I actually made sure to check with the site’s ownership before taking the plunge and reviewing The Book of Souls. Heathen Harvest, after all, illuminates the post-industrial underground, and if there’s one thing that can’t credibly be claimed for Iron Maiden, it’s underground status. In the minds of John and Jane Q. Public, the only name that looms larger under the banner of heavy metal is Metallica (and with that in mind, Iron Maiden may actually be the biggest metal band in the world whose new output is still examined and discussed on its own merits, unlike the moribund dancing bear that Metallica have been since the mid-’90s). Certainly, no new metal release in 2015 is apt to permeate the consciousness of the general public, of young consumers and middle-aged cultural pundits alike, than The Book of Souls; for better or worse, it is the tip of the iceberg—the visible representative of a style of music that has fallen largely out of public view in the last twenty-five years, at once a vanguard and a throwback.
Since 2000’s Brave New World revived Iron Maiden with newfound pep and vigour, with Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith returning to the fold after the disastrous Blaze Bayley years, their output has proceeded with the same robust consistency that characterised their golden years from ’82 to ’88, although the actual character of that output is very different: much longer albums featuring much longer tracks released with much longer gaps between, a greater tendency towards stateliness and grandiosity, songs that are more sober and self-serious, more emphasis on mid-tempos and lushly produced melody than driving rhythms, and frankly, a trend towards sprawl and bloat. The same Maiden-isms that were established in the early ’80s remain as present as always; Dave Murray and Adrian Smith’s silky dual harmonies, Steve Harris’s agile bass lines, and Bruce Dickinson’s operatic vocals are as characteristic and inimitable a sound as any band has ever laid claim to, as inevitably present from song to song and album to album as the turning of the tides or the phases of the moon. Listen to ten given seconds and anyone with a passing familiarity with the band’s output can tell you ‘yep, that’s Iron Maiden alright’. The band’s task, as it has always been, is to recombine and re-contextualise these elements in new ways without growing stale.
The Book of Souls, then: not only does it continue the trends that have pervaded the band’s output for the last fifteen years, it extends them to what may well be their apotheosis. A mere glance at the track list provides the first clue: a ninety-two-minute double album and eleven tracks, only one of which comes in at under five minutes (and that by a scant second)! There are no fewer than three epics here, that clock in at over ten minutes, including the eighteen-minute ‘Empire of the Clouds’—a new claimant to the title of the longest song Iron Maiden have ever written, a title previously held by ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ for over thirty years. The eye-opening running times are matched by the content therein; the play for pomp, grandiosity, and self-significance has never been more pronounced than it is here. Perhaps motivated by the maturity of their career (having played together for forty years with a remarkably consistent lineup for most of that time, we’re now at the point where any new release they put out has the distinct possibility of being their last), they’ve taken the ‘go big or go home’ approach to remaining relevant and vital. No one feature of The Book of Souls impresses itself on the listener quite as much as its sheer girth in every aspect.
As a result, the individual listener’s response to The Book of Souls is likely to correspond to how they feel about their output since Brave New World; certainly, there are those for whom the idea of ninety-two new minutes of Iron Maiden will sound like a euphoric proposition, and those people won’t be disappointed. For myself though, I’ve never been able to find in myself the same enthusiasm for 21st-century Iron Maiden as I have for Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, Somewhere in Time, or Piece of Mind (or even, somewhat heretically, Fear of the Dark). I find that their expansive, meandering, and frequently repetitious song structures start to sound like much of a muchness—riffs and chorus hooks are written with the same flawless melodic sensibility that made the band champions of the NWOBHM to start with, but instead of inhabiting the taut, purposeful songs that comprised the albums written to fit on a single vinyl record, they are instead stretched out across six, eight, and ten minutes, filled out with long instrumental passages that feel gratuitous and arbitrarily digressive rather than meaningfully developing the song towards a crescendo. This album does not dissuade me of this opinion. Throughout the duration of The Book of Souls, I’d often find myself thinking of ‘Déjà vu’, the sorely underrated track from Somewhere in Time that forgoes the second verse it seems to be motioning towards to fly off into an instrumental break, an exemplar of the kind of energetic, organic, spontaneous songwriting that the leaden, padded, flat likes of ‘The Great Unknown’ sorely wants for.
