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The album

Virtual XI is Iron Maiden's second studio album with Blaze Bayley as vocalist. It retains the Maiden feel while at the same time continuing their musical evolution and maturation. Although there will always be people who are unable to accept this evolution, Virtual XI demonstrates that the band has indeed overcome their painful transitional period and are now continuing to do what they do best making great music.

The album cover is once again by Melvyn Grant, and returns to the familiar comic-book style. It is perhaps the most complex album cover since Somewhere In Time, depicting a boy who is immersed in a virtual reality of flaming holocaust where the line between virtual and reality is beginning to blur.

Musically, Virtual XI is not as dark and brooding as its predecessor The X Factor, and perhaps has more in common with Somewhere In Time both in its futuristic mood and musical style. Like all of the Maiden albums since Somewhere In Time, Virtual XI has a touch of light synth in the background of some songs. Also, there is a bit more vocal harmonies than we've seen before, on songs such as 'The Clansman' and 'The Educated Fool'.
One complaint about the Virtual XI North American edition is its promotion of America Online (AOL) both on the CD packaging and on the enhanced (computer readable) portion of the CD apparently, the UK and European versions escaped this unfortunate commercial gimmick. Albums should not be subject to such commercialisation and advertising gimmicks, which in my opinion only cheapen the mood and feeling of the album. Perhaps it is an attempt to foster the "virtual" aspect of the album, but there could hardly have been a worse choice than AOL, which is reviled by the internet community. Fortunately, if you ignore the enhanced portion of the CD, the rest of the album is rather good.

The CD packaging also contains pictures from the computer game Ed Hunter from Synthetic Dimensions. The game is a 1st-person (Doom-style) shooter, featuring familiar terrain from many Iron Maiden album sleeves. The problem with computer games is that their technology is virtually obsolete almost before they even hit the shelves. In 20 years the music will still be as powerful as it is today, but the computer game will be a technological dinosaur.

In any case, the bottom line of any album is its music, and in this respect Virtual XI lives up to its potential, solidifying Iron Maiden's position as one of the few surviving heavy metal powers from the 80's. If anyone remained unconvinced by The X Factor, Virtual XI should lay their doubts to rest.

The comments by Steve Harris were taken from the lyrics translation sheet that is included in the Japanese double-CD version of the album

This is a fast and energetic opening track, from which the album's cover picture and futuristic theme is derived. It is about being so involved in a virtual world that the line between fantasy and reality begins to blur and dissolve. The character of the song even develops a certain paranoia "I feel them closing in" which indicates that his mind has been severely disturbed by his virtual activities and that he's really gone "in far too deep."

Whereas the actual virtual medium is undefined in the song, the lyrics describe quite accurately what can be experienced playing MUD (Multi-user Dungeon) or MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) on the internet, which can completely take over your life if you're not careful. The idea for the song was probably inspired by the many stories related in the press about on-line gamers who suffered from what is called nowadays "cyber-addiction." Some took the game all too seriously and went as far as committing suicide, while others literally "played to death" and died in front of their computer of heart failure due to exhaustion.

'Futureal' is quite obviously a suicide note ("when you're reading this then I will be gone") left by such an addicted player who somehow realises that the people around him are getting worried, although he strongly denies to be in the wrong "Whenever anyone seems to treat me like a freak, it makes me see I'm the only one who feels, that I know what is real." This kind of madness is sadly not uncommon among people who abusively play on-line games. Although most of the gamers are perfectly sane and treat the virtual environment for what it is entertainment some weaker minds "lose the plot" and sadly end up considering the game more real than life itself and wondering "What is real?"

It it also noteworthy to point out that Blaze somehow revisited this topic on his 2000 concept album, Silicon Messiah, mostly with the lyrics "From the first taste of this altered truth I knew I could not live the way that others do" taken from the song 'The Hunger'. Anyway, this is a great album opener with a catchy tune and some good guitar solos, and might be Maiden's shortest song with lyrics.

This song was an idea that I'd had for quite some time but hadn't worked up into a full song until the writing started for this album. I worked up all the music and vocal melody lines but I didn't have a suitable lyric, so I asked Blaze to write something for it and very fine it is too!

