The sixteenth Iron Maiden studio album. Possibly – though hopefully not – the last. Four years in the making (the album was mostly finished last year but it’s release was delayed due to vocalist Bruce Dickinson’s well-documented brush with a cancerous tumour), it’s safe and not at all hyperbolic to say that this is the band’s most eagerly-awaited album since 2000’s Brave New World reunion effort.
Like that record, it’s a hit-and-miss affair, and, like everything the band have released this century, it often threatens to collapse under the weight of it’s own portentousness. But any Iron Maiden is better than no Iron Maiden – unless Blaze Bayley is behind the mic – and Britain’s finest heavy metal gift to the world at least command the respect of a fair listen, right?
Right. So after a week of living with the album, in both MP3 and glorious triple vinyl formats, I’ve come to a few conclusions about Book of Souls, which I’m going to share with you now, whether you like it or not…
Opening track If Eternity Should Fail is your general-issue, classic Maiden album opener; Strident, bellicose and, at eight and a half minutes, just about the optimum length for an Iron Maiden song. Much was written in the leadup to this album’s release about the fact that three tracks on the album totalled over forty minutes in length between them, and it’s been a hallmark of latterday Maiden that a song can only be deemed truly ‘progressive’ if it is of gargantuan length. As we shall see later this just isn’t the case, and If Eternity Should Fail proves that this band can still get everything it needs to get done in a song without having to be ‘epic’ all the time. There’s no flab here, and it’s an encouraging start to the record.
Second track Speed of Light was the only single to be released prior to the emergence of Book of Souls, and it’s exactly that; the archetypal 21st century Maiden single. Uptempo, with chiming guitars, Nicko McBrain’s oh-so-familiar fills and rolls and the sort of chorus (which actually sounds a bit reminiscent of The Who’s The Real Me) the band would have hidden away on the b-side of one of their eighties hits. All up, what you’ve got here is the sort of so-so, slightly perfunctory fare Maiden fans have learned to put up with over the past decade and a half since the return to the fold of prodigal sons Dickinson and Adrian Smith. Third track The Great Unknown fares better, its pared-back nature allowing the listener to take a breath and find some listening space after the heads-down heavy metal thunder of the first couple of tracks. You’ll notice here that Dickinson is taking care of his voice on the verses, singing in a slightly lower register which allows him to retain his power yet still hit the big notes when he has to in the choruses. The song still has a slight ‘identikit’ whiff about it, but it’s not at all bad.
Next track The Red and the Black opens up with some nice strummed, Iberian-influenced bass from Steve Harris, before plunging into a text book Maiden gallop that pitches itself somewhere between Alexander the Great and Rime of the Ancient Mariner; Everything progresses nicely, as all three guitarists (Smith, Dave Murray and Jannick Gers, it must be said, have never sounded as good in tandem as they do on Book of Souls) mesh and bounce off one another, but then that other great leitmotif of post-classic period Maiden rears it’s head…
I’m talking of course about the built-to-please-beered-up-festival crowds 'woah-oh-ohhh vocal line'. It’s something the band have been all too keen on using ever since Fear of the Dark; When a song starts to drag, throw in one of these, even if it’s not the chorus. To these ears it cheapens what otherwise might have been a bona fide epic. But not only that, it seems to me to be an admission that the band has run out of ideas as to how to get out of a particular musical passage, preferring to fall back on old tricks instead of searching for new inspirations.
Of course, I haven’t sold a hundred million albums, so what do I know? And I’ll probably be chanting along to it with the best of ‘em on next years gargantuan world tour, so, in the words of Nicko McBrain, ‘who’s the cunt’?
Me undoubtedly. When the River Runs Dry is up next; it’s up tempo, it’s less than six minutes long – this is what we want! Built on a light-footed McBrain drum tattoo and some rumbling Harris fingerwork, this is the sort of Maiden music that rarely gets a look in these days, and as such it’s a bit of a breath of fresh air, featuring as it does some nice Smith and Murray soloing. It’s not classic stuff, but it sounds classic, if you get what I mean.
After that brief trip down memory lane, it’s time to digest the title track – all ten and a half minutes of it. To be frank, after all my carping about excessive song length and bloated ideas, I wasn’t expecting much, but Book of Souls the track is superb. A slow, subdued beginning breaks into a superb, stomping riff which is underpinned with some exquisite basswork from Harris, who roams around underneath the riffs in splendid styler. Despite the spare, tight production from Kevin Shirley, there are moments during Book of Souls that will spark reminiscence of Seventh Son of a Seventh Son-era Maiden.
Actually, Shirley’s production merits some further comment at this point. I’ve never been a fan of his ‘organic’ style of production, but here, on Book of Souls, after sixteen years of working with the band, something has clicked, and this results in the best-sounding record he’s made with the band. Bass tones are warm, and that annoying clickiness in Harris’ sound has all but gone to be replaced by a much fuller, more complete sound all round. It makes for superb listening, especially on closing track Empire of the Clouds.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here; Because the next track for consideration is the excellent Death or Glory, a simple, headbanging belter of a track which opens up the second half of the album in splendidly metallic style. Harking back to the glory days of Piece of Mind, its joyful heaviness will remind you of why you fell in love with this band in the first place.
You can’t really say the same about Shadows of the Valley, which, with its wholesale appropriation of the glorious opening guitar figure from Wasted Years and mentions in the lyrics of a ‘sea of madness’ seems to wish that it had been born thirty years ago but is in effect just standard 21st century mid-paced Maiden filler. It lacks the sheer weight of pretention that most of the other material on the album is laden down with, and just comes across as being a bit half-throught through. As if to prove my point, it too, indulges in some ‘whoah-ohs’ when it runs out of steam.
Tears of a Clown, the much-heralded paean to Robin Williams, is an odd one. Despite being written by Smith and Harris, it sounds like something Bruce would have come up with in his Chemical Wedding era, and to that end at least stands out from the morass of cut n’paste gallop that seems to clog up parts of the record. There’s a nice solo on this one too, and it’s obviously sincere sentiment also marks it out as the album’s most unique track.
Penultimate track The Man of Sorrows is probably the biggest clunker on the album, never really going anywhere, and despite being one of the shorter tracks on the album, seeming to go on and on for longer than it actually does.
Which leads us to the closing Empire of the Clouds; the longest song Maiden have ever committed to wax, an epic in every respect, and… really rather good. In essence a piano-led ballad about the fate of the doomed airship R-101, it will without doubt be seen as Bruce Dickinson’s magnum opus and, really, it works on just about every level. Sounding at times like something pomp rock Gods Magnum might have released in the mid eighties, at others like pure, unadulterated classic-period Maiden grandeur in excelsis, it’s the one song on the record you’ll find yourself returning to again and again. It’s the apogee of the ‘storytelling’ style of song that Dickinson has been writing since the Seventh Son… days, and he almost certainly will never better it. Written solely as a piano driven piece by Dickinson in the studio, the band were then invited to improvise parts as he played the track live to them. Ambitious, inspiring, but above all brilliant, it’s the ultimate end to Maiden’s quest to create the prog metal symphonies that have filled Steve Harris’ brain for forty years, and it is the only way this sprawling album could have climaxed.
So there you have it. Nowhere near perfect – Maiden really haven’t come close to that status for a long while now – but, when you consider the sort of material their peers have been putting out over the last couple of years then Book of Souls ranks as one of the more astonishing releases of recent times.