Unlike most of their 80’s heavy metal brethren, Iron Maiden continues to produce quality albums. Instead of chasing trends, (anyone remember Winger’s grunge album or Tommy Lee rapping?), Maiden has slowly evolved their sound. They still possess the power metal gallop of 80’s classic “Number of the Beast” or “Powerslave”, but have also embraced their prog leanings and interests in longer, less radio friendly songs.
Their newest offering “Book of Souls” continues this trend. It is one of their strongest records since their 2000 reunion with vocalist Bruce Dickinson, and may be able to hold its own with even most of their classic cannon.
The fact this record was even made is a testament to Maiden’s desire to remain on top of the rock world. Not only is the band in the fifth decade of releasing records, but Dickinson battled tongue cancer after recording the record.
Book of Souls is a double album, the first for a studio release from the band, though it has just 11 tracks, but nearly half the record runs past the 10-minute mark and no song clocks in under 5:00.
While not a concept album, there is a sort of Mayan theme with both the album title and the depiction of band mascot Eddie. Several songs, including opener “If Eternity Should Fail” have some Latin/South American flare.
“Eternity” opens the album and is a catchy song, but is not the radio friendly single that most of their post reunion output has boasted.
Ironically, the first single off the record was the second track, “Speed of Light”. The cowbell heavy intro actually sounds a bit like Guns ‘N Roses, that is until Dickinson’s air raid siren wail joins the processions. From there it is vintage Maiden, with a big catchy chorus. Oddly enough, the cosmic lyrical themes would not be out of place on the previous album “The Final Frontier.”
Although it is a strong song, “Speed of Light” shows us our first glimpse of what sounds like Dickinson’s voice straining just a bit. Without employing studio tricks, his voice has a raw quality on a few songs. The band seems to want a real live quality to the vocal tracks, forgoing studio polish and shine. This fits in with the “live vibe” the band wanted for the record. Although he has done a great job preserving his voice, he is 57 years old and has been fronting bands since the 70’s. Add to that the recent cancer battle and it is no surprise that there is a rawness to his voice. Despite that, Dickinson’s voice is one of the most iconic in metal and he still possesses great range.
“The Red and the Black” may is arguably the strongest song on the record and could hold its own with nearly any track in the bands discography. It also shows one of my frustrations with the current incarnation of the band. The song clocks in at over 13:00 and there are a few songs on the record that could use an editor. Three songs on the record clock in at over 10 minutes and two more are at least 7:30. This has been a recent trend of the band. Of the post-reunion records 17 of the 52 songs clock in at over 8:00 and another eight eclipse the 7-minute mark. Often this works very well, a number of songs deserve the epic treatment, but a few could benefit from some trimming. By way of comparison, Maiden’s three classic albums “Number of the Beast”, “Piece of Mind” and “Powerslave”, just one of the 26 songs is longer than 8:00 (the epic “Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which deserves all 13:00 minutes it receives) and just three others pass the 7-minute mark.
Although I spent a paragraph complaining about song length, “The Red and the Black” hardly disappoints. The catchy sing-along “whoah-ohh” chorus will be a live staple as long as the band keeps touring.
“When the River Runs Deep” and “The Book of Souls” are both solid tracks to close out the first disc, but disc two opener “Death or Glory”, has some real high points. It should come as no surprise that the band is inspired in a song about the Red Baron. Dickinson is a pilot and some of Maiden’s best songs have come in songs about flying and/or war.
“Tears of a Clown” is an odd song, at least lyrically. It is a tribute to Robin Williams, though there are no overt references to the comedian who took his own life.
The record concludes with what has become the longest song in the band’s discography. “Empire of the Clouds” clocks in at over 18 minutes and features Dickinson on the piano accompanied by orchestration. Dickinson receives the sole song writing credit and it seems to be a passion project for him as the song depicts the 1930 crash of the R101 experimental airship. The song is a microcosm of later era Maiden. It is epic in scope, a bit experimental in places, but still harkens back to the band’s roots with their trademark guitar gallop, guitar harmonies and, of course, big solos. Dickinson alternates between tender soft passages and big, over the top singing.
It is not a perfect record, but it holds its own with the rest of the bands discography. There are some top-notch songs, and more importantly, no clunkers. Fans of the band’s increased debt to their progressive leanings will love what the band does, while those who prefer radio friendly classics, will still have some things to enjoy.