Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls

Whenever any of us listen to music, we bring the sum of our knowledge and experiences along for the ride. Those elements are called the beholder’s share, and they obviously shape our understanding and opinion of what we hear. I’m going to provide you with my opinion about Iron Maiden’s latest and sixteenth album,The Book of Souls, right here. And I can assure you that my beholder’s share is fittingly heavy.

I can’t pretend to be objective or impartial about Maiden because I’ve been a diehard fan of the band for 33 years. Maiden were the band that secured my love of metal in the early 80s. And, like every other long-time Maiden fan, I probably have a little too much invested in the band than is advisable or healthy.

Still, that’s the thing about Maiden; for millions of fans around the globe, they mean everything. Maiden demand respect to this day, even if the band’s heyday as a creative force is behind them. Since Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith returned to Maiden’s ranks on 2000’s Brave New World, the band has arguably become more successful than ever. We’ve forgiven Maiden for those unfortunate Blaze Bayley years, and in return Maiden have spent the past decade and a half reminding us what makes heavy metal such an appealing, powerful, and gloriously over-the-top genre.

Admittedly, that’s not always been apparent on Maiden’s post-reunion albums, which have contained their share of mid-tempo meandering that’s ultimately led to nowheresville. But, still, in the live arena, Maiden have remained an exhilarating phenomena.

There’s a lot of goodwill associated with Maiden, and I was certainly thrilled to read that The Book of Souls was going to be a double album, feature three tracks that fall into that always-tantalising category of certifiable Maiden epics, and include Maiden’s longest song ever. I thought that recording a double album was a hugely courageous decision. Because far too many long-lived bands are comfortable just dialling it in this late in their career. And Maiden’s definitely been guilty of providing a few tepid tunes in recent years too.

The Book of Souls also arrives at a time when the kind of traditional metal that Maiden produces is at the end of its reign. So, in a sense, because Maiden are the embodiment of a classic era of metal they are now more important than ever. Don’t get me wrong, there are obviously plenty of traditional metal bands around. But Maiden are the last remaining metal band of their ilk that could ever hope to fill an arena full of rabid fans.

Maiden could have chosen to rest on their laurels in their twilight years,  but here they are, with The Book of Souls unquestionably being their most adventurous artistic endeavour since 1988’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. That’s certainly inspiring for us, as fans. And after decades of stepping from studio to stage and back again, the fact that Smith, Dickinson, Steve Harris, Dave Smith, Nicko McBrain and Janick Gers have the enthusiasm let alone the ambition to record a double disc of songs deserves a huge round of applause.

There’s also an unspoken poignancy to The Book of Souls because it could be Maiden’s last album. Who can tell? The band is full of vim and vigour right now, with plans to tour for the next few years mapped out, but life is capricious. As we discovered when it was revealed Dickinson had battled cancer following the recording of The Book of Souls. That was such a huge shock for many of us, especially because Dickinson is the last in a generation of quintessential heavy metal frontmen still operating at the top of his game. Maiden, mortal? Surely not. The band can’t die.

We might also like to ask ourselves, does critiquing Maiden even matter anymore? We love Maiden because they sound like Maiden. Warts and all. We’re all aware of their creative quirks, and no one expects them to be producing the kind of music they did in the early 80s. Maiden work to a very familiar formula. And all that’s really required from them in 2015 is that they don’t let that formula become watered-down and bland.

The Book of Souls is certainly not bland or lacking in vitality. In fact, the album sounds more energised and inspired than any other post-reunion Maiden release. Much of that is no doubt because a lot of The Book of Souls was written and arranged in-studio, and recorded live to capture the band in full flight.

Post-reunion Iron Maiden live. Photo by Adam Wills.

Post-reunion Iron Maiden live (2012). Photo by Adam Wills.

As a result, there’s a dynamic and hungry feel to The Book of Souls that’s not been heard for years from Maiden. Shaking the band up by recording live has clearly made them a tighter and punchier unit. Dickinson is certainly in fine operatic fettle, and he turns in an enlivening performance throughout. The rest of the band also sound as if they have more high-octane fuel in the engine, because on more than a few tracks they positively roar.

