When one looks at a ‘classic’ rock band who have survived through the ages, the same question tends to be asked: “are they still good enough to compete with modern music?” Some classic rockers falter by relying on former glories (Guns’n’Roses, Kiss), whereas others continue to flourish (AC/DC). One band who, like AC/DC, continue to flourish is the legendary metal outfit Iron Maiden, still going strong year after year. This year, Bruce Dickinson and co. have finally put out a new album, The Book of Souls, which follows 2010’s average The Final Frontier. Read on for the full lowdown on The Book of Souls.
Spanning 12 songs and 92 minutes, The Book of Souls is one hell of a behemoth. It opens on the sprawling eight-minute monolith If Eternity Should a Fail, Dickinson’s voice underpinned by a synth drone and eerie sounds. “Here is the son of man” he boldly proclaims before a hefty instrumental section kicks off proceedings, Bruce’s lyrics telling the tale of humankind’s existence. The instrumentals are powerful, gritty and bombastic, which isn’t a surprise when you have some of the world’s musicians at your disposal. Janick Gers, Adrian Smith and Dave Murray’s guitars help carry a majority of the track, with bassist Steve Harris and drummer Nicko McBrain both accompanying them in rousing fashion. The track progresses and speeds up once more towards the end, introducing a new solo section and sporadic riffs. As album openers go, If Eternity Should Fail is quite strong. Comeback single Speed of Light follows, encompassing an apt use of cowbell as well as classic Maiden-by-numbers dirty riffs and caterwauling drums. It’s in a similar vein to popular track Run to the Hills, with both songs pulsating violently as a huge, anthemic chorus swallows up everything in its path. “Humanity won’t save us at the speed of light” proclaims Dickinson, before he sings of the “fallen world” on The Great Unknown. This one starts with jangly guitars and light bass, before slowly but surely pulsating and exploding into a full-on cacophony of guitars and vocals. The chorus this time round is menacing and vivacious, something which is in line with the rest of the song. It’s not as anthemic or bombastic as Speed of Light, but it still carries enough Maiden grit and power to help carry the album along. The 13-minute long The Red and the Black follows, introducing itself with an effects-caressed acoustic bass, which leads straight into a bouncy hair metal riff. From the off, it’s clear that Maiden are here to take you on a 13-minute long journey through time, space and assorted metals. Various riffs sprawl in and out of consciousness as they intertwine, with Dickinson sounding extremely urgent throughout. “Are you scared at what you just might find?” he asks during the first chorus, before later introducing some gang chanted arena-sized “ooh’s”. Three minutes in, and the track shows no sign of even slowing down a little bit. It’s not until the sixth minute that things start to get interesting, with the instruments briefly accelerating as a high-pitched guitar solo controls the song. Gers, Smith and Murray all have their time to shine throughout, each playing solos which sound identical to their respective trademark riffs. Just after the nine minute mark, things take a turn for the monumental as the track kicks into an absolutely huge, sped-up breakdown worthy of the Hall of Solo Fame (9:15 if you’re really curious). This goes on right up until the end of the track, morphing into something so epic that it honestly destroys the rest of the album.
“Heaven’s waiting with an open door” sings Dickinson on the sprawling and euphoric When the River Runs Deep, with bassist Harris’ harmonies featuring during the chorus. “There’s no time for crying when some of us are dying” continues Dickinson, his lyric coming in at a time when the world is facing a rather extreme refugee crisis. The title track, The Book of Souls, closes the first half of the record (which is split over two discs) with an acoustic-led intro. It sounds equal parts Latin-influenced as it does eerie, but that only lasts until stomping percussion and manic riffs obliterate it. A full orchestra underpins the verse, one which is worthy of a 10-minute long James Bond theme tune. At ten minutes long, the title track is the third longest song on the album, utilizing each one of those ten minutes better than the one before it. The second half of the song is considerably faster than the first, making for an explosive ending to The Book of Souls’ first disc. The 80s-tinged Death or Glory opens disc two with another lovely barrage of riffs worthy of festival main stages the world over (something which Iron Maiden will be doing a lot of in 2016). “I see the enemy, I know he can’t see me” declares Dickinson during the first verse, with the whole track flirting on the borders of anthemia by means of eclectically masterful guitars. It’s not as menacing or intriguing as other songs on The Book of Souls, sounding more like a forced, Iron Maiden standard track at its best. Shadows of the Valley follows, using finger-tapped guitars and pulsating percussion to build the track up into a wall of metal missives. Brass features alongside strings here at various moments, adding an extra air of bombast to the already grandiose proceedings. Like most Maiden songs, the lyrics cover old-time topics such as war, glory, humanity and “the beginning of time”. Although it can become quite watered down and laboured, the music does the story justice on most occasions. Shadows of the Valley eventually comes to a solo-led close, before Tears of a Clown travels along like a hunter running to the hills. At just short of five minutes it’s the shortest track on the album, although you’d never have guessed that while listening to it. Dickinson’s voice is extremely good at drawing the listener in as he tells you story upon story. This time round, he’s comparing the misery of a clown to the passing of the days and progression of mankind. “Who motivates the motivator?” asks Dickinson later on, his vocals yet again underpinned by intricately exquisite guitars.
Penultimate track The Man of Sorrows sounds like something which blends Maiden’s best elements with those of heyday-era Metallica particularly during the sprawling intro. Dickinson once again bemoans mankind and sings of reminiscing humanity through metaphors about the ocean and pain. “Free the captains from their chains” he declares during the first verse, before the track builds up with layers of suspense that keep the listener intrigued till kingdom come. It’s a story within itself, even though most of the album is one massive metal missive. It makes way for the 18-minute long album closer Empire of the Clouds, the most ambitious song on the record. An opening salvo of un-tampered with bass and piano leads the track into battle at a slow pace, first allowing for occasional guitar jabs and a string section to make for melodious breakdowns. Once Dickinson’s voice enters the frame, the track turns into a marching band procession that sees the frontman reference the Royal Family. “For all you non-believers, the Titanic fits inside” he sings during the procession, with the song centring around a fictional royal family who reside in the clouds. It sees Dickinson perform two roles – 1) the storyteller, and 2) the lead character. It’s this method of storytelling and lyricism which makes him the best lyricist around today; nobody quite knows how to tell a story like Bruce Dickinson does. As the track progresses and reaches its halfway mark, the pace picks up and the track becomes more intense, doing very little to slow down for the remaining nine minutes. To some people, 18 minutes might seem filler-based overkill, but for Iron Maiden it’s just another chance to show everyone how talented they are. The amount of bombast Dickinson and co. fit into one song is enough to make both Brian May and Matt Bellamy jealous, although it’s very clear that all three musicians are in very different leagues to one another. The Book of Souls eventually shuts on a euphoric note, with 80s synth and brass accompanying Maiden’s final hurrah. The record is definitely an interesting one, as it’s filled to the brim with intricate walls of noise, powerful vocals (and equally powerful lyrics), as well as destructive rhythms. On the back of this record, you could say that Iron Maiden are nothing short of still being as big as they ever were.
The Book of Souls is out now via Warner.