Steve Harris

The Angel And The Gambler' was the first single from the Virtual XI album, and was released in two parts. Taken at face value, it seems to be a light-hearted song about an incorrigible gambler and an angel that is attempting to save him by persuading him to quit gambling. In a possibly unintended lyrical irony, an "angel" is also a term for a rich person who finances a gambler, allowing him to keep gambling using the rich person's money.

This is quite a long song nearly 10 minutes but it is a bit more repetitive than most of Harris's epic songs. It may not appeal to you at first, but it possibly will grown on you after a few listens, although it could have been a bit shorter and less repetitive.

This was from an idea that I had when I was driving on the M4 motorway to Wales! Thank God I had a small cassette recorder with me! The idea reminded me of The Who/U.F.O so I took it in that direction. It's got a very 70s rhythm feel to it which I like a lot.

Steve Harris

On an ironic note, it could also be a song about the complementarity of good and evil, implying that these two notions need to co-exist and that it is impossible to envisage one without the other. Awareness of good automatically generates that of evil too, as all light unavoidably casts shadows. The same can be said about life that cannot be fully appreciated if death is ignored. 'The Angel And The Gambler' is in this way reminiscent of an episode in the old television series, The Twilight Zone, which highlights the absurdity of a world with only good and no evil in it. Here is a short summary of the story, as written by author Ray Kurzweil:

The gambler had not expected to be here. But on reflection, he thought he had shown some kindness in his time. And this place was even more beautiful and satisfying than he had imagined. Everywhere there were magnificent crystal chandeliers, the finest handmade carpets, the most sumptuous foods, and, yes, the most beautiful women, who seemed intrigued with their new heaven mate. He tried his hand at roulette, and amazingly his number came up time after time. He tried the gaming tables, and his luck was nothing short of remarkable: He won game after game. Indeed his winnings were causing quite a stir, attracting much excitement from the attentive staff, and from the beautiful women.

This continued day after day, week after week, with the gambler winning every game, accumulating bigger and bigger earnings. Everything was going his way. He just kept on winning. And week after week, month after month, the gambler's streak of success remained unbreakable.

After a while, this started to get tedious. The gambler was getting restless; the winning was starting to lose its meaning. Yet nothing changed. He just kept on winning every game, until one day, the now anguished gambler turned to the angel who seemed to be in charge and said that he couldn't take it anymore. Heaven was not for him after all. He had figured he was destined for the "other place" nonetheless, and indeed that is where he wanted to be.

"But this is the other place," came the reply.

Ray Kurzweil [1999], The Age of Spiritual Machines

In the song, the first two verses introduce us to a compulsive gambler who is not very successful, but who keeps trying his luck anyway, hoping that things will change ("But you're not gonna win, you'd better go back again"; "But you're down on your luck and what will the next day bring"). Then, the first bridge brings us to see things from the gambler's perspective. He seems to be addressing God and wonders why an angel was sent to try and save his wretched and somehow meaningless life ("So what does it matter, so why don't you answer, so why did you send an angel to mend?"). Then, the next verses could correspond to the angel's quite sarcastic view of the gambler's life. Pay special attention to these lines:

Nothing to lose but so much to gain


A little danger, it goes without saying


But what do you care, you're gonna go in the end

Сякаш тук играта е разгледана като живота на човека, животът и всички рискове, които трябва да поемем, въпреки факта, че накрая всички умираме – напускаме казиното, образно казано. И наистина, има толкова много да придобиваме по време на земния си път, а незначителната опасност е неделима част от него, и от това чиракуване, към което много се отнасят с думата „жизнен опит".

It looks here like the game is now seen as life itself; life and all the gambles we have to take, regardless of the fact that we'll all die leave the casino in the end. There is indeed "so much to gain" during life, and the "little danger" is an inherent part of it and of this apprenticeship that many refer to as experience.

The following bridge evokes again the possibility that forviveness or damnation are both possible, whichever way life is led down on earth. But the gambler faces his responsibilities and gives in to temptation ("I'll suffer my craving, my soul's not worth saving, so why don't you go, just leave well alone") in a line strangely reminiscent of another one found in 'Sign Of The Cross': "Lost the love of heaven above, chose the lust of the earth below". The only difference here is that the gambler consciously rejects the angel and the redemption he could bring.

