Iron Maiden are national treasures. Formed by bassist Steve Harris in 1975, they became the driving force of the NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) leading the way for bands such as Def Leppard, Motorhead, Saxon, Venom and Diamond Head. Their influence, inspiration and respect has been well earned through an outpoint of 37 albums (studio, live, EPs, compilations) and immense world tours full of spectacle, energy and love. Though there has been line-up changes within the band, the current one (Steve Harris, Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, Nicko McBrain, Janick Gers and Bruce Dickinson) has been a solid and successful unit for most of their history producing an uncanny quality in music released in the last 15 years…and this, album number 16, is no different.
Even before you listen to the album, it comes with a weighty significance and importance. Firstly, this is Maiden’s first double studio album. Clocking in at just over 92 minutes, and including a track at 18 minutes, you certainly can’t accuse them of resting on their laurels or “cashing in” on their name. Secondly, not long after the album was finished and ready for release, singer Bruce Dickinson had to undergo treatment for a cancerous tumour at the back of his tongue meaning the album’s launch was delayed, the supporting tour put on hold and the future well and truly uncertain. But, this is Bruce Dickinson. Not only has the man competed in fencing at international level and created his own beer, he can actually fly Boeings taking the band on tour in converted planes named Ed Force One – so cancer really didn’t stand a chance at beating him and thankfully it hasn’t and he is now in the all clear. So, The Book Of Souls was released at the start of September and gave the band their fifth UK No. 1 album with a world tour kicking off in February 2016 and including yet even more firsts; performances in China and El Salvador. But what of the music I hear you cry…this is a review after all!!
Well, for starters this album is immense! Even after half a dozen listens I haven’t fully grasped the sheer epic scale and wealth of music and lyrics on show. Dickinson’s voice growls and soars, Harris’ bass working in tandem with McBrain’s drumming drive the music on whilst the triple guitar work of Murray, Smith and Gers are synched to perfection; solos, chord work and riffs of the absolute highest quality. It’s testament to these six guys’ skill and unison that, even after 16 studio albums, they can create a piece of work that is undeniably Iron Maiden, yet still fresh and relevant. The same goes for the lyrics as Maiden delve into Mayan civilization, humanities mortality and countless references to the soul; one track even pays respect to actor Robin Williams. Band mascot Eddie is well and truly front and centre taking pride of place on the album cover artwork with a very solid and professional “media book” version of the album well worth purchasing… again, Maiden show us that presentation is of the highest quality.
And so, new and old come through within the first two tracks. Opening song If Eternity Should Fail has hints of psychedelic tones throughout, whilst second song Speed Of Light (and first single released with a wicked “games through the ages” accompanying video) is pure classic sounding Maiden which could have been lifted from any of their albums. The Red And The Black is a pure sing along, chock full of time changes, a pumping and pounding beast of a song, hitting the dizzying heights of 13 and a half minutes in length. And bringing the first disc to a close, title track The Book Of Souls begins slow with some guitar picking before deep riffs and drums, with added strings, lead to a fast paced mid section of adrenaline and lushness.
The second disc kicks off with Death Or Glory, again another classic sounding Maiden track full of that special energy, heavy metal vibe and kick ass chorus… a sure fire live favourite. Tears Of A Clown is a sad sorrowful song, its lyrics reflecting façade and inner pain. Written about Robin Williams after his death in 2014, it perfectly captures a turmoil brought on by paranoia and depression and is a fitting tribute to the great man. Empire Of The Clouds begins with a piano motif before strings drift in and we are in prog/classical/metal territory. Marching drums echo in the background building up to Dickinson beginning his story about the airship R101 disaster, taking us through 18 minutes of slow and fast, quiet and loud, dipping and soaring music. One of Maiden’s finest compositions, Empire is a fitting and suitably epic end to the album; exhausting and masterful… 92 minutes later, it is all over.
Are there any real issues with the album? Well, it is a better album as one piece… no dipping in and out, which may be an issue for casual listeners or fans after the five minute burst of Maiden. It is a grower and does benefit from multiple plays with appreciation coming from absorbing the music and lyrics, demanding commitment from the listener. Overall though, Maiden have done it again… Like I said, they are national treasures.