Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls
Release Date: September 4, 2015
Britain’s heavy metal warhorse, Iron Maiden, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year with the release of its sixteenth studio album, The Book of Souls. The new album is the band’s first since 2010’s The Final Frontier–an album many fans thought might have been the last for Iron Maiden. The Book of Souls has made the five-year wait worth it, delivering up a double album of material spanning 92 minutes over 11 songs, including the epic final track, “Empire of the Clouds”, which clocks in at 18 minutes.
The Book of Souls finds the songwriting more evenly distributed than ever before with frontman Bruce Dickinson and bassist Steve Harris creating the majority of the record, with the band’s three guitarists; Adrian Smith, Dave Murray, and Janick Gers all contributing as well. Only drummer Nicko McBrain is absent from writing credits this time around.
The balanced songwriting has added depth and maturity to what may be Iron Maiden‘s most cohesive and expansive record since 2000’s Brave New World. At this point in their lofty careers there is little reason not to push their own boundaries. This can be felt right out of the gate on the eight-and-a-half-minute Dickinson penned opener, “If Eternity Should Fail”. The song begins with Dickinson’s emotive vocals over an Egyptian-esque backdrop, before the guitars weave through the chugging rhythms of the bass and drums. The song sets a strong atmospheric tone to begin this odyssey. Dickinson’s vocals are as powerful as ever, pushing every measure of the song forward, his intonation ebbing and flowing with nuance. At the five-minute mark the band moves into a trademark galloping breakdown. The final minutes morph into an acoustic interlude with a garbled voice speaking ominously over the music.
The record’s first single is “Speed of Light”, and the opening riff from Adrian Smith nods back to the band’s earliest New Wave of British Heavy Metal years, bristling with swagger and verve. Bruce’s rising vocals on the chorus are classic Maiden, and his opening banshee shriek adds an air of theatrical madness. McBrain even unleashes some cowbell on the intro–Cowbell on a Maiden song?–and it works brilliantly. Stunning guitar work and addictive melodies make this an instant classic. “Death or Glory” arrives in a similar NWOBHM manner, reminiscent of Maiden’s first two records prior to Dickinson arrival. Harris’ chunky bass recalling early tracks like “Running Free”. This is the second of the Smith/Dickinson offerings.
Harris, long the band’s dominant songcrafter, delivers a mammoth beast with his 13-plus-minute track, “The Red and the Black”. It begins with the toying thunder of his bass, before the guitars and drums chime in to propel the song forward. Dickinson’s vocal line follows the melody like a dark minstrel dancing in the streets. Harris has created a dexterous and meaty composition filled with all the classic Maiden influences fans of have come to expect but pushed to new limits. Some of the record’s best fretwork can be found at the song’s midway point.
Smith and Harris team up for three tracks on the album, “The Great Unknown”, “The River Runs Deep”, and “Tears of a Clown”. The latter is a tribute to comedian Robin Williams who tragically took his own life last summer after a long battle with depression. “The Great Unknown” resonates with a somewhat somber and moody feel. Dickinson whisper-sings his tale until it builds into a soaring monolith. McBrain shines here with well-choreographed cymbal work and his usual spirited intensity. Dickinson almost feels like he is chasing the melody on “When the River Runs Deep” leaving the listener feeling a bit breathless. His vocals rise and fall with the current of the song’s rhythm. “Tears of a Clown” plods along with some of the album’s grittiest riffs.
Janick Gers worked with Harris on “Shadows of the Valley” and the title track. The former instantly recalls the dancing guitar into of “Wasted Years” while “The Book of Souls” returns to the ancient flowing vibe of the opening track. The song features one of the tastiest riffs on the record.
Dave Murray makes his lone contribution with Harris on the winding track, “The Man of Sorrows”, which for me is perhaps the least inspired track on the record yet still quite enjoyable. The most inspired has to be Dickinson’s wholly cinematic epic, “Empire of the Clouds”. Bruce begins the journey behind his piano with a light interlude of strings adding atmosphere and substance to the ethereal solemnity of Dickinson’s melody. Attempting to articulate the scope of this song feels like an injustice. Suffice to say this track alone is worth the price of the record and an experience any metal fan should welcome.
With The Book of Souls, Iron Maiden has further cemented its iconic status among the rock and metal community. This record is but another grand and fulfilling chapter in a legendary career that is distinguished by deft musicianship, intelligent lyrics, and masterful songwriting. Kevin Shirley‘s production is understated yet flawlessly brilliant. Whether The Book of Souls is the final chapter in Iron Maiden‘s impressive and historic catalog of music remains to be seen, but it is certainly among its most memorable offerings since the band’s seminal 80’s works.