Album of the Week 36-2015: Iron Maiden – The Book Of Souls

Out of last week’s releases, there was one obvious choice for Album of the Week: Iron Maiden’s brand new double album ‘The Book Of Souls’. Not just because it’s a new album by a legendary Heavy Metal band, but also because it’s remarkably good. Opinions on the band’s output after reuniting with singer Bruce Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith have divided their fan base, but while ‘The Book Of Souls’ follows the same pseudo-progressive formula as its direct predecessors, the fire and vigor of classic Iron Maiden is heard more than occasionally throughout the album.

Sure, some of the songs are still too long – ‘The Red And The Black’ has about seven or eight minutes of interesting music, which is a bit meager for a thirteen and a half minute track – but nowhere near as overlong as the embarrassing ‘When The Wild Wind Blows’ from ‘The Final Frontier’ or just about any track from the tired and overblown ‘A Matter Of Life And Death’. The main difference is that the longer tracks waste less time building up through overlong clean passages. They’re more evenly distributed over the album this time around as well.

Apparently, one reason for the end of the songwriting stalemate is the decreased involvement of bassist and band leader Steve Harris, as two of the album’s absolute highlights are Dickinson compositions. The eighteen minute closer ‘Empire Of The Clouds’ will probably be the main talking point for many reviewers and for a good reason: it sounds unlike anything Maiden has ever done before. It tells the story of the R101 aircraft departure and ultimate crash through a dramatic suite with a surprisingly prominent role for the piano. I’m choosing the word “suite” here, because the sections of the song don’t all go together fluently, but are rather like chapters in a book.

Even better is ‘If Eternity Should Fail’. With its dark atmosphere, driving mid-tempo rhythm and a fantastic vocal performance even by Dickinson standards, it is easily their best opening track since ‘Moonchild’ over 25 years ago. Another highlight – both musically and lyrically – is the heartfelt Hard Rock of ‘Tears Of A Clown’, which also contains what is likely the finest guitar solo on the album. The title track has strong melodies and a nice Doomy vibe before it builds towards a faster triplet-driven part – we are dealing with Iron Maiden here, after all – and ‘The Man Of Sorrows’ is a powerful, elegant epic. In the end, even the less remarkable tracks like ‘The Great Unknown’ and ‘When The River Runs Deep’ capture that classic Iron Maiden spark.

Looking at personal performances, two men have outdone themselves on this record. Nicko McBrain is well in his sixties now, but gives the performance of a lifetime here. His drumming suggests that he’s been reborn, as his creativity and power rival even his work on ‘Piece Of Mind’. Bruce Dickinson also amazes. In recent years, I feel he’s been forced to sing slightly too high and as a result sound a little strained. Because his melodies are just slightly lower this time around, he sounds mighty and stately. Adrian Smith deserves another special mention; while Dave Murray and Janick Gers deliver like they always do, Smith’s typical melodic themes are all over the album, most notably in the delightfully energetic ‘Death Or Glory’.

For every overlong moment and occasional self-plagiarizing passage – the intro to the fine ‘Shadows Of The Valley’ sounds so much like ‘Wasted Years’ that it’s ridiculous – there’s a strong, engaging song on ‘The Book Of Souls’. That alone makes it the band’s best effort since ‘Brave New World’ with any shade of a doubt. While ‘The Final Frontier’ had a few songs I was quite fond of (‘The Talisman’, ‘Mother Of Mercy’), this one ups the ante in terms of composition and especially performance. The smaller number of repetitive choruses helps as well. If this will turn out to be the last studio album Maiden ever releases, I would definitely say they’re ending on a high note.

Recommended tracks: ‘If Eternity Should Fail’, ‘Tears Of A Clown’, ‘Empire Of The Clouds’

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