Iron Maiden released a new album Book of Souls last Friday and I've spent the week listening to it. Here are my thoughts so far.
I am a long time Iron Maiden fan. They were the first metal band I really got into in a big way. I came to them via Live After Death (well after its '85 release, in 1989) and have enjoyed their music ever since. But not all Iron Maiden releases are equal. When they announced Book of Souls, I approached it cautiously after I heard the first single Speed of Light. While the single was definitely reminiscent of one of my favorite eras for the band when they were banging out songs like Aces High, the vibe was a bit too heavy on the rock side for my tastes. When I downloaded the album last Friday and listened through, I was happy to learn that Speed of Light was essentially the one rock-heavy song they put in there to give the album some gas. The remaining tracks are very different in mood and feel.
The album itself has a lot of classic maiden elements and to me feels a lot like their Seventh Son period but darker and more grainy. There are also a lot of direct references to earlier material. With maiden there has always been a tendency toward flashes of older songs, but in this case it seems quite controlled and deliberate. Speed of Light vaguely reminds me of Be Quick or Be Dead, both with the opening scream, the feel and the title. I think it is meant to sound like something off Piece of Mind or Powerslave, but every time I hear it I think of Be Quick or Be Dead. The Red and the Black harkens back to Running Silent, Running Deep. Of course once the song gets going, it veers into its own territory. Again though the meter of some of the vocals really reminds me of the opening lines of The Trooper. The opening to Shadow of the Valley kind of mirrors the opening to Wasted Years, and the song itself includes a reference to Sea of Madness. This does not sound accidental. When the River Runs Deep seems like a particularly strong callback to Somewhere in Time and Seventh Son. These are just a few examples that leapt out right away. It is the kind of album that makes you go back and listen to earlier material to connect the dots.
But as much as I noticed a lot of sound from the Seventh Son era, this is an all encompassing album. It feels like a coda, bringing back memories of songs as different as Power Slave and Childhoods End. But it is also completely its own and very much something new. I think the references are more about establishing connecting points, they don't dominate the sound itself.
Book of Souls is a dark and heavy album. It isn't as fast as their earlier work, with one or two exceptions, but it is heavier feeling. I think some of this is the incorporation of Drop D tuning to some of the songs (something they've never done before). That gives it a certain weight. It isn't sludgy though, it is firmly an Iron Maiden venture, driven by powerful melodies and epic aspirations.
Iron Maiden is a band that rewards patient listening. They are known to take their time building into a song and famously, songs like Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner can go on for quite some time. Most of the songs on Book of Souls are medium to long. The final track clocks in at a whopping 18 minutes, others tend to fall between 5 to 13 minutes. If you like that style of maiden, this is the album for you. If that style drives you nuts, it may put you off.
The title Book of Souls, is a theme that recurs throughout the album. It is present in every song, whether they are singing directly about the afterlife in If Eternity Should Fail or indirectly about a departed soul in Tears of a Clown (an oddly fitting tribute to Robin Williams). When I heard Tears of a Clown was about Robin Williams, I expected it to be a disappointment. When metal acts do pop culture icons it can go very wrong. It ends up being one of the strongest tracks and sounds different from a lot of what Maiden has done (but not in a way that doesn't fit them).
The album ends with a an 18 minute masterpiece about the R101 Airship Disaster called The Empire of the Clouds. I use the term masterpiece not simply because I like he song, but because that is the word people keep using to describe it. It is piano driven, which is unusual for maiden and feels something across between Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner and Journeyman. I think the song works largely because Dickinson wrote it an electric piano, which he only just started playing recently and it is about a subject, aviation, which he is clearly passionate about. An 18 minute epic about an airship disaster could be dull, but the lyrics are compelling and hold your interest as much as the movements of the song.
What is impressive about Iron Maiden is despite playing for decades, they don't sound like they've lost interest in the process of making music. In the 90s, when they were going through so much disruption, it felt that might have been the trajectory they were on. Starting with Brave New World each release felt like a rejuvenation. Sometimes you follow a band and they start to sound like they phone in their music. With Iron Maiden this isn't the case.