Strap yourselves in, take a deep breath, because once you open The Book of Souls, you’ll close it forever changed.
The Book of Souls
There was one particular moment on my first listen through Iron Maiden’s newest album, The Book of Souls, where I realized just how substantial of return this is for the British gods of Metal. It was on the album’s sixth track, the title track, where in the midst of the song’ mid-tempo doomy riffs and just after a repeat of the song’s magnificent chorus, the song takes an unexpected turn mid-way through and changes to a powerful, trampling 6/4 tempo with arguably one of Maiden’s darkest and heaviest riffs to date. The fact that at 40 years and 16 albums into their career, Maiden still know how to throw surprises and curveballs your way says something about just how enduring they are as a band and a namesake. But even moreso, just how fresh they still manage to keep their music at this point into their career is what the real surprise is. The good news is, there’s plenty of these “curveballs” throughout the album, and then some- in fact, all 92 minutes of The Book of Souls stands as a perfect justification for not just their existence in the 2010s, but also for people’s sustaining love for them nowadays, and for their current place among bands today.
The Book of Souls is the band’s first album in five years, and boy, was it ever worth the wait. Recorded in Guillame Tell Studios, which is the same studio they recorded Brave New World in, it’s their longest album to date at 92 minutes, but it’s worth every fucking second. In fact, the first track alone, “If Eternity Should Fail”, is a sign of good things to come- it begins with a synthesizer intro which almost sounds like a sci-fi take on a spaghetti western tune, and Bruce’s commanding voice comes rumbling out of the speakers just a few seconds later, only for the song to suddenly slam into a catchy and upbeat rocker that’s pretty much what Maiden is all about. In fact, mid-way through, Nicko does a series of tribal drum fills that lead into a change to a faster tempo, and from here on, things pick up immensely- a gorgeous solo, some tasty twin guitar harmonies and a repeat of the chorus before an acoustic outro with Bruce doing some scary, distorted spoken word. It’s an 8 minute song that feels like it’s only 5 minutes, and it’s a good setup for the rest of the record- alive, kicking and full of blazing energy throughout.
Steve Harris mentioned in the album’s press release that rather than written for a month, rehearsed for a month and recorded in two weeks like usual, the songs were written, rehearsed and recorded right on the spot while they were still fresh, and it definitely shows in the final product. Most of the songs have a very energetic feel, and have a sense of urgency that hasn’t been seen since Brave New World– in fact, in contrast to the doom and gloom of A Matter of Life and Death, and the zonked-out dreaminess of The Final Frontier, The Book of Souls just shows the band rocking the fuck out for most of the album. It does slip into AMOLAD-type vibes a few times throughout the record (specifically in “The Great Unknown“), but the album is definitely far less “draining” than the previous two, for sure. Ironically, it’s longer than both albums and is also Maiden’s first double album, and so it definitely benefits from taking a break between discs, as the album does have a lot going on in the music.
While the album’s leading single “Speed of Light” is one catchy track, with its Deep Purple influences, sprinkling of cowbell at the beginning and quirky sci-fi lyrics, it’s thankfully not an indicator of the rest of the album. While much of the album has the same sense of urgency as “Speed of Light“, it’s thankfully a lot heavier too. “When the River Runs Deep” is ultimately one of the catchiest Maiden songs has ever made and blazes along at lightning speed with some absolutely ferocious vocal work from Bruce and amazing solos all 3 guitarists (with some wah pedal courtesy of Adrian Smith himself), but the best moment is easily the chorus, which suddenly changes to a slower tempo and Bruce delivers on arguably one of the finest vocal melodies of his to date. It’s a truly magical moment and shows that Maiden truly are capable of proving those who think they’re “too old” wrong, and delivering some truly energetic stuff. “Death or Glory” is a proper bouncy track, with WWI-themed lyrics and one of the most stupidly catchy choruses they’ve ever released, and is also an amazing way to open the second disc. “Tears of a Clown” is a mid-tempo track that is the ultimate “sleeper” here- the much-hyped Robin Williams tribute track truly delivers with its melancholy music and its lyrics that directly look at how funny people try so hard to hide their depression, and how easy it is to smile for the cameras and lie to everyone and say you’re OK. It’s a really sad song and definitely needs to be heard by lots of people. And “Shadows of the Valley” is also a track full of blazing energy, reminiscent of “Montsegur” with an extended instrumental section that mixes things up a bit.
As far as the epics go, There’s an 18 minute track, a 13 minute track and a 10 minute track- ultimately the best ones are “The Book of Souls” and “The Empire of the Clouds“. “The Book of Souls” begins with an acoustic intro with sprinklings of flute, before a mid-tempo beat with some Eastern-tinged riffs and a truly magnificent chorus kicks in, in addition to the aforementioned midway change in tempo. “The Empire of the Clouds” is the real winner here, though- at 18 minutes, it never once feels overlong- hell, it doesn’t even feel 18 minutes long! It’s an emotional tune with piano played by Bruce Dickinson himself, strings and horns throughout, a riff that is reminiscent of “The Legacy” and poetic and tragic lyrics about the doomed R101 airship disaster- in fact, musically it tells this story too, with the crash being represented by the music’s increasingly chaotic nature as it reaches its end, and at the 14 minute mark, the song suddenly twists into a cinematic piano and string swell resembling the blimp’s crashing down into a French church field, before a sorrowful final four minutes features Bruce bidding an emotional farewell to the empire. There are guaranteed to be tears with this one. “The Red and The Black” is 13 minutes long and definitely could benefit from some trimming- it does stretch itself thin with its 6 minute instrumental section and features a few too many familiar chord progressions, but it is redeemed by its dark, flamenco-esque Bass intro and its insanely ear-wormish “Whooooaaa” chorus.
The Book of Souls is seriously worth the wait, and then some. As a double album, it works both listened to back to back and listened to with a break in between, although the latter is definitely recommended. The band’s performance is absolutely top-notch and shows a group of men, most of whom are currently in their 60s, performing with the energy of people half their age. Bruce Dickinson, in particular, is singing better than ever on this album, and you wouldn’t be able to tell that just a short while after recording, Bruce would find a cancerous tumor on his tongue. Nicko has a big kit and he ain’t afraid to use it- in fact, some of his grooviest drumming can be found on this album. And best of all, these songs are going to sound absolutely KILLER live. It’s the sound of the British metal legends pulling out the stops and single-handedly proving the unbelievers wrong. In fact, next time someone tells you that Maiden should have quit a long time ago, immediately start playing “When the River Runs Deep” for them, prove them wrong, and thank me later.