Instead of coasting like a legacy act, the metal greats push themselves like never before on their 16th album.
As strong as 2006’s A Matter of Life and Death and 2010’s The Final Frontier were, there was reason for concern that Iron Maiden were starting to bite off a little more than they could chew. For a band that excelled when their albums dynamically alternated between adventurous epic tracks and short, immediate headbangers, they were clearly slipping down a hole where their compositions kept getting longer and longer, testing the will of anyone who wants to listen to an album from start to finish. Which, let’s face it, is what the band and their traditionalist fans prefer in the first place. When you have a 76-minute album with an average track length of nearly eight minutes, though, you’re seriously risking overkill. It’s cool to be uncompromising, but restraint is crucial too. Bad things happen when no one’s around to tell you how much is too much. Just ask Metallica.
So what did Maiden decide to do for their 16th studio album? Just a 92-minute double album, their longest to date, featuring an 18-minute track, the longest song in the band’s history. Immediately the idea made many wonder if the band had finally gone too far. This writer’s own introduction to The Book of Souls was a marathon listen in one sitting, and indeed, fatigue set in, and for good reason. Ninety two minutes of blaring heavy metal is a hell of a lot for anyone -- metal fan, music writer, casual listener -- to take in, digest, and form a well-reasoned opinion of.
No, something like this album requires perspective, time to contemplate, and that’s where the double album format (or triple, when it comes to the vinyl edition) works to its great advantage, as opposed to listening to the entire thing via streaming or iTunes. The fact that The Book of Souls has been split neatly into two halves is a stroke of genius, as it encourages the listener to take his or her time. When you do take a moment to step back and contemplate each half on its own, in its own time, the more of a marvel the entire album turns out to be.
The sequencing on both halves of The Book of Souls is very strong throughout, but brilliantly executed on disc one. In the tradition of such past progressive-minded album openers as “Caught Somewhere in Time”, “Moonchild”, and “Satellite 15… The Final Frontier”, “If Eternity Should Fail” opens things on a dramatic note. Originally written by singer Bruce Dickinson for a new solo album, it’s a perfect fit here, its somber overture giving way to a stately gallop and rich twin guitar harmonies, two of Maiden’s calling cards. Collaborations between Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith have always yielded gold, going back to “Flight of Icarus” and “2 Minutes to Midnight”, and the energetic “Speed of Light” is a very worthy barnstormer, the band’s finest – and catchiest – lead single since 2000’s classic “Wicker Man”. “The Great Unknown” focuses on a heavier groove, Smith again lending the track some welcome swagger as Dickinson turns in a powerful vocal performance.
One of only two Steve Harris solo compositions on the album, “The Red and the Black” is the one track where the bassist settles into classic “’Arry” mode, and as predictable as his songwriting gets, this time around it’s a delight to hear. His melodies – especially that contagious chant that’s bound to be a new live favorite – sound particularly inspired, with Smith, Dave Murray, and Janick Gers all chipping in during a rousing six-minute solo section. It’s the closest you will ever hear to Iron Maiden “jamming”, the best example on the record of this band’s extraordinary chemistry. “When the River Runs Deep” benefits from some very strong dynamics, Smith’s rock ‘n’ roll instincts offsetting Harris’s rigidity, while the Mayan-themed “The Book of Souls” takes a page from 1984’s Powerslave, affording Dickinson a wonderful showcase for his theatrical singing, eventually exploding into a nasty, dark, heavy groove that hasn’t been heard in some 31 years.
Before jumping to the next disc, pause for a moment and look at what just happened. Disc one is a crisp 50 minutes, just like Powerslave, and beautifully paced too: progressive opener, speedster, heavy cut, rousing epic, dynamic rocker, theatrical epic. This is as commanding and as focused as Iron Maiden has sounded in nearly three decades.
The real challenges lie on disc two, however. Well, to be more specific, challenge. Paced much more differently than the first half, the first four songs set the stage for the opus that lies ahead. The album’s other Dickinson/Smith collaboration, the World War One tale “Death or Glory”, kicks into an unexpected swing driven briskly by drummer Nicko McBrain, a welcome change of pace from the usual tempos the band use. “Shadows of the Valley” is the album’s one slight slip-up, as Harris and Gers wander a little too far into the old songwriting toolshed, leaving Dickinson to rescue the track from stagnation by selling it in his usual brilliant fashion, especially during the song’s last three minutes. Harris’s “Tears of a Clown”, meanwhile, is a huge surprise, his contemplative portrait of the late Robin Williams both sympathetic and forceful, striking a deft balance between melancholic and invigorating. Meanwhile, Murray adds some welcome texture to “The Man of Sorrows”, which like 2006’s “The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg”, shifts well from a solemn ballad to a hard-driving, mid-paced metal tune.
The 18-minute “Empire of the Clouds” is the album’s make-or-break moment. Started as an idle project Dickinson composed on piano during off-hours, what became a mild obsession turned into a sprawling composition inspired by the R101 airship disaster of 1930, which crashed in France and killed 48. Never intended to be an Iron Maiden song, the band tried it out at Harris’s urging, and as you hear immediately, it sounds nothing like an Iron Maiden song. Which, quite frankly, is shocking. Maiden songs almost always play to Harris’s upper-register basslines, but this time all five members take a backseat to Dickinson’s piano, Harris playing to the piano, all three guitars adding texture instead of riffs, McBrain adding more expression and punctuation than a driving beat. The graceful piano ballad gives way to tension at the seven-minute mark as McBrain adds some inspired “SOS” Morse code syncopation, and the track builds majestically, the pace quickening as the ship hits the storm and crashes. Interspersed with movements that catch listeners off-guard, it’s an authoritative display of progressive rock ebb and flow, the music telling the tale as much, or even more than Dickinson’s lyrics. It’s every bit as spellbinding as 1984’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, and every bit as deserving of the descriptor “masterpiece”.
Kevin Shirley, working on his fifth album with Iron Maiden, once again sticks to Harris’s vision of what a Maiden album should sound like. In other words, very dry, natural, little to no processing. Coupled with the band’s on-the-fly recording strategy -- they’d complete songwriting while rehearsing, then record on the spot while still fresh -- it adds a sense of urgency to the music. Some might find it odd that it doesn’t match up at all with the volume and punch of such modern metal producers as Greg Fidelman or Jens Bogren, but compared to the over-compressed sounds coming out of metal today, the tone of The Book of Souls comes as a relief. Besides, any heavy metal album that compels the listener to turn the music up rather than down, especially in this day and age of “loudness wars”, must be doing something right.
In fact, Iron Maiden is doing so much right on this album that it compelled yours truly to take a moment and think, Is it really this good? All this praise will look like hyperbole when everyone sees it. After living and breathing this album for six weeks, reflecting on the band’s past work -- after 31 years of following Iron Maiden’s career I still contend they have never put out a perfect album -- there is absolutely no doubt in this writer’s mind that the old masters are at the very top of their game in a way we haven’t seen since 1988. They didn’t have to push themselves with so many ambitious ideas on The Book of Souls. They could have coasted gracefully the rest of the way and nobody would have complained. But they did push themselves like they’ve never done before, and they’ve rewarded their millions of worldwide fans with a late-career zenith.