Book of Souls, Iron Maiden, Sanctuary, 2015.
An Iron Maiden album in the realm of Heavy Metal music is an event. Metalheads and fans of the band await and dissect each subsequent album as they are released. It’s amazing that in 2015 we were lucky enough to witness these titans and pioneers of Metal release all-new music once more, especially given singer Bruce Dickinson’s recent health scare. Iron Maiden doesn’t follow rules, plain and simple.
Book of Souls walks in those same footsteps. It is brave and bold enough to be a double album and take risks like closing the album a 20+ minute piano-focused song. If anything Book of Souls is very ambitious for a band almost forty years in its career obviously not content to rest on it’s laurels. It won’t be for everyone and it certainly doesn’t cater to the Maiden fan who wants The Number of the Beast part II. Iron Maiden is not or never will be about that, and you know what? More power to them. They don’t just play “Greatest Hits” they challenge themselves and do things their own way on their own terms.
This is the band who went on the road supporting A Matter of Life and Death playing that particular album in it’s entirety. They keep challenging themselves and finding reasons to move forward. Now they’ve given us their first double album and their longest song to date proving themselves time and again.
“If Eternity Should Fall” is a fist-pumper and sure to be popular with the crowds. It starts off the album with a bang, great buildup, strong lyrics and excellent melody. One of their best choruses in years. The way they had the demonic and evil vocal effects for the outro was very cool and something they haven’t done before.
I listened to the single “Speed of Light” prior to the album’s release and I wasn’t blown terribly impressed by the song and it’s cowbell. It felt like it was going to be this album’s “El Dorado” and that’s more or less what it ended up being. I’m glad that it’s not one of the better songs.
“The Great Unknown” is the first song on Book of Souls that feels longer as it takes the listener on a journey. It starts on the slower side, gradually build up and goes places. It’s not bad upon listening but it isn’t very memorable.
“The Red And The Black” is the second longest song clocking in at 13:34 featuring some spectacular (although quite long) display of musicianship. Those “woooohoo’s” chants echo shades of “Heaven Can Wait”.
“While The River Runs Deep” is one of the fast-paced songs only slowing down to catch it’s breath during the chorus that unfortunately, cannot keep up with the rest of the song.
Up next we have the title track “Book of Souls” marking the end of disc one. With elements of orchestration and a wonderful vocal melody, this lengthy conceptual piece may be the sleeper hit of the album. As it hits the 6 minutes mark it goes into this whole other dimension that only serves to elevate the song further.
“Shadows of the Valley” is the song that’s been commonly referred to as the “Wasted years sounding one”. Does it sound like “Wasted Years”? In short, no. It borrows the same classic opening melody, albeit much slower before launching to it’s own beat.
“The Man of Sorrows” (nope, nothing to do with the Bruce Dickinson solo track of the same name) is a shinning moment for me with it’s melodic and passionate playing/singing.
“Tears of a Clown” seems slightly out of place here and it interrupts the flow of the album. As much as it tackles a sensitive topic (Robin Williams), I feel it’s one of the weaker moments on Book of Souls.
Of course Book of Souls has everyone wondering and talking about “Empire of The Clouds”, the 22 minutes epic penned by Bruce Dickinson. It starts out with only beautifully played piano, something you’d never expect from the band. This is a big deal. Think about it, Iron Maiden doing piano? Not keyboards, orchestra or arrangements of some kind. We’re talking piano. Guess what? It works—surprising I know— but it does. It’s a long and demanding song, I’ll give you that. Yet, it doesn’t feel like a never-ending song. It goes through such changes and progressions that it keeps the listener engaged.
Let’s address the elephant in the room: I can’t picture too many Iron Maiden fans listening to a 22 minute song very often, much less a piano-driven one. I know I haven’t played it more than 3 times since buying the album. Great for a band like Pink Floyd, not so much for Iron Maiden.
A popular comment regarding this album is how some of its songs sound like a Bruce Dickinson solo album. It’s true, of the four songs he has written l can clearly see 2-3 of them being on a Dickinson solo opus in one way or another, but they don’t feel out of place as they are tailored specifically for Iron Maiden. I was reminded of Balls to Picasso and Accident of Birth, which is not a bad thing.
Book of Souls is undoubtedly and distinguishably an lron Maiden record—and a modern one at that. You have your slow in-your-face rockers, your long intro and outros with gallops in the middle sprinkled with some surprises. I don’t think anyone expected Maiden to come out with a piano ballad or their first double album for that matter. Dickinson remains impressive as he loses nothing with age delivering a splendid performance throughout. All the while unknowingly dealing with tongue cancer!
There is nothing wrong with the performances. The band sounds great and excited about what they play and do. The trio of guitarists is afire and at it again, Harris delivers some terrific bass lines and Nicko is thunderous on drums. I give credit where credit is due, but this time it just feels like more of the same and as if the band has shifted on autopilot. If I can be honest there are only so many times where you can have a 10 minute song with a 2 minute intro and a 2 minute outro and have it sound captivating. I’m getting a little saturated from the process with I feel they’ve exhausted since, oh, about Brave New World. I’m sorry Iron Maiden fans *ducks*.
I think the word “epic” is thrown around to often these days, and it’s what I think the band was aiming for with The Book of Souls. As big as the anticipation was and as dearly as my appreciation and love for Iron Maiden is, I don’t think it’s quite a five star release.
To me, the album suffers from the length of it’s songs, especially when it comes to the intros and outs. We get it Maiden, you like long intros and outs, but on every song? It’s getting to the point where you’re a parody of yourself. After all, this template has been used since Brave New World and started to get tedious around A Matter of Life and Death.
I don’t think it’s as mind-blowing as some would have you believe nor is it an instant classic, but it has merits. This was probably the right album to release at this point in their career, almost forty years on. I applaud the band for attempting a double album and trying something new (“Empire of the Clouds”) and Bruce for his performance given his condition. Worth a try to curious and fresh ears? I say start with one of the classics. Is it an amazing, incredible Iron Maiden record for fans? Not quite, but there are some worthwhile moments, it just doesn’t feel fresh or special anymore. It’s more like a tied and true formula but of course, fans will hail it as an instant classic. 3 stars.