As much as I’m moaning, I liked The Book of Souls. As is invariably the case with Iron Maiden, the moment-to-moment euphoniousness of their sound prevents them from ever falling below a certain threshold of listening pleasure—the luscious harmonies that Dickinson, Murray, Smith, Harris, and Gers cook up are audial honey, and I suspect that I could listen to their rendition of ’99 Bottles of Beer’ in full without ever finding it actively unpleasant. More than that though, I did find more of The Book of Souls memorable than I did The Final Frontier or Dance of Death. Perhaps paradoxically, although I object to the album’s bloat as a whole, it was the three major epics which I found the most stimulating, possibly because it’s where the band feel like they’re trying their hardest. ‘The Red and the Black’, the thirteen-minuter that forms the centrepiece of the first disc, was a particular high point for me—a stompy, anthemic rabble-rouser with a startlingly infectious hook in its wordless gang-shout chorus (which admittedly does recall ‘The Wicker Man’ from Brave New World a bit too closely for comfort). Although it features a sprawling series of guitar solos that go on for several minutes, they actually do feel like they progress the song in a meaningful sense, giving the chorus new context and significance when it re-emerges, the way an elongated bridge ought to do.
‘Empire of the Clouds’, a sentimental entry into the canon of Iron Maiden tracks about the glamour and splendour of aviation, also manages to impress, opening with a delicate passage of piano and proceeds through a complex, eventful series of passages embellished with intermittent orchestral flourishes. It’s deliriously indulgent, but it finds Maiden working in genuinely new structural and textural territory, the closest they’ve ever come to full-blown progressive rock in places. Its eighteen minutes pass by surprisingly quickly. I was also fond of ‘When the River Runs Deep’, which offsets its driving verses with an elegiac, reflective chorus—a dynamic I rather enjoyed.
At the other end of the spectrum, I have little use for the album’s widely publicised lead single ‘Speed of Light’, a proclaimed straightforward rocker meant to offset the pomposity going on around it, but it possesses little of the spiky, raucous energy that characterised the actual straightforward rockers written back in the Paul Di’Anno era (I know this is a petty complaint, but surely the lyrical subject matter would have been better suited to inclusion on The Final Frontier). Nor am I particularly keen on the album’s other widely publicised track, ‘Tears of a Clown’. Writing tear-jerkers has never been one of Iron Maiden’s strengths, and the result sounds like a failed attempt to split the difference between morose poignancy and catchy heavy metal; the track’s headline-grabbing dedication to the memory of Robin Williams also feels rather maudlin.
Much of the rest of The Book of Souls glides comfortably and pleasantly in and out of consciousness, leaving little impression in its wake. I find a curious paradox of Maiden’s latter-day albums is that the more content they offer, the more they elude my attempts to pay attention. For instance, I heard A Matter of Life and Death long before Somewhere in Time, and yet I remember the latter album almost by heart, while I have to work to recall more than snatches of the former, almost as though there are an allocated number of memorable moments which any given Iron Maiden album can contain, and the band’s attempts to give us a greater number of them only end up swamping the ones that are present in a tide of paint-by-numbers Maiden-isms. The Book of Souls isn’t a bad album by any stretch of the imagination, but it does feel oddly diffuse; past a certain point, I go on autopilot, and one song starts to bleed into the next.
That said, Iron Maiden have no need to justify themselves to anyone at this point; their run of masterpieces in the ’80s get them a lifetime pass, and if their new songs can’t match the impact that tracks like ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’, ‘Aces High’, or ‘Wasted Years’ had, they’re also a long way from the sort of corpulent self-parody that afflicts so many acts of their generation and stature. The golden days may be behind them, but if they continue releasing albums of the calibre of The Book of Souls, then metal’s foremost envoys to the mainstream are doing the genre they helped define no disservice.
01) If Eternity Should Fail
02) Speed of Light
03) The Great Unknown
04) The Red and the Black
05) When the River Runs Deep
06) The Book of Souls
07) Death or Glory
08) Shadows of the Valley
09) Tears of a Clown
10) The Man of Sorrows
11) Empire of the Clouds