When Blaze Bayley joined Iron Maiden in 1993, he hadn’t been given the opportunity to tour before recording his first album. The X Factor, released the following year, received lukewarm reviews. That had been easy to predict, however, since Iron Maiden were trying to move on without classic-era vocalist Bruce Dickinson. Band leader Steve Harris had also been going through a messy divorce.

The result didn't just sound different; it felt different. The NWOBHM giants had to accept that a period of discomfort had to be endured. As they wrote and prepared to release Virtual XI on March 23, 1998, they hoped that period had passed. Their mood, band members say, was completely different.

“It’s definitely a progression,” Bayley argued at the time. “With The X Factor, we took a long time to record it, and it was quite a long album with a lot of songs. I think there was a lot of expectation attached to that. We were learning how to work together and all of that as well. We hadn’t toured; I hadn’t done a gig with Maiden. Now, coming back to the studio there’s a lot of confidence in the band. Everybody feels really positive. There’s a lot of creative energy. This album feels a lot more positive.”

Songs eventually emerged with subjects that felt a little more familiar to Iron Maiden’s famously loyal fans. For example, “Futureal” told of a character lost in a dystopian world. “The Angel and the Gambler” was a classic tale of good versus evil, while “The Clansman” was inspired by Mel Gibson’s movie Braveheart. Guitarist Janick Gers said Virtual XI was an attempt to portray the past, present and future in the band’s traditional style, adding that in the modern world “everything changes within a month. We’re trying to keep right on the edge of the technical equipment we have here, but we’re trying to keep that real-live feel – that real-live essence – to what we do.”

Watch Iron Maiden Discuss 'Virtual XI'

This approach was underlined by the fact that most of the lead vocal tracks that made the cut on Virtual XI were recorded during early rehearsals, rather than during the main recording sessions. “What I was trying to do was get a bit better than that,” Bayley noted. “But [the early versions] had such a good vibe, which is what we always look for in recording.” Drummer Nicko McBrain registered his appreciation for the frontman’s work, saying: “I really am excited. There’s something special about this album.”

Sonically, Iron Maiden continued to pursue something that leaned more towards their early material with singer Paul Di’Anno than the pomp-and-circumstance of their mid- to late-'80s tracks with Dickinson. They'd followed that direction since 1990’s No Prayer For The Dying, beginning a cycle of diminishing returns that began before Bayley’s arrival. Harris described the effect as “a bit more raw – a bit more on-the-up, if you like.”

The new album’s virtual-reality theme had been established at the start of the project, including a tie-in with the band’s Ed Hunter computer game. Then Steve Harris realized that 1998 was a soccer World Cup year, and that there were 11 men in a soccer squad, so he began focusing on that number. He remembered that, during the previous tour, “people were giving me football shirts, all of us, really. In Brazil, I wore the Brazil football shirt on stage, and the Argentina one in Argentina and stuff. We thought it would be great to tie the whole thing in – basically our two loves, music and football.”

Harris went as far as to stage a promotional tour in which Iron Maiden played matches as a team, with the band members featured along with a group of professionals. “They’re all world-class international players – and we’re not, basically!” Harris added. “We’ve had a lot of fun with this album.”

Watch Iron Maiden Perform 'Futureal'

The optimism was short-lived. Issued with a modified band logo that remained in use until 2016, Virtual XI wasn’t the giant leap up from The X Factor that they’d hoped for. It peaked at No. 124 in the U.S. and No. 16 in the U.K., compared with its predecessor’s No. 147 and No. 8 finishes, respectively. That represented Iron Maiden's lowest album-chart entries in both markets since 1981’s Killers.

Only two singles were released, “The Angel and the Gambler” (in two versions) and “Futureal,” and neither did much business. Band manager Rod Smallwood later revealed that the general consensus was that “Futureal” should have been released first, but that Harris had been determined to do things differently. Despite some “grudgingly decent” reviews, journalist Dave Ling bluntly argued, “what fans and critics alike craved was Dickinson's return.”

The Virtual XI World Tour started on April 22 and featured a more elaborate stage set than anything Iron Maiden had done since the ‘80s. They opened the show with “Futureal” and “The Angel and the Gambler,” and also delivered “Lightning Strikes Twice,” “When Two Worlds Collide” and “The Educated Fool” from Virtual XI. The level of interest had declined noticeably, however, and Iron Maiden ended up making appearances at smaller venues than they’d played in years. As with The X Factor shows, Bayley encountered vocal problems, resulting in the cancellation of some shows. Harris hailed the way Bailey got the best out of his voice in the studio, but there was no doubt that he struggled with some of the Bruce Dickinson-era songs.

Watch Iron Maiden Perform 'The Angel and the Gamble'

More than that, certain hardcore fans’ hatred for what the new singer represented wasn’t dissipating; in fact, it seemed to be growing. A decision had to be made on whether Iron Maiden could risk a third album with Bayley.

The tour finished on Dec. 12, 1998, and a band meeting was held – without Bayley – the following month. On Feb. 10, 1999, Iron Maiden announced that Dickinson was back, along with classic-era guitarist Adrian Smith. Completely unaware, Bayley had been working on material for his third Iron Maiden album when he was told.

The reinvigorated lineup turned to the future with 2000’s Brave New World and went on to reclaim their position in the top flight of rock. Dickinson performed both "Futureal" and "The Clansman" in concert, with the latter track remaining in Iron Maiden's set lists until 2003. Meanwhile, Bayley began building a solo career, and also reconnected with his cult-rock outfit Wolfsbane.

He later admitted that it took some four years to get over the disappointment of being dropped, but Bayley eventually gained some needed perspective. He dubbed his five-year tenure “an amazing achievement” in 2016. “They had to make a business decision. Getting Bruce back, it was the right thing to do," Bayley told Team Rock. "Look at what they’ve done since. I don’t think anything bad of the guys. In Iron Maiden, I was living my dream. And when that dream was lost, I didn’t take time out to grieve.”