When I first learned that Iron Maiden’s new album would be a double album, I couldn’t believe my ears. Who makes their 16th album, almost 40 years into their career, their first-ever double album? Most kids today don’t even know what that means! I for one was looking forward to it, and now that it’s here, I’m happy to say it’s a worthy entry into their catalog.
Clocking in at over 92 minutes, The Book of Souls is most definitely a fan’s album. It doesn’t have an iconic song to rival “Two Minutes to Midnight” or “Can I Play With Madness”, but overall these songs will fit nicely into the older catalog and the giant arenas and stadiums they will tour in 2016. The songs are ambitious, and they regularly test Bruce Dickinson’s 57-year-old vocal cords. The lyrics are quintessential Maiden, with Steve Harris writing about spaceships, religion and mythology among others. For the first time in a couple of albums, though, the rest of the band gets into the act with their own songs about such things as WWI triplanes and death itself. No fluffy lyrics here!
The first single, only released in August, is “Speed of Light”, actually the second song on the album. The intro is more hard rock than metal, and I wasn’t sure what this meant for the rest of the album. It is a very good song in its own right, but it feels like a departure from the power metal Maiden is known for. So it was with some relief that the first song on the album, “If Eternity Should Fail”, with its quiet, Spanish-sounding horn intro and layered guitar interjection between verses gives the listener some familiarity right up front. “Eternity” is a good representation of the album as a whole – a contrast between slower, heavier riffs and faster, power metal.
“The Great Unknown” creates a spooky atmosphere with a low bass line and synthesizers for effect. It opens up into a gritty song with a couple of tasty solos (which are almost lost in the background of Maiden’s twin rhythm guitars). “The Red and the Black” is the first of 3 (!) songs that are longer than 10 minutes. After another acoustic intro, the rhythm section is reminiscent of Piece of Mind-era songs (thanks to Harris’ “galloping” bass lines), and it benefits from some crafty guitar playing. This one might have been better with a shorter instrumental section at the end, but it did serve up a couple of worthy – and louder – guitar solos.
After The Final Frontier somewhat overused the quiet-intro-followed-by-aggressive-body song style, The Book of Souls mixes the structures more evenly – part of the benefit of listening to an album in its entirety. The next song “When the River Runs Deep” starts off hard and breaks into a catchy riff. They even play some minor notes in the chorus to mix it up a little. Add in some speed changes, a fiery solo and Dickinson holding a long note for the first time on the album, and you’ve got one fine Maiden song – albeit a relatively short one at under 6 minutes.
To balance that, next is the title track “The Book of Souls.” Another acoustic intro is followed by a heavy groove and Arabic-sounding keyboards. The 10-minute plus length of the song works here in telling the story, especially since they use the heavy guitars through so much of it. Another shorter song follows, “Death or Glory”, which opens with a heavy intro, and again hearkens back to early 80’s Maiden. The guitar work in the intro of “Shadows of the Valley” is reminiscent of “Wasted Years”, but it takes a couple of excellent guitar solos to help save this one.
“Tears of a Clown” is technically interesting, with its changes of time and pace. It will ultimately be best remembered for its lyrics, though. Written by Harris, the song is based on Robin Williams’ depression and ultimate suicide. Dickinson has stated this is his favorite song on the album, and it’s very comfortably in his vocal range, so expect to hear it live. “The Man of Sorrows” follows. It starts with quiet guitars and a wailing solo and evolves into a smooth, ethereal song that simply fades away (if you like that sort of thing).
The final track, “Empire of the Clouds”, written about a hydrogen-filled airship from the 1930’s, is by far the group’s longest song ever at over 18 minutes, almost 20 percent of the album. This is the second song on the album written solely by Dickinson (along with “Eternity”) and is the definition of epic. It opens with Dickinson on piano and builds from there. The instrumental sections after the 9-minute mark are the highlights of the track and demonstrate Maiden’s continued ability to write and perform important and technically interesting music. It may not match up to “Rime of the Ancient Manager” – Maiden’s previous longest epic – but it’s a fine ending to a long and thoroughly exhausting album.
Each listen brings out more of the highs and lows of The Book of Souls, but Maiden fans from all eras will find something to enjoy on this album – sometimes all in one song! Nicely layered guitars and keyboards along with inspired solos and familiar bass lines make this a true Iron Maiden album. As does the artwork, which is just plain badass as always! The album cover features the original version of the Iron Maiden logo, not used on a studio album since 1995’s The X Factor (remember Blaze Bayley?). It’s the complete package – next year’s tour can’t come soon enough!
If you haven’t already purchased it, The Book of Souls, is available through the Amazon link on the Decibel Geek homepage!