Iron Maiden: The Book Of Souls (Parlophone)
Let’s get one thing clear right away. Iron Maiden are, in my eyes, the biggest heavy metal band of all time. Yes, bigger than Metallica, Sabbath and anyone else you care to throw in the mix. So the arrival of an Iron Maiden album is an absolutely massive event. Add in Bruce Dickinson’s recent health scare which was clearly a little more concerning than was revealed at the time and the arrival of The Book Of Souls is an even more momentous occasion. Maiden’s ability to tour for years at a time, combined with their recent decisions to deliver huge chunks of their back catalogue in the live arena means that they are rarely out of the media and consequently never out of our line of sight. Like their US counterparts Metallica, there has been hardly a year in recent memory when Maiden are not headlining a UK festival or massive show and so it is somewhat of a surprise in many respects that The Book Of Souls is Maiden’s first studio release since 2010’s brilliant The Final Frontier.
It only seems like yesterday that I was in my bedroom on a Friday night listening the legendary ‘TV On The Radio’, the much missed Tommy Vance as he provided airtime to a track of the soon to be released third album from NWOBHM outfit Iron Maiden. The year was 1982, that track was Gangland and it blew my mind, which was no mean feat as I was massively upset when Paul Di’anno had left the Irons; Killers is still my favourite Maiden album. I was also a big fan of Samson, the band that Bruce had sung with before he joined Maiden, and I was quietly conflicted about the changes in personnel that I was reading about in the music press. Suffice to say that my concerns were soon laid to rest when the needle first dropped on The Number Of The Beast. A year later and I’d seen the air raid siren lead the charge at St David’s Hall as 2500 rabid South Wales head bangers rocked out during the Piece Of Mind tour. Yes, I was a convert and over the years, my admiration and loyalty for this iconic, British heavy metal institution has grown and grown.
33 years on from ‘Beast’ and Maiden still deliver surprises galore. This time, a 92 minute double album crammed to overflowing with some of the best music they've ever made. Opener If Eternity Should Fail sets the pace, an atmospheric build up with Dickinson’s distinctive voice setting the scene before the rest of the band join in with the familiar bass gallop of Steve Harris and the triple guitar attack which has become so recognisable. At the back of it all, the simple yet complex drumming of Nicko McBrain, the driving force of the Maiden backline since 1983. Five minutes into the track and a complete shift of direction and pace with a stunning breakdown which allows the fretwork of Gers, Murray and Smith to take over, smoking lead work as they duel with each other. A classic chorus allows Dickinson to really open up and demonstrate that he can still hit those notes. This will be the opener when Maiden crash back to the arena circuit of the UK in 2016. Track two is the most straightforward and instantly catchy of the 11 songs on the album; Speed Of Light has already caused a great stir with its excellent video. This is Maiden at their best, full speed ahead, driving bass lines, crashing drums and guitar work which provides layer upon layer to strengthen the already mighty sound; and that’s before you get to the twin and sometimes triple harmonies of the solos. The irony of a short Iron Maiden song is that it still rocks in at over five minutes.
The Book Of Souls contains tracks written by various combinations of the band and The Great Unknown is the first of three composed by Adrian Smith and Steve Harris. A six and a half minute track, The Great Unknown allows Dickinson to once more flex his vocal chords whilst Harris’ bass lines rampage like a runaway horse. Several changes in tempo and solo after solo as each of Maiden’s axemen get a chance to showcase their skills before a further and quite dramatic slowing of pace and some deft keyboard work brings the track to a calm end. Onto the first epic piece on the album, with Harris’ bass work leading directly into a typical Maiden stomp as the 13+ minute piece The Red And The Black begins to build. The only track on the album written solely by Harris, Dickinson has to work really hard to get the lyrics out at the start. With a rhythm reminiscent of the Rime Of The Ancient Mariner and the classic “whoo – whoo” chanting arriving early on, The Red And The Black slowly increases in speed and anticipation and by the third round of chanting you are preparing yourself for the breakdown; it soon arrives with some delicate keyboard work underpinning the triple guitar harmonies. Steve Harris knows how to compose the odd monster and this track is amongst his best works. Dickinson is allowed full range and the melody that runs throughout the song is infectious. Of course, it follows the usual Maiden blueprint with substantial opportunity for some sterling guitar work, each of Maiden’s guitarists granted plenty of time to tease out a solo before the keyboards wash through, continuing to add further volume and enhancement to the Maiden sound. At nine minutes in, a real traditional Iron Maiden heavy metal moment as the real Steve Harris gallop is let loose, accompanied by a three pronged guitar support. This is going to be a beast live, demanding attention from the crowd, concentration from the band and an acceptance from all that this is Iron fucking Maiden at their best. All that is classic about the band, the 41 years of graft and toil that Steve Harris has poured into making Iron Maiden is encapsulated in the final four minutes of this song. Absolutely brilliant and enough to give you goose bumps.
