For more than 30 years, the british rock pioneers in Iron Maiden have dominated the heavy metal scene, selling over 85 million records worldwide; more than any other new wave metal band to come out of the 1980’s. In addition to that, they’ve also never really declined in popularity, with only 2 albums not being able to obtain a gold certification. Not many artists can claim to have been as consistently successful over multiple decades as these guys. As a matter of fact, they’re even more of a household name now than they were back then. They’ve survived so many line-up changes, it can be hard to fully grasp their longevity and long-standing fan base. But here they are, still kicking and screaming, ready with their 16th studio album; the first double-disc in the band’s discography, and also their longest effort to date, clocking in at just over 92 minutes.
“The Book of Souls” is the title of this magnum-size project, which sees the band going bigger and more progressive than ever before. At its core, the music still sounds very much like what you would expect from Iron Maiden. Lots of harmonious guitar inter-weavings, galloping bass lines, intricate solos and rat-a-tat drumming. But there is also a slightly more experimental feel to some of the songs on here. The compositions are a little more daring in places, sort of like on “The Final Frontier”, but with a bit more bite to the instrumentation. The opening track “If Eternity Should Fail” is a prime example of that, starting off with an eerie and slow synth-line that repeats itself, while the echoed vocals of frontman Bruce Dickinson resonate loud and clearly like a pastor preaching in a church. It may be a little too unnecessarily long in parts, but it still provides more than enough high-octane energy and tight interplay to send off the album with an explosive bang.
We then get thrown right into the lead single “Speed of Light”, which I personally found to be the weakest of the 11 cuts. The lyrics are too cheesy, Dickinson’s voice has a hard time keeping up the pace, and although the main riff is really solid, I just can’t help but feel that there are so many better and more musically interesting songs that would’ve made a bigger splash on radio stations. Like the following track, “The Great Unknown”, which has so much more to offer in terms of sheer excitement and musicianship. It’s got a great hook, Dickinson’s voice is devilish, and the drum-work is particularly notable here. Even “Death or Glory”, which is another forgettable safe-zone venture, seems to have more of a punch to the way it hits you. But in all honesty, the alternative that it brings to the table is just as familiar in shape and structure. In a way I can understand the single choice, though, since most of the other songs are simply too long for mainstream radio.
You would think the lengthier tracks would be overly bloated and aimless, but that is not the case at all. Quite the opposite, actually. The best arrangements on this beast are by far those that exceed the 8 minute mark. “The Red and the Black” is our first real taste of that, leading off with a morbidly thick bass-line by Steve Harris, playing parallel to a Mexican strum-pattern on the guitar. Bruce is really on top of his game here, and I love the whoa-whoa chorus, which makes it perfect for crowd participation. The title track likewise has a cool spanish vibe going on with its quiet, acoustic intro, which transitions nicely into a doomsday-like cocktail of guitar thunder and typhoon drumming. But the real show-stealer is the epic 18-minute album closer “Empire of the Clouds”, which is destined to become a Maiden classic. Dickinson wrote this song entirely by himself on a piano in the studio, and you can tell he put all his energy into making it as good as it could possibly be. The melody has an almost mythical, fairy-tale like quality to it, and the string section that goes on top has a very sensual, celtic folk sensibility. and despite how much time it takes up, it never becomes dull or frustrating to listen to. There’s always something going on, and it is undoubtedly one of the most grand and ambitious endeavours the band has ever crafted. It really is that good.
As a whole, “The Book of Souls” is as endearing and visceral as anything Iron Maiden has ever done. It also has a great live feel to it, due to the fact that all band members were playing together in the same space during recording + it was captured on analog tape. It is, however, a very progressive journey, so if you prefer the shorter and more condensed solution, this might not be the album for you. It’s a bit slow and less immediate compared to their early material, but it’s nice to see them change things up and evolve, instead of rehashing the same old formula over and over again. It’s playful and vast in scope, Dickinson still got the vocal chops, and there is plenty of guitar candy to please longtime fans of the band. Not every track hits equally hard, especially not the shorter cuts. But there is far more to love than hate about this album, with the positives outweighing the negatives considerably. This isn’t exactly a renaissance, but it’s by all means the most focused and well-rounded collection of jams the guys have mustered since the late 1980’s.
Mathias Folsted Film/Music/TV critic, columnist, and news-writer
An aspiring filmmaker, film critic and YouTuber. Previous experience include extensive work for the largest danish film site, www.filmz.dk, where I served as junior editor, film critic, columnist, and news writer. Also a graduate from the European Film College, I've been a lover of motion pictures for as long as I can remember. My criticism is always honest, but above all emotional.