The Book of Souls’ opener, “If Eternity Should Fail,” has a gutsy and aggressive bite to it that even its somewhat daft spoken-word outro can’t derail. First single, “The Speed of Light”, is a straight-down-the-line and hard-hitting Smith/Dickinson gem—as is another of their excellent co-writes, “Death or Glory.” While “When the Rivers Run Deep” and “The Great Unknown” feature plenty of those soaring, harmonic guitar duels we adore, and a raft of electrifying soloing too.

When Maiden keeps things tight, the grunt and grit displayed on The Book of Souls is, aptly, soul-stirring. It’s a reminder of how Maiden so often ride that line between the virtuoso and the utterly visceral. Really, in its best moments, The Book of Souls reaffirms what’s so transfixing and transporting about heavy metal. It simply thunders along, sweeps you up, and shines a light on why Maiden is such a loved and respected band to this day.

Certainly, if your faith in Maiden’s recorded works had been waning in recent years, then you can rest assured that The Book of Souls features some of the band’s best material in decades. Which is why it’s also such a shame that Maiden manages to sabotage the album by padding things out to wholly unnecessary lengths, and returning to the same refrains too many times over.

Maiden’s decision to include what’s essentially filler on The Book of Souls drastically undercuts the album’s overall impact. Take the case of the album’s title track. “The Book of Souls” closes the album’s storming first disc, but it could easily have had a few minutes of meandering riffing removed—see also, “The Red and the Black.” I’m not criticising Maiden’s desire to take the epic route, because I’m all in favour of the band stretching out when they take a hike into the hinterlands, but Maiden are guilty of laying a trail full of indistinguishable riffs and needless repetition on The Book of Souls.

“The Book of Souls” isn’t a disaster by any means. But the point is, any time your concentration drifts, or you’re left wondering which song you’re listening to, is really counter-productive—especially with a double album. But that happens a number of times on The Book of Souls.

Of course, you could argue that excess is what defines any double album. That it’s expected. As are Maiden’s signature musical stylings. It’s true, we have come to expect more progressive and rambling tracks from the band in recent times. But that doesn’t excuse lazy passages on a song like “The Red and the Black” where the band simply recycles ideas from their days of yore.

Really, as magnificent a melodic gallop as “The Red and the Black” is, the way the song’s vocal phrasing and momentum manages to mimic passages from “Revelations,” “Trooper,” and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is, well, bizarre. It’s not as if the band could have missed the obvious similarities. Perhaps it’s some kind of weird homage to their heyday, but the issue is that you shouldn’t be humming older songs to yourself while “Red and Black” is playing. That defeats the purpose of writing new songs.

Throughout The Book of Souls, riffs also repeat without really fulfilling a function other than adding a few seconds here or there. You’d be right to point out that Maiden have done that before, many times. Their post-2000 work is littered with such repetitiveness. However, The Book of Souls is touted as needing to be a double album in order to encompass everything Maiden want to say at this point in time. So I’m baffled as to why they simply seem to be saying the same thing over and over again on so many tracks.

Clearly, Maiden wanted The Book of Souls to be a big and bold album. But they could have dumped the dull “The Man of Sorrows” entirely.  Even the “Tears of a Clown,” which does express moving sentiments, adds nothing musically to the album. And I’m not really sure that “Shadows of the Valley” needs to be here either, because it’s an unimaginative stroll.

Who knows. Maybe “Shadows of the Valley” will grow on me. But if there’s one lesson to be learned from The Book of Souls’ excess, it’s that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. And that’s clearly exhibited on The Book of Souls’ 18-minute closing track, “Empire of Clouds.”

Maiden are obviously no strangers to mammoth, bombastic suites. Hell, they arguably wrote the greatest heavy metal saga ever in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” So a track as long as “Empire of Clouds” is not as radical an inclusion as some have suggested. For sure, there’s an element of boldness in including the song, given it features majestic piano, strings and horns in abundance. Those are clearly new instrumental adornments for any Maiden album. But they’re not used in any way we’ve not heard elsewhere on a million other orchestral metal songs.