The last verses after the solos are composed of warnings given to the gambler by the angel, exhorting him to be careful in his choices and to base his judgement on experience and past mistakes ("You've made your mistakes, won't play it the same again"), as well as berating him for his foolishness to pursue his quest for futile pleasure ("You have been warned but still you plunge in, you play high stakes but there's nothing to win"). This could apply to all of us who gamble our lives in search of other sensations that may not be worth it in the end. Obviously, as the very last bridge points rightly out, the decision is ours to make, and certainly no one else's.

To conclude, a word needs to be added about the repetition of the chorus. Although this is a more than decent song, many people dislike it because of this repeatedness, and a friend of mine even jokingly dubbed this song 'The Angel And The Never-Ending Chorus'. This apparent abuse of the lyrics (the chorus is repeated 12 times before the solos and another 10 times at the end of the song!) may have some significance, although it is not clear which it can be. Maybe the "Angel" is simply hammering those words into the gambler's brain in order to make him react and ponder their true meaning. It certainly made a few Maiden fans react to it!

On the surface 'Lightning Strikes Twice' is about an approaching thunderstorm, and the music does justice to this concept with its slow and quiet start which soon bursts into powerful guitar chords for the verses and choruses. But the chorus "maybe lightning strikes twice" seems to hint at a deeper meaning to the song. It is said that lightning never strikes the same place twice, and to suggest that maybe it will is perhaps a statement about fate and hope. Lightning being generally used as an ominous sign, it is also likely that the narrator feels another crisis coming up in his life, one he had to face already in the past and that is about to reoccur "And as I wait and I look for an answer to all the things going round in my head I ask myself could it be a disaster and when it's maybe threatening to happen again." Like many good songs, the meaning is open to personal interpretation, and the song itself is excellent.

This started as an initial idea of Davey's and we just picked it up from there and worked it into a complete song together. I wrote the lyrics after coming up with the words for the chorus during the arranging of the music with Dave. He liked the idea of the title so I wrote the lyrics around that.

Steve Harris

'The Clansman' is clearly inspired by the 1995 movie Braveheart starring and directed by Mel Gibson. Another film about the History of Scotland was also released the same year, namely Rob Roy, and Steve said it was an inspiration for the song as well. But, whereas William Wallace was a true hero of Scotland and contributed massively in the struggle against the English, Rob Roy although considered a hero too by many was nothing more than a crook, a thief and a double-agent, who never really did anything in the fight for the freedom of his country.

The song describes the struggle of the Scottish clans to free themselves of English oppression, and the ill-intentioned people who tried to see some analogies with the Ku-Klux-Klan in the lyrics are sorely mistaken. This is a song about freedom and resistance against an oppressor, and there is no hint of racism in it whatsoever and those who think there is are urged to re-read the lyrics! The chorus itself is especially reminiscent of William Wallace's final dying cry "Freedom!" in the movie (in reality, considering that the poor man had just had his bowels removed, it would have been nothing more than a whisper, if anything). This is an epic Harris song, equal to any of his past epics including 'Rime Of The Ancient Mariner' or 'To Tame A Land'. In fact, this song would be perfectly at home on any of the Maiden albums from the Golden Age.

Started as two separate ideas, then put them together and it worked! It's got a Celtic flavour to the music which is why I wrote the lyrics about the Scottish clans. They were inspired also by the Braveheart and Rob Roy films.

Steve Harris

Taken at face value, this song is about the collision of worlds, such as perhaps an asteroid or comet colliding with the earth. It is a concept that has enjoyed a fair amount of publicity in the late 1990s, with the 1998 summer blockbusters Deep Impact and Armageddon drawing attention to the subject. Even though the lyrics could have been deeper, 'When Two Worlds Collide' is a good song with a good tune and some nice guitar riffs and solos.

Obviously, another interpretation comes to mind: that of the collision of two different cultural worlds. May it be the crusades, with Christian knights entering Jerusalem and meeting the world of Islam, or the first encounter of the Europeans with the North-American Indians, History is paved of such examples and the shock of these different cultures generally creates a lot of turmoil, with one civilisation trying to anihilate the other, leaving "the anger, the pain of those who remain."

This was from an idea by Dave, who worked with Blaze and then I worked with both of them, adding parts to the music, part of the chorus melody line and arranging the song. Dave wrote most of the music and Blaze wrote the lyrics.

Steve Harris

'The Educated Fool' is about the deep and introspective mid-life realisation that most people eventually reach, where they begin to realise that their education and ideals are not really relevant to what is important in life. But the song also seems to be a statement of hope, to put these things into a proper perspective and face the ultimate meaning of life (whatever that might be) head-on.

