No introduction is needed for Iron Maiden, who is quite possibly the most legendary metal band of all-time. It is worth pointing out however, that they’ve had a bit of a strange career trajectory ever since the return of Bruce Dickinson. “Brave New World” was an incredible album filled with the most authentic sounding Maiden tracks since 1988, with many even saying it was on par with the band’s early work. Of course, it was a bit overlong, but nothing that couldn’t be forgiven. Rather than trim the fat, each subsequent release has become more bloated, and the simple catchiness of songs like “The Wicker Man” and “Out of the Silent Planet” was lost in favour more progressive (albeit formulaic) tracks. This has been taken to its extreme on the band’s newest double-disc release, “The Book of Souls”, which spans over 90 minutes! If there’s one band that deserves of the benefit of the doubt for something this lengthy, it is Iron Maiden.
The opening song, “If Eternity Should Fail”, is a perfect microcosm for the rest of the album. It’s a relatively upbeat number that features a solid performance from Bruce, as well as a number of great instrumental sections. Additionally, it also has an intro and outro that consist of quiet, slow sections that need to be cut. This is the double-edged sword of “The Book of Souls”. On the one hand, there are many truly great moments, ranging from awe-inspiring guitar solos, to galloping bass lines, to wicked vocal melodies. On the other hand, many songs have completely pointless sections that add no value to an already monolithic effort. One great example is the single, "Speed of Light". Like many of Iron Maiden’s recent singles, it is an energetic song that moves at a fast pace and features an accessible chorus. Admittedly, it is the one song on the record where Bruce sounds like he’s really struggling, as he attempts to access his upper range and his voice just doesn’t let him. The problem, however, is that the last 20 seconds feature one of those rock ‘n roll styled finishes that bands use live (usually on songs that fade out on the record). It might seem petty to complain about 20 seconds, but it’s symptomatic of this entire record. The very next track, “The Great Unknown”, starts out with a soft intro led by Steve Harris’ bass and Bruce’s singing that lasts for a minute and a half. This has been done to great effect earlier in their career, but at this point, it just seems like they’re padding out the length. Again, these things add up, and they’re prevalent on more than a few songs, which really drains on the listener once disc 2 hits.
When you ignore those moments, however, there is a lot to enjoy on “The Book of Souls”. The 13-minute epic “The Red and The Black” is very deserving of its playtime, as it shows that even a basic “whoa-oh” section can still be captivating. It features all of the classic Iron Maiden trademarks that have become synonymous with metal as a whole: incredible harmonized guitars, riffs that gallop away, and of course, one of the best singers ever unleashing his memorizing voice. Bruce doesn’t overextend his range on this song, and it makes the track much more effective. Additionally, the 3-pronged guitar attack Maiden employs allows them to harmonize with every vocal line and still pack a rhythmic punch at the same time (a common theme on this album; the title track also uses quite a bit of this technique).
The second disc gets off to a strong start. “Death Or Glory” is a simple, short (by current standards) rocker. It’s reminds me of past Iron Maiden songs like “Different World”, “2 Minutes To Midnight”, or “The Wicker Man”. These songs may not capture the band’s epic side, but they provide an excellent jolt of energy that makes you want to keep spinning the record over and over again. “Tears of A Clown” is similar in this respect, but it’s even catchier. In fact, this might just be the best track on the album, largely because it doesn’t feel like the band is trying so hard. That’s not to say the longer songs on this album feel forced, but “Tears of A Clown” sounds much more natural. It’s a bit more hard rock in its approach, but it is also one of Bruce’s strongest performances on the album.
“Empire of the Clouds” is the song that likely raised the most eyebrows from looking at the tracklisting. Not only is it 18 minutes, but it was written by Bruce instead of Steve, which is definitely a little unexpected. Equally unexpected was the piano that opens the song and is used quite a bit during it. In all likelihood, this was either going to be the best or the worst song on the album, but it actually manages to be neither. In fact, it’s pretty similar to the rest of the album (save for the use of piano). It certainly doesn’t sustain its length as well as “The Red and The Black” did, but there’s nothing boring about it either.
Ignoring the quieter sections on this album, it would still be fair to say that some of these songs could be cut down even more. All three of the songs exceeding 10 minutes are great throughout, but at a certain point, they start to lose effect. It’s difficult to really remember everything that happens on a 13 or 18-minute journey, and the band would be better served sticking removing some of the instrumental sections, even if they are killer.
Even though there is quite a bit of content that might not be Iron Maiden’s very best work, this album is truly an incredible effort. With the exception of the intro to “Shadows Of The Valley” (which calls back "Wasted Years"), there isn’t a moment on the album that feels like it was lifted from another Iron Maiden song, and yet they manage to make a 92-minute album interesting. At the very least, every song has a few really cool guitar leads or vocal melodies, and even the weakest track on this album (“The Man of Sorrows”) is deserving of its spot. With that said, this kind of record is something you can only do once. Maiden needs to make the next one much more succinct. The complex song structures that are led by middling lead guitars for minutes on end won’t work forever. It is interesting on “The Book of Souls” because it feels like the culmination of what they’ve been doing for the last 15 years, but it also seems like the end of a chapter for Iron Maiden. Regardless of where the band goes from here, “The Book of Souls” is a monumental effort that shows a band that is not willing to rely on their past success forever.
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"If Eternity Should Fail"
"The Red and The Black"
"Death Or Glory"
"Tears of A Clown"
4.5/5 or 90%.
Written by Scott