IRON MAIDEN - BOOK OF SOULS // PARLOPHONE RECORDS - RATING: 9/10
It's been five years since British heavy metal act Iron Maiden emerged from Compass Point Studios with The Final Frontier. Upon release to the general public the metal community erupted with overwhelming praise for the album on a global scale; the 10-track record was sent to the top of almost every international album chart, with at least three major publications placing it within the top ten of their Album Of The Year listings.
While it's true that a handful of conflicting comments surfaced pertaining to the production level and general content, these were delivered in cautiously hushed whispers, and understandably so. Be it tales of their beloved skeletal mascot Eddie (and his gargantuan stage presence during the '84/'85 World Slavery tour) or simply the excitement felt upon hearing the opening words “Woe to you, O earth and sea”, the sound of Iron Maiden reverberates throughout the Heavy Metal history books.
Inescapable in their enormity and uniquely chaotic fanfare, the band have survived a monumental forty years of activity within the music industry, racking up no less than twenty-four concert tours and fifteen studio releases, with numerous festival appearances and live albums over the years. Indeed, to label them as a household name of heavy metal is something of an understatement, and the band aren't displaying any visible signs of letting up soon.
In spite of a rather long period of studio silence, Iron Maiden add yet another chapter to their ever-expanding legacy, their trademark classic heavy metal sound returning in the form of their sixteenth studio release; the ominously titled The Book Of Souls. Crafted in Paris, France and mixed by Kevin Shirley (who has moulded many of Maiden's previous works, as well as the likes of Silverchair, Joe Satriani, and more recently Black Star Riders), The Book Of Souls hit stores earlier this month after initial delays caused by Dickinson's brush with cancer. Thankfully, the charismatic frontman is now recovering from these health issues, though the band will be taking a short reprieve from live performances.
Loyal as ever, the international metal community rallied behind this latest release and Maiden find themselves launched skyward once more, securing positions in the highest ranks of album charts across the globe, an almost frame-by-frame repeat of events from five years ago. While the album's success isn't really news at this stage, I'm actually glad to be reviewing The Book Of Souls a little later in the game. I may have missed the initial scramble for internet hits, but this has meant that I've been able to sit with the album for some time, mulling over the content and where it fits in the “bigger picture” of Maiden’s long and lavish history. In truth, this is a strong and highly enjoyable release, yet while some publications have remarked that it's the band's best release since 1988's Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son, it seems to me that not everyone will find it leaps off the page from the get-go.
First things first; The Book Of Souls is huge, weighing in at a mammoth 90 minutes of content spread over two discs; their largest studio release to date. It's a hefty offering to be sure, and though the album launches on strong footing to reintroduce the band's trademark sound with “If Eternity Should Fail”, the slow-burning pace of later tracks such as “The Red and the Black” and the album's title track present a journey that's initially a little overwhelming.
There's a huge gap between this album and Maiden's last, and it feels like the band have attempted to make up for lost time by throwing everything they could muster into the fray. This is especially apparent on the finale track “Empire of the Clouds” which boasts a staggering eighteen minutes of play-time, Maiden's longest song ever. Yes, The Book Of Souls offers up a platter of rich and ultimately satisfying content, but there's a lot to digest after the initial burst of energy presented in the opening tracks, and it doesn't strike me as an album that one should enter into lightly.
Is this a negative point? Not at all. Though I found it a little hard to break into at first, Maiden have presented The Book Of Souls at a slower and more deliberate pace. The musical content presented here isn't quite varied or experimental enough to be labeled as “progressive”, but it's not far off. The simple-yet-effective songwriting that embodies Iron Maiden's success is clear and present throughout the album, however each track takes time to delve into the depths before maturing to fruition and there's a wealth of content to be enjoyed if you can spare the time to appreciate it in full.
Theatricality has always been a part of Iron Maiden's popularity, and their latest record is no exception, with Dickinson's distinct vocal presence strong as ever through “The Great Unknown”. The track opens with flange-affected guitars that borrow elements from both “Fear Of The Dark” and “Dance Of Death”. It's a truly atmospheric piece of skilled musicianship that breaks seamlessly into a distorted churn of guitars that flies into a soaring chorus. It's worth mentioning that the production of The Book Of Souls is fantastic, maintaining the classic sound and feel typical of Iron Maiden while delivering a modern punch that keeps up with the standards of more recent acts emerging into the metal scene.
Though The Book Of Souls is littered with dark lyrical tones in tracks like “Tears Of A Clown” and lengthy instrumental passages that (as previously mentioned) can feel perhaps a little cumbersome at times, there are moments of reprieve which give balance with a much brighter and more animated feel, highlighted in the form of the fast-paced offerings “Speed Of Light”, “Death Or Glory” and “When the River Runs Deep”, it's here that fans will be able to bask in that deep and colourful history that surrounds Iron Maiden.
These tracks present a rallying cry to the glory days of “Two Minutes To Midnight” and “Run To The Hills”, not to mention the fact that “Shadows of the Valley” rips the opening riff from the belly of 1986 single “Wasted Years”, moulding it into a new - if slightly simpler - build. The nostalgic atmosphere of these tracks makes a close connection to their classic material while simultaneously crafting something fresh, of interest to both long-standing fans and those less familiar with Maiden’s work.
I've got a wealth of points that I could bash out in this review, but I'm conscious of the fact that I don't particularly want to deconstruct the reason as to why it was inevitable that The Book Of Souls would have global success upon its release. Mainly cause I'll sound like a prick. Closing words, then?
It's true that I found its monumental presence a little intimidating at first (and I suspect I won't be the only one), but Maiden's sixteenth studio release presents a wealth of content that will keep fans going for some time to come. It's been a long wait, and although they're certainly aren't the youngest heavy metal band these days, The Book Of Souls is a fantastic addition to their catalogue and I guarantee that there's enjoyment to be had in it's extended length. I just hope Maiden don't keep us in the dark for too long before bringing us the next slice of their unique brand of heavy metal. Up the Irons!