When The River Runs Deep follows, Dickinson again forcing himself to hit those really high notes which you either love or hate. I listened to a lot of Maiden’s back catalogue in the run up to this album and it would be fair to say that Dickinson’s voice has got progressively higher in pitch despite his age. Another Smith/Harris composition, When The River Runs Deep is fast and edgy, with a more aggressive style and driven approach. McBrain hammers the crap out of his kit throughout, ensuring that you forget that at 63 he is Maiden’s elder statesman. You’d never know with his playing superb. Meanwhile, Smith, Murray and Gers rip out face-melting solos which compliment Harris’s machine gunning bass work. A gentle intro with subtle keyboards leads into the final track on side one, and it’s another epic. Title track The Book Of Souls is one of two Gers/Harris penned tracks on the album and it is another beast of a track. Using keyboards to underpin the Maiden sound has been a standard approach since the late 1980s and the Seventh Son album and once again it works most impressively. Weighing in at over 10 minutes and telling the history of the Mayan people, The Book Of Souls, like all Maiden epics builds and builds, a solid pace to start with Dickinson’s vocals soaring the heights, before, at over halfway into the track things kick off with McBrain leading the charge with his battering ram of drumming, closely followed by the traditional guitar work and Harris’ bass powering away. It is once again classic Maiden and top quality heavy metal. Interestingly, unlike several of Maiden’s previous lengthy pieces, Dickinson remains involved throughout, adding verses as the track races to its conclusion. It’s going to be incredibly interesting to see what tracks the band pick to play live as there are a huge number of candidates.
Onto side two and what an opener. Death Or Glory, a mere five minute piece is a no-nonsense attack from start to finish, slicing guitar work, powerful rhythm and huge hooks in the chorus. Death Or Glory is from the same stable as The Trooper, Be Quick Or Be Dead and the like, and one likely to get the odd pit moving. As with Speed Of Light, it is a joint Dickinson/Smith composition; sharp, snappy and full pelt from start to finish. Back to the Somewhere In Time album for the sound on Shadows Of The Valley with its Wasted Years tinged introduction and familiar Maiden chug and once again the layered synthesiser sound adding texture. This is another meaty track, seven and a half minutes long, full of melody and hooks. Plenty of riffage and scintillating guitar work from the triple axes, and all the while the absolutely distinctive Maiden sound which by this part in the album is not only enjoyable but so reassuring to hear. It’s been a long time coming.
Tears Of A Clown, penned as a tribute to the late Robin Williams is the shortest track on the album and one of the most poignant. Tears Of A Clown considers the dark side of depression and pressure that Williams suffered despite his status as one of the world’s best loved comedians, which resulted in him tragically taking his own life in 2014. Initially I didn't think this was one of the strongest tracks but repeated plays have changed my view and it is actually one of the best on the album, definitely the most radio friendly track apart from Speed Of Light, due to its length and the abundance of hooks. It also contains some vintage guitar work from Smith who co-penned this with Harris.
Now at the final two tracks of this behemoth of a release and time for Dave Murray to add his name to the writing credits with The Man Of Sorrows, another six plus minute track that he wrote with Harris. Some interesting changes in the style on this track, with the keyboard use prominent in the early stages. The Man Of Sorrows oozes melody and in some ways is a departure from the time-honoured Maiden style. It is a much more progressive rock influenced piece, with plenty of shade and light, intricate and complex and rather delicate. I really like it.
Much has been written about the final piece, Empire Of The Clouds. The second solo Dickinson penned track on the album, at over 18 minutes the longest track Maiden has ever delivered, it is quite simply a stunning piece of work. Opening with over three minutes of piano and cello as the Dickinson sets the scene in majestic style, Empire Of The Clouds tells the romantic and captivating story of the R101 airship, which crashed on its first formal flight in Beauvais, France in 1930 with the loss of 48 lives. The track builds impressively, piano combining with the rest of the Maiden sound until a pause for breath, before a triumvirate of guitars combine to launch the second half. And this is Iron Maiden at their finest, Harris’ bass tearing along, McBrain providing the reliable backbone and those fucking awesome three-pronged guitar battles which just race and dart all over the place. Once again a light touch of keyboards adds refined depth. As the story develops and the R101 heads towards its doom, dropping from the sky, the atmosphere of the track continues to build, heading to the crescendo and capturing the deadly ending. Dickinson has done his research on this fascinating story, his lyrics accurately detailing how the outer skin of the airship ripped. The historic quote from the captain “we’re down lads” is used to great effect as the pace slows and one of Iron Maiden’s most gargantuan and impressive pieces closes. A quite breath taking piece of work and one that demands repeat listens to really grasp its full scope and breadth. In 2015, Iron Maiden are THE metal band. Roll on The Book Of Souls tour, it’s going to be something else. 10/10