Earlier this year, Iron Maiden released The Book of Souls, the sixteenth studio album of their storied 40-year career. As this is the band’s first double album, it is refreshing to see that a band so deep into their career is still willing to enter unchartered territory and push the boundaries of what they have done before. Yet, before looking more closely at the album itself, one thing should be made abundantly clear: this is an Iron Maiden record, which means it sounds like Iron Maiden. If you’ve never been a fan of the band, this is not an album which is going to change your mind. Similarly, fans of the band are in for an absolute treat, whilst casual listeners should find plenty to admire in what is undoubtedly one of their finest releases.
The metal community rejoiced at news that frontman Bruce Dickinson had successfully undergone treatment for cancer upon the record’s completion; however, many were concerned at the impact the cancer may have had on his vocal performance. Such fears are assuaged from the moment he appears on opener ‘If Eternity Should Fail’, his vocals booming with power as he carries one of the catchiest songs on the album. The chorus’ vocal hook is a particular highlight, as it sinks its claws into your mind, refusing to relinquish its grip even well after the song is over. Throughout the album there is a clear emphasis on huge, sing-along choruses, the band no doubt casting an eye to their forthcoming world tour during the writing process.
Surprisingly, the guitar tone on the following track, ‘Speed of Light’, sounds more akin to the classic rock & roll sound of the ’70s than the metal feel fans have grown accustomed to. Despite this, its relative brevity and straight-forward nature makes it a suitable candidate for the album’s lead single, whilst its retro, video-game inspired music video certainly garnered plenty of attention for the band. Evidently, a lot of thought has been put into the visual representation of the album, and it is the self-titled closing track on disc one which best embodies the grizzly Mayan theme so brilliantly illustrated in the album artwork. The acoustic intro is a welcome change from what has preceded it, the sorrowful melody filling the listener with a sense of foreboding. The melodies, guitar tone and overlaying synths which follow it expand upon this motif, conjuring images of human sacrifice and ancient, eerie and threatening South American jungles.
Looking to disc two, the poignant ‘Tears of a Clown’ marks a somber highlight, serving as Steve Harris’ tribute to the late, great Robin Williams. Dickinson is again in fine form, his solemn delivery, alongside a beautifully mournful guitar solo, helping the song transcend its peers. Overall, the album has everything one comes to expect from Maiden: the huge, operatic vocals, galloping bass lines, duelling guitars and, in particular, the blistering guitar solos. Unfortunately, this also means it suffers from the same flaws as previous releases, namely a lack of self-editing and the occasionally cheesy lyric. Specifically, the record would have benefited from trimming some of its lengthier instrumental passages and creating a punchier record more likely to hold the listener’s attention. Whilst the band have certainly improved markedly in both these respects compared with previous releases, they’re yet to completely eradicate such weaknesses from their sound. However, to call the record formulaic would be wide of the mark. Its consistencies mark it as a work undeniably Maiden’s, yet there are enough subtle variations, such as the aforementioned use of acoustic guitars, to keep it interesting. Yet it is the final track, the 18-minute opus ‘Empire of the Clouds’, which departs most from their history and elevates The Book of Souls to new heights.
Penned by Dickinson, the most ambitious effort of the band’s career depicts the story of the R101, a monolithic British airship (think Hindenberg) which crashed in 1930, killing 48 of the 54 people on board. When considering the song’s structure and the prominence of strings, brass instruments and piano, it can even be thought of as a classical composition. Intensely cinematic throughout, the lyrics, storytelling and musicianship interact seamlessly with one another, stirring a myriad of emotions and crowning the record with splendour.
A largely consistent album throughout, The Book of Souls has everything fans have come to love about Iron Maiden, whilst the epic finish adds a captivating new dimension which is sure to blow people away. The result is that The Book of Souls is Iron Maiden’s best work since A Seventh Son for a Seventh Son, standing comfortably alongside their classics from years gone by.
Iron Maiden – Book of Souls gets…