Tuesday 15 September 2015

Iron Maiden - 'The Book of Souls' (Album Review)

By: Richard Maw

Album Type: Full Length
Date Released: 04/09/2015
Label: Parlophone |
Sanctuary Copyrights |

If you approach The Book of Souls with an open mind and accept the more bombastic moments, you will find a huge amount to enjoy. By my count, there are at least eight top notch tracks here. There may well be more, it is just that this is a genuine double album and has such scope and depth that it is hard to become familiar with it (perhaps concentrate on one disc or one slab of wax at a time?!). Eight out of eleven tracks rated as top grade is a fantastic tally. Still the Kings. Long may they reign.

‘The Book of Souls’ CD//DD//LP track listing:

Disc 1
1. “If Eternity Should Fail” (Dickinson) 8:28
2. “Speed of Light” (Smith/ Dickinson) 5:01
3. “The Great Unknown” (Smith/ Harris) 6:37
4. “The Red and the Black” (Harris) 13:33
5. “When the River Runs Deep” (Smith/ Harris) 5:52
6. “The Book of Souls” (Gers/ Harris) 10:27

Disc 2
7. “Death or Glory” (Smith/ Dickinson) 5:13
8. “Shadows of the Valley” (Gers/ Harris) 7:32
9. “Tears of a Clown” (Smith/ Harris) 4:59
10. “The Man of Sorrows” (Murray/ Harris) 6:28
11. “Empire of the Clouds” (Dickinson) 18:01

Iron Maiden is:

Bruce Dickinson | lead vocals, piano on "Empire of the Clouds"
Dave Murray | guitar
Adrian Smith | guitar
Janick Gers | guitar
Steve Harris | bass, keyboards, co-producer
Nicko McBrain | drums

The Review

Iron Maiden, the name alone conjures up a lot of imagery and is associated with a great deal of the lore of heavy metal culture. Maiden have now been releasing records since 1980. They have endured line-up changes, always being out of fashion and even a creatively and financially lean period through the 90's.

I will go on record and say it now: Iron Maiden are the greatest heavy metal band of all time. They have released a lot of great records, no terrible ones and put on the best show of any live band I have ever seen. They are unashamedly heavy metal. Long hair, tattoos, technical compositions and playing, monstrous imagery... Maiden have been doing it longer than most and better than everyone else. They were the first metal band I ever heard; the ‘Can I Play With Madness’ single back in 1988, to be precise, and I have been an avid listener since 1992.

The career of Maiden can be viewed in eras or batches of albums: 1. Iron Maiden, Killers 2. Number of the Beast, Piece of Mind, Powerslave, Live after Death 3. Somewhere in Time, Seventh Son 4. No Prayer for the Dying, Fear of The dark  5.  X Factor, Virtual Xi 6. Brave New World to the present day. Most fans will have a favourite era from the above- some will have an era they barely acknowledge. Each era has a recognisable sound and style. Some metal fans don't even like Iron Maiden (how is this possible?!). They are also probably the kind of people that say things like: “I just never got into them- it's the whole dungeons and dragons thing that puts me off...” Fact: Iron Maiden does not write about sword and sorcery/dragons etc. Most of their stuff is either about war, time/space, horror, or has existentialist themes.

So, after that lengthy treatise on the virtues of this unique (and uniquely British) band we get to their latest album, The Book of Souls. It is certainly the best thing that the six piece line up has done. Certainly better than the Blaze Bailey era. Certainly better than... anything the band has done since 1988, I reckon. From the synth laden opening of “If Eternity Should Fail” to the closing ambitious journey of “Empire of The Clouds”, this is Iron Maiden's most lengthy and progressive release. The opener is a grower- more lyric than riff focussed- and sets up the album. “Speed of Light” is a rip roaring success. A classic track with shades of Deep Purple running all the way through it. This is a song that is up there with the great singles the band has always put out. As a song, it is better than anything on the last couple of records and it is fantastic to hear the band play actual RIFFS and go for it in the solos and the chorus again (Kudos to the Smith/Dickinson writing team for this one).

Naturally, on an album of 92 minutes, there will be some tracks that are either not as immediate or more filler than killer. For me, “The Great Unknown” has not grabbed me yet- it may do, but for now perhaps it veers a little too close to the latter day Maiden template; majestic and soaring but just missing truly memorable moments. “The Red and The Black” is Steve Harris' sole solo writing credit here. It is truly epic; moody and hopeful with lots of time changes, solos and even a patented 'Arry “woah oh woah” chorus. As a “song,” it is not up there with “Rime of The Ancient Mariner” but it is long way better than “Alexander The Great,” for instance. There is even a Thin Lizzy-esque section around the 12 minute mark. A joy to listen to and as a piece of music, a triumph.

When The River Runs Deep” takes the band back to the type of heavy metal they were doing in the 1982 to 1985 period. The pedal goes to the metal on this one with a big chorus and frantic vocals from Dickinson. The solo section is also a rather joyous thing, taking in a couple of time changes and a lot of deft rhythmic underpinning. The band, of course, play very cohesively on every track here. Nicko McBrain remains a unique drummer- his limbs work independently of one another in perfect time, meaning that the hi hat left foot may be keeping the beat, while the ride has lots of fills and grace notes in syncopation with the snare and (speedy) bass drum, controlled by the right foot. Most drummers have lost this art, these days. They usually choose to play everything as fast as they can (and often they can't) and utilise all four limbs to make a barrage of noise rather than playing with feel or any understanding of dynamics. McBrain, then, stands tall as a drummer's drummer and a man with an instantly recognisable flair to his playing. Clive Burr had a great style too, and lovely feel, but technically is no match for McBrain. That said, who you prefer is a matter for you. I go with Nicko.

The title track is a treat in every sense and one of my favourite tracks on the record. It is dark and doomy with an excellent riff that could have come straight off the Powerslave album. I love the use of the china cymbal here. As a final remark about the drumming, the drums and cymbals sound absolutely superb (kudos to Premier, Paiste and DW) and really shine on the record. Every roll and beat is discernible. Get past the six minute mark and you will be treated to a classic Maiden passage of music. The subject matter is pure Maiden- Mayan civilisation and all the arcane practices that went with it. Janick Gers and Steve Harris have written a storming track here, further reinforcing my view of Gers as one of the band's best and most rocking writers (see also: “Be Quick or Be Dead,” “Montsegur” et al). That is disc number one sewn up. Two epics, two classic pieces of heavy metal and two moodier potential growers... On to disc 2.

Death or Glory” is a stand out. Proper heavy metal, proper Iron Maiden. Fighter planes, World War 1... the use of the phrase Live to fly; it all makes for compelling and exciting listening. I will leave you to decide if it measures up to Aces High or not. Whatever you think, it is hard to deny that Maiden haven't sounded this vital for a long, long time. Smith and Dickinson's writing here is sharp and concise. “Shadows of The Valley” follows with some urgency... it sounds exactly like Iron Maiden with the kind of tempo and time feel that Gers often brings to the riffs. Again, there are some real riffs in this one and it thus elevates it above much of the band's latter day work. If there is one criticism it is that it may be a little over long, but again, that may be just me thinking that.

Tears of a Clown” would not be out of place on a classic Jethro Tull record (I mean that in a very good way) and would translate just fine in a stripped down arrangement. The melodies and hooks are very string, the main refrain is memorable. Rhythmically it is perhaps fairly predictable Iron Maiden, but is elevated by the strength of the vocal melodies. “The Man of Sorrows” begins as a rather maudlin almost balladic piece, but then goes through some changes into dark and elegaic instrumental sections. Dave Murray gets in on the writing here, and I am pleased that he does as what he contributes to any given Maiden album is always a bit different and brings with it a sense of wistfulness that is rarely present when the other writers are at the forefront.

The record culminates, of course, with Dickinson's indisputably epic “Empire of The Clouds”, an 18 minute (!) take on an airship disaster in 1930 and thus also a metaphor taking in the decline of the British Empire. The track starts with piano and utilises strings, orchestral flourishes, military rudiment drumming, time changes and nearly everything but the kitchen sink. To be clear, this track is ludicrously overblown on every level and it seems scarcely believable that this is the same band that wrote “Bring Your Daughter...To The Slaughter.” For all that you could lampoon this track, the arrangement and the themes if it was in the hands of a lesser band; the fact is that this is Maiden,  you should meet it head on and accept it. It is, with an open mind, a very enjoyable piece of music with an imagination inspiring theme and a sense that it is deadly serious but at the same time with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

I guess that this sums up exactly why Iron Maiden are the greatest metal band of all time: they mean it- with every fibre of their being- but at the same time humour and self awareness is never absent. Everything comes with a wry or rueful smile as if the band is saying: enjoy it for what it is. It is fortunate that they formed in London.  If Iron Maiden were American they may well be Manowar. Unthinkable.

If you approach The Book of Souls with an open mind and accept the more bombastic moments, you will find a huge amount to enjoy. By my count, there are at least eight top notch tracks here. There may well be more, it is just that this is a genuine double album and has such scope and depth that it is hard to become familiar with it (perhaps concentrate on one disc or one slab of wax at a time?!). Eight out of eleven tracks rated as top grade is a fantastic tally. Still the Kings. Long may they reign.

‘The Book of Souls’ is available everywhere now

Band info: Official | Twitter | facebook

Much like my Motorhead review from the other week, as an added bonus here is my list of Iron Maiden albums (live albums not allowed). Rated favourite to least favourite. I may well be being unfair to the Bailey era here- The X Factor is rated very highly rated by some. Maybe I need to give it some serious time and energy to really get into it? Equally, many will baulk at the presence of Fear of The Dark so high up; it was the first one I bought after hearing the aforementioned “Be Quick or Be Dead.” I really like it as an album and could even rate it higher than this on another day. I just could not decide on a number 1, hence the tied for first place situation. Cowardice, I know, but for what it is worth, Killers is probably my favourite... but I know it is not the best. Maybe Seventh Son is... or maybe Powerslave?!??! I have placed The Book of Souls in there too- maybe this placing will be revised, maybe not. For now though...

1.       Killers/Powerslave/Seventh Son of  Seventh Son
2.       Iron Maiden
3.       Piece of Mind
4.       Number of The Beast
5.       The Book of Souls
6.       Fear of The Dark
7.       Brave New World
8.       Somewhere In Time
9.       Dance of Death
10.    The Final Frontier
11.    No Prayer For The Dying
12.    A Matter of Life and Death
13.    The X-Factor
14.    Virtual Xi