This is also the first song where Steve Harris's father is mentioned ("I want to meet my father beyond"), as he had recently passed away. The other song that mentions Steve's father is 'Blood Brothers' ("Just for a second a glimpse of my father I see"), yet another life-questioning song, although on a more general level.

Musically this is an excellent song, with powerful emotion, some great vocal harmonies, and classic Maiden riffage. Definitely this is one of the best songs on the album.

This started from the guitar melody line that you hear at the beginning and it fitted really well with a couple of other ideas that I had at the time. It turned out very strong and is one of Blaze's favourites on the album.

Steve Harris

This song is about the pervasive fear that is ingrained into the very core of modern society. As children we are taught to fear strangers, and this fear carries over into society as a whole. It is a fairly long song, with a number of interesting tempo changes and an excellent mid-song instrumental section.

'Don't Look To The Eyes Of A Stranger' has an interesting and most probably unintentional tie with the lyrics of 'Killers'. Whereas the story is seen from the perspective of the attacker in 'Killers', this one takes us into the anguished mind of the victim. The possibility to relate one song to another is yet another element that makes Iron Maiden so great.

This is another idea which I'd had for a while but hadn't managed to work up into a full song until now. I wanted it to sound a bit orchestral as it had a majestic feel to it. It also sounded very ominous so I wanted to make the end part completely mad and manic, I think Jan's not too sure about that part but I think it works great!

Steve Harris

'Como Estais Amigos' is a tribute to the Argentinian people, especially the soldiers who died in the 1982 Falkland Islands War with Britain. The title translates literally to "how are you friends". The song has a sad and powerful mood, and closes the album on a reflective and emotional note.

The conflict for the Falklands stemmed from the fairly appalling political and economic situation of two countries that claimed sovereignty over the same wind-swept pieces of rock in the South Atlantic. The invasion of these islands was attempt to regain popularity by the Argentinian government, a military dictatorship at the time, and served unvoluntarily the cause of the British Tory government, which was not particularly appreciated by its people either. A surge of misplaced nationalism and extreme jingoism occurred in both countries, fuelled by their respective leaders and by the press, leading to statements like "These islands are ours" or "Our boys are fighting a rightful war" on either side. The people of Argentina and Great-Britain were blissfully forgetting their respective political woes, as well as the recession, to concentrate on what was happening on the Falkland Islands.

What everyone was also ignoring is that the soldiers they sent out there were not ready for this type of conflict. The Argentine combattants were not properly trained, and most of them were young conscripts who were not even sure of what they were fighting for (some reports state that some of them had been told that the British had invaded the main land and were not even aware of the exact location where they had been shipped to). On the other side, the British soldiers were trained professionals who were ready for a conflict in Europe, but not 8,000 miles away from home. The official final death toll of over 255 British and some 750 Argentinians does not reflect the real losses that occurred because of the war: many combattants on either side suffered subsequently of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders, and the rate of suicides was so high that the number of casualties almost doubled in the 20 years that followed the conflict, both in Britain and Argentina. This is not such a surprise when you consider that most of the attacks degenerated into hand-to-hand combat with knives and bayonets probably the most horrifying experience for a soldier.

Shall we keep the fires burning


Shall we keep the flames alight


Should we try to remember


What is wrong and what is right

This seems to be a plea to bring the Argentinians and British together in peace and to put aside any hatred that may have been felt at the time or even now. The sacrifice of those who fought and those who fell should not be forgotten, and should serve as a lesson for peace for the generations to come. It was sad to hear about an incident at an Iron Maiden concert in Argentina, where a minority of so-called "fans" started some trouble when the Union Jack was waved during 'The Trooper'. Those people obviously still held a grudge against Britain, even over 20 years later although I suspect that most of them were not even born when the Falklands War took place and completely missed out on the real significance of this flag-waving during this particular song (Sharon Osbourne made the same mistake during a gig in the US in 2005). It's dumb people like that who support unnecessary bloody conflicts and make "the wickedness and sadness come to visit us again."

No victory and no vanquished


Only horror, only pain

This was written by Jan and Blaze, with Jan writing the music and Blaze the vocal melody lines and lyrics. It's a sad but powerful song, quite dark but dramatic, about the Falklands war. I think it makes an excellent albums closer.

Steve Harris