listens. It is simply the nature of the beast, to no fault of Harris. Another “grower” that will have you coming back to pick up on all the subtle nuances of “The Parchment.”
10. "HELL ON EARTH" (11:19)
Writer: Steve Harris
Here it is, the finale to Senjutsu and, because nothing in life is certain, it could possibly be the conclusion to Iron Maiden’s entire career. Let’s hope not, though!
The opening passage has flashes of The Final Frontier closer “When the Wild Wind Blows,” but, again, none of this feels rehashed. These nods to the past help unify the catalog and it’s obvious Maiden are first and foremost inspired by themselves.
A quiet intro… and no singing at all this time.
“Hell on Earth” possesses some of Steve’s best melodic breaks, ones that are utilized in different ways as the song progresses across it’s 11-minute runtime. It’s a playful way of re-engaging the most memorable elements on the track without conforming to the verse/chorus dynamic Steve seems so… averse (rimshot!)… to.
Vocally, this is another high point of Senjutsu, particularly at the end. Dickinson’s infamous snarl comes out in a visceral way, an impassioned performance that comes right after a minimalist breather.
A glorious, glorious ending that carries off into the distance, just out of sight on the setting sun and the darkening horizon.
War is Hell, right?
Enough spoilers for you! Something has to be left, so that’s all you get here.
The best of Arry’s four epics, no question and another all-time album closer in a long line of legendary endings. The first reaction to listening “Hell on Earth” was — can we swear? Let’s! — BLOODY HELL, HE FUCKING DID IT! HE FUCKING DID IT!
All knees must remain bent in the direction of Steve Harris for all eternity, even if eternity should fail.
I’ll admit, I got a bit nervous when I saw that 40 percent of the album’s tracks were written just by Steve, who had another two co-writes on top of that. It’s just a lot of creativity to demand from one person, now 17 albums deep. Now I just feel embarrassed. Sorry, 'Arry, it won't happen again!