Book of Souls is well worth the wait.
Iron Maiden has managed over the years to always sound like Iron Maiden while never quite repeating themselves. That is quite a feat for such a unique band. However, Iron Maiden is not just any heavy metal band. They are pioneers that have blazed their own artistic trail in the world of Metal. Their much anticipated The Book of Souls is no exception to the rule.
The album’s opening track “If Eternity Should Fail” (written exclusively by Maiden’s operatic lead singer Bruce Dickinson) begins with a distinctive Spaghetti Western whistle as Dickinson’s unique voice introduces the song’s themes. Before long, however, the guitars take over for a perfect accompaniment of classic metal sounds and harmonized solos. These harmonized guitar solos are a hallmark of Maiden’s best work and now that the lineup consists three lead guitarists (Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers) that sound is extra aggressive as the leads conquer the rhythms. While Murray and Smith date back to the early years of Maiden, the relative newcomer Gers (initially hired as Smith’s replacement) has no less than 25 full years in the band and is, thus, a veteran himself.
“If Eternity Should Fail” is vintage Iron Maiden echoing back to the themes and sounds of 1988’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. That said, “If Eternity Should Fail” does tend to get a little bit, shall we say, “Spinal Tap” in its mystical spoken word parts. Is that a negative? Considering the fact that Iron Maiden practically invented that sort of quote heavy metal, this simply proves the vintage nature of the beast.
Dickinson is joined by Smith in the writing of the appropriately titled “Speed of Light”, which is another incredibly fast hard rock song by the metal masters. Dickinson is at the top of his vocal game as he screams “Humanity won’t save us at the Speed of Light”. It takes a lot of skill as well as passion for a band to create a song like “Speed of Light” that sounds so much like their classic era without replicating any of their previous hit songs.
This continues with the bass-heavy introduction to “The Great Unknown,” written by the band’s longtime songwriter and bassist Steve Harris with Smith. Harris’ bass leads are the foundation upon which every other instrumentation must build. Dickinson calls out the lyrics over this layered songscape accompanied by the thunder of longtime drummer Nicko McBrain.
At the age of 57 and after a bout with cancer of the tongue, Dickinson sounds no worse for the wear and still hits those high notes with his utterly one-of-a-kind voice.
Harris’ solo-penned “The Red and the Black” brings back the familiar galloping guitar and bass sound that Iron Maiden has played so often over the years. Longtime fans will certainly find this 13 minute track familiar in sound, but that is far from a bad thing. Dickinson sings beautifully over this macho chanting epic piece. It may not be the best of Maiden’s career, but it is an appealing and memorable evocation of the band’s classic days. That said, the song does wear out its welcome, just a tiny bit.
Were it not for Dickinson’s operatic, attention-grabbing voice, Iron Maiden could rightly be described as a guitar-based band. Although Dickinson sounds absolutely incredible on Smith and Harris’ “When the River Runs Deep”, this is the track that best exemplifies the varied guitar styles of the three axemen in the band. From introduction to finale, the song is a competition between the voice and the three wild and proficient guitars.
The title track begins with light arpeggios showing the classical music side that Iron Maiden has always cultivated. This gives way to heavy guitars led by Gers, who wrote the song with Harris. Clocking in at 10 minutes and 27 seconds, “The Book of Souls” is the third longest track on the album but it proves itself worthy of having the album named for it. Dickinson’s vocal diversity shines through as the speeds and rhythms of the song vary. If there is one truly Epic song on this album, “The Book of Souls” is it.
Smith and Dickinson’s “Death or Glory” begins with a guitar riff that could scarcely be mistaken for any other band but Iron Maiden or one of their imitators. Naturally, Dickinson trademarks the song as Maiden’s with his voice but Smith’s leads are pure, vintage Maiden.
With a name like “Shadows of the Valley”, one might expect a bit more of that Spaghetti Western-esque sounds that the album began with. Instead Gers and Harris evoke memories of Maiden’s own “Wasted Years” for the introduction. Synth and orchestral leanings complete this layered tapestry of sound.
No, “Tears of a Clown” is not a remake, nor are we to hear Bruce Dickinson’s Smokey Robinson impression. This is another Smith/Harris composition. This sad song runs through a gamut of speeds and rhythms along with Dickinson pronouncing every syllable clearly as if to make sure the story is told and remembered. Still, try getting the idea of Iron Maiden doing a Smokey track out of your head.
“The Man of Sorrows” is Dave Murray’s sole writing contribution to the album. He joins Harris for an electric arpeggio experience that backs up Dickinson’s voice. With just a bit of synth and keys bringing that orchestral sound back, the tune is classic Maiden and a reminder of “Shadows of the Valley.” However, the song soon takes on a life of its own as the music evolves into an unrecognizable movement completely distinct from the beginning. Dickinson’s voice goes from storyteller to longing, distant bard. The guitar solos truly make this song complete.
As the first track was solely written by Dickinson, the last track is another Dickinson-penned track called “Empire of the Clouds” that begins with light piano. At first, it doesn’t sound like Iron Maiden at all. When strings accompany the piano, one might wonder if this is actually Maiden playing. However, this final song shows not only the diversity of today’s Iron Maiden but also the musical and songwriting growth of Bruce Dickinson himself. As electric guitars begin to overlay the classical track the shadow of Eddie (Iron Maiden’s lifelong mascot) begins to be detected. At that point, Dickinson’s distinctive voice takes over and brings the listener into the new world the band is creating.
“Empire of the Clouds” is a rather strange finale to any Iron Maiden album, particularly one as anticipated as this one. On one hand, the rest of the album continues the tradition of breaking new ground while still sounding like Iron Maiden. At 18 minutes and one second, “Empire of the Clouds” is an extraordinary song made up of multiple movements and varied sounds that might as well have been used in a staged rock opera as opposed to an Iron Maiden album. There is nothing like this amazing song in all of Iron Maiden’s quiver, but damn is it ever an amazing rock n’ roll song.
The Book of Souls is well worth the wait and the band sounds as great as they did in the ‘80s. It’s clear that the idea of appearing stagnant has never left the band’s thoughts as they remain true to their history while breaking new ground. The final song, “Empire of the Clouds,” is proof that their inventiveness is nowhere near stopping. It is, in fact, on a level we’ve never heard before. And that, my friends, is a bold compliment.