IRON MAIDEN – The Book of Souls (2015 Parlophone, collector’s book edition)
I have a new hero. His name is Bruce Dickinson.
Bruce has not only beaten cancer back to that dark hole from which it came, but he takes command on Iron Maiden’s new opus The Book of Souls.
Even though he only has writing credits on four of the 11 tracks here, his impact is massive. With lungs of iron, Bruce propels everything. For the first time (possibly) ever, I feel that the most important band member is not leader Steve Harris, but the singer himself.
Right from the opener “If Eternity Should Fail”, Bruce is center stage. He wrote this complex number himself. It boasts one of Maiden’s most memorable choruses yet, and musical twists and turns that return us to Powerslave. Meanwhile, there is a hook that reminds me of Bruce’s solo song “The Ghost of Cain”, from Accident of Birth.
We took a good look at the lead single, “Speed of Light” a couple weeks back. Maiden often write a fast, heavy blazer to go with a new album, and that’s “Speed of Light”. Even though it is the single, it is far from the strongest song. Written by Bruce and Adrian Smith, it is certainly a good Iron Maiden track, but in comparison to the monuments of metal that surround it, “Speed of Light” feels like a brief diversion from the epic metal moments at hand. Adrian’s solo, however, is delicious.
“The Great Unknown” (Smith/Harris) opens softly, but even so there is a menacing tone to Bruce’s voice and the underlying instruments. With a slow, thrusting riff, “The Great Unknown” soon lurches forth, a killer metal march for the ages. Bruce pushes his voice to the very limits, giving it all and then some. As with many of the songs on The Books of Souls, I hear hints and echoes of past Maiden epics. This is not a lack of originality, more like a signature — familiar but always different. “The Great Unknown” ends on the soft note with which it began.
What is an Iron Maiden album without a Steve Harris bass intro? He and producer Kevin Shirley captured a wonderful bass sound on this album. “The Red and the Black”, another epic, is the only Harris solo writing credit. It has a riff that takes me all the way back to Killers, but then it is gone, and it’s onto another riff…and another…and another. At 13 minutes in length, this is one of those trademark Harris songs. Time changes galore, loaded with hooks. You can draw parallels to many epics from the past, but to do so takes away from this one. “The Red and the Black” is a proud achievement, a passionate metal song as only Iron Maiden can really do. Adrian Smith handles one of the guitar solos with a huge splash of wah-wah, and that is simply a thing of beauty. In sum, if you took a little bit of everything that makes Iron Maiden great and unique, then all those ingredients are in “The Red and the Black”. Bass outro, and that’s that.
A semi-shorty (5:52) is in the next slot, a fast riffer called “When the River Runs Deep” written by Steve and Adrian. This one is hard to compare to any past Maiden tracks, as it occupies a space all its own. Adrian Smith sometimes brings in riffs that sound like something other than Iron Maiden, and I think that’s “When the River Runs Deep”. Adrian takes another wah-wah solo, but not to be outdone is Janick Gers who throws down an edgy solo of his own. As far as Iron Maiden goes, this song is guitar solo nirvana.
A 10 minute epic always makes a good closer when you’re Iron Maiden, so the title track “The Book of Souls” (Gers/Harris) is last for disc one. Gentle acoustic guitars and keyboards emulating pipes tell us that this is previously uncharted territory. Then “The Book of Souls” trudges forth, with a beat not unlike “Mother Russia” from No Prayer for the Dying. There’s far more to the song than that, however. Soaring lead vocals (Bruce only seems stronger!) just ice the cake. All three Maiden guitarists shine on this, but Janick and Adrian have some solos that just play off each other so well. You want those trademark Maiden guitar melodies? How about galloping riffs? Nicko McBrain killing it on the drums? Maiden deliver, in top notch style, everything and then some more.
Bruce and Adrian co-wrote “Death or Glory”, opening side two with frenetic drums and riffing. Going for the throat, The Book of Souls has more fast riffs per minute than any Maiden album in decades. In five brief minutes, you are blasted against the wall, bounced off the floor, and nailed to the ceiling. Don’t hurt your neck from all the headbanging. This time, the guitar spotlight is on Dave Murray for an intense, dramatic solo.
“Shadows of the Valley” (Gers/Harris) sounds a lot like “Wasted Years” at first, but only briefly. If anything, “Shadows of the Valley” recalls Dance of Death-era Iron Maiden. Although this song is not as powerful or memorable as others on the album, it does contain some seriously incredible instrumental moments.
One of the most heartfelt and powerful songs on the album is the shortest. “Tears of a Clown” is a thoughtful moment about Robin Williams. The poignant lyrics are to the point:
All alone in a crowded room,
He tries to force a smile,
The smile it beamed or so it seemed,
But never reached the eyes, disguise,
Masquerading as the funny man do they despise.
I found this to be one of the compelling songs. Of all the bands to commemorate Robin Williams, I did not expect it to be Iron Maiden. But they did it in such a way that it completely fits.
Dave Murray and Steve Harris might not have known that Bruce already has a solo song called “Man of Sorrows”, but it doesn’t matter much since Maiden’s song is called “The Man of Sorrows”. Musically this sounds much like X Factor-era Maiden. Bruce takes it to a higher level than that. Dave himself has a nice slow bluesy solo at the end that is just pure gravy.
The biggest surprise, the biggest song, and the biggest challenge has to be “Empire of the Clouds”. Written solely by Bruce and coming in at almost 20 minutes, it is unprecedented in the Maiden canon. Never before have the credits “Bruce Dickinson – vocals, piano” been written inside one of their albums. For the first time ever, the piano is a part of Iron Maiden’s makeup. Maiden have used orchestras before, and the strings return as well. “Empire of the Clouds” is a peak accomplishment, something that they (and Bruce) can proudly proclaim, “we did that”. The piano is a natural fit, in the way it is used to make an epic song even more dramatic. Aviation has been one of Bruce’s favourite lyrical subjects for a long time, but “Empire of the Clouds” might be his first song about airships. You can trust him to instill it with all the drama and heaviness that you expect from Iron Maiden.
Even though 92 minutes have elapsed, The Book of Souls does not particularly feel longer than A Matter of Life and Death or The Final Frontier. Like those two previous records, The Book of Souls is going to have to be digested long-term, returned to again and again to fully absorb and appreciate. This is an album in the true sense: best appreciated in sequence, as a single work. There’s an intermission in the middle for you to change CDs and take a break, but I recommend diving right back in once again.
With Bruce’s very serious health scare, and the increasing age of the band, there is always the chance that this could be the last Iron Maiden album. Of course, some said that about The Final Frontier as well. It seems that ever since Brave New World in 2000, Iron Maiden have set to top the previous album each time. The cumulative effect of that is that they had a hell of a lot to live up to on The Book of Souls.
1. If Eternity Should Fail (Dickinson) 8:28
2. Speed Of Light (Smith/ Dickinson) 5:01
3. The Great Unknown (Smith/ Harris) 6:37
4. The Red And The Black (Harris) 13:33
5. When The River Runs Deep (Smith/ Harris) 5:52
6. The Book Of Souls (Gers/ Harris) 10:27
7. Death Or Glory (Smith/ Dickinson) 5:13
8. Shadows Of The Valley (Gers/ Harris) 7:32
9. Tears Of A Clown (Smith/ Harris) 4:59
10. The Man Of Sorrows (Murray/ Harris) 6:28
11. Empire Of The Clouds (Dickinson) 18:01
For the official KeepsMeAlive review by Aaron, click here!