Like many a Maiden epic, “Empire of Clouds” is cleared signposted throughout. Admittedly, that hasn’t stopped us enjoying any epic odes from the band before. And no matter its stock arrangement, the song has some beautifully soaring riffs and soloing, and McBrain’s percussion sounds fantastic. However, “Empire of Clouds” ultimately collapses under its own bloated weight.

Like elsewhere, Maiden could have easily cut a hefty amount from “Empire of Clouds” and still produced a song that would have been a huge feather in their cap. But it wasn’t to be. Maybe it’s simply that the tale of an airship crash in the 1930s wasn’t the most engaging narrative to tell over some orchestral sprawl—even if millions of us love the history lessons Maiden have provided over the years. Or maybe all those cinematic visions just got lost in the clouds of meandering musical cliche.

Either way, it’s admirable to see Maiden pushing themselves on “Empire of Clouds.” But there’s a language to sculpting an orchestral epic, and Maiden have yet to become fluent. “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” it is not. Truthfully, it doesn’t even come close.

In the end, “Empire of Clouds” is simply too long and too self-indulgent, which are charges that you could throw at The Book of Souls as a whole. To be clear, that excess you’ll find on The Book of Souls is clearly the result of Maiden having more to say and feeling more inspired than they have been in decades. So full credit has to go to the band for being audacious enough to throw down a challenge to us and themselves so late in their career.

Where Book of Souls works, there’s an urgency, exuberance, and spiritedness to it that speaks directly to Maiden’s continued ability to thrill. And there’s always pleasure to be found in Maiden being Maiden, even if the end result isn’t perfect. In fact, there’s plenty about The Book of Souls that’ll put a gigantic smile on your face. Particularly because I doubt anybody expected Maiden to produce anything so ambitious or animated in this day and age.

All of which means those moments on The Book of Souls when Maiden shines are that much brighter. There’s no question that it’s an impressive album. However, sadly, that doesn’t mean it’s any kind of latter-day masterpiece. If you trim the fat by making your own playlist, there is a triumphant album waiting for you. But that’s not the album Maiden delivered.

The album Maiden released is overlong, padded with filler, and even downright dull in parts. But, it’s important to stress, it has thundering tracks that’ll make your hair stand on end too. Is The Book of Souls the creative tour de force we’d been promised or hoped for? No. It’s bloated as hell. But is The Book of Souls worth your time? Absolutely. It’s fucking Iron Maiden, mate.

Up the Irons. Always.

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MaidenTour

The Book Of Souls World Tour will open in the U.S.A in late February with Ed Force One flying in for three shows before, in early March, heading into Central America visiting MEXICO, followed by a much anticipated first ever concert in EL SALVADOR and a return to COSTA RICA. Ed Force One then proceeds into South America for concerts in ARGENTINA, CHILE and a number of shows in BRAZIL before flying back to the USA at the end of March for ten more cities covering the USA and, of course, CANADA in the first two weeks of April.

A long awaited return to JAPAN follows later in April, and then the band are delighted to be playing their first ever shows in CHINA before heading to NEW ZEALAND and AUSTRALIA for a comprehensive tour during the first half of May. Shows in SOUTH AFRICA, Maiden’s first visit there with Bruce, will be the last port of call before Ed Force One heads to EUROPE for a very extensive tour starting in late May and finishing in early August. This will the first time Ed Force One has ever been used on any European Tour dates (other than Bruce’s Fan Club trips to shows) and will provide transport there for at least for the first few weeks.”

APRIL Fri 29 Christchurch, NEW ZEALAND, Horncastle Arena
MAY Sun 1 Auckland, NEW ZEALAND, Vector Arena
MAY Wed 4 Brisbane, AUSTRALIA, Brisbane Entertainment Centre
MAY Fri 6 Sydney, AUSTRALIA, Allphones Arena
MAY Mon 9 Melbourne, AUSTRALIA, Rod Laver Arena
MAY Thu 12 Adelaide, AUSTRALIA, Adelaide Entertainment Centre
MAY Sat 14 Perth, AUSTRALIA, Perth Arena
MAY Wed 18 Cape Town, SOUTH AFRICA, Grand Arena
MAY Sat 21 Johannesburg, SOUTH AFRICA, Carnival City Festival Lawns

Craig Hayes

Internationally published writer, columnist, and radio producer.