Iron Maiden - The Book of Souls - (8.5/10)
Published on September 1, 2015
To lose many words about the past of Iron Maiden and their importance to the heavy metal world would be a waste of them, given that they have helped shape the scene like very few others. One of the true heavyweights of metal, they are celebrating their 40th anniversary in 2015 and are giving their faithful fans their 16th long player in the form of The Book of Souls, their first one in five years. And whenever this happens, the internet becomes abuzz with endless discussions about how they cannot fail or that they have lost their touch and pretty much everything in between. Now in the case of The Book of Souls there has been an added dimension to the discussions, Bruce Dickinson’s diagnosis with a cancerous tumour on his tongue and subsequent news that he was given the all-clear.
One common point that was touched by many fans for the last two efforts A Matter of Life and Death (2006) and The Final Frontier (2010) was the band’s seeming infatuation with penning drawn out epics that would overstay their welcome and in turn reduced energy across the board. So with The Book of Souls there were rumours floating around that there would be a more old school-ish approach and that it would be the most Maiden album since Brave New World kicked off the latest era of the Brits back in 2000.
As so often, the truth lies somewhere in between and the fact that it is a double album with a total of 92 minutes of playing time does not make it any easier to approach, even though it only has eleven tracks. A quick glance over the track list shows that there are three songs over ten minutes and one even clocking in at 18 minutes, with two more eclipsing the seven-minute mark, which right from the get-go gives fuel to the people that have accused Iron Maiden from drawing their songs out too much.
The ominous keyboard intro to “If Eternity Should Fail” with Dickinson’s haunting vocals might scare the bejeezus out of some hardliners, but is a great way to kick off the album. The song itself is classic mid-paced Maiden with a Dickinson in tip top shape and a faster solo section adding dynamics, this song should not disappoint any Maiden fan, just like the single “Speed of Light”, which has been disseminated to the sub-atomic level and garnered equally much praise as criticism, works better in the context of the album, that is for sure, standing in tradition of the shorter and immediately accessible tracks the Brits have been producing for literally decades now, the only real disappointment fans might be in for is, if they expected a tempo befitting its title.
“The Red and the Black” epitomises the dilemma many fans have had with Iron Maiden’s long epics of late. In itself it is a great track that is going to be a surefire live hit with the “whoa oh” chants already built in, but it overstays its welcome and could easily have done with 3 to 4 minutes less in the long instrumental section, a fate that oddly enough does not befall the title track. Slow and with a brooding atmosphere it reflects the title, with a hint at an Egyptian touch just around the corner, it reminds of the long epics of the past, which had always been a part of Maiden’s repertoire up to a point, but it sits up there with the best of them.
Unfortunately not all tracks can keep this level and some seem more like filler material without being bad songs, but “When the River Runs Deep”, “Death or Glory” or “Tears of a Clown” can’t fully compete with the rest. The closing duo “The Man of Sorrows” and “Empire of the Clouds”, though, quickly make the listener forget this, the former a great semi ballad and the latter being the longest song Iron Maiden have ever penned. And “Empire of the Clouds” is the maybe most cinematic and widescreen track in their history, while not reaching “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, but it is of a different ilk anyways, more sweeping, more orchestral and even in its length remaining cohesive. Starting out with piano and light percussion that Dickinson lends his unique vocals, it progresses in tempo and intensity while keeping the same airy atmosphere that the title implies, including a playful instrumental passage, which remains laid back at the same time and lets the listener drift away into said empire.
While being hard pressed to compete with the classics of the first Dickinson era, The Book of Souls is probably the best Iron Maiden album since Brave New World, even though the band clearly sounds somewhat different. Be it the advancing age, a change in focus or just coincidence, Maiden 2015 don’t have the same kind of wild energy they once had exuded, but at the same time are still undeniably Iron Maiden. It will take several spins to fully appreciate the album and that probably means full-length spins, not just pick and choose certain tracks, then the album will unfold. Fans have gotten used to not all tracks being created equally outstanding anymore, but then again, not many bands still sound as fresh and as good after 40 years of service. Maiden will be Maiden, even if some will call them Meh-den every now and then 😉
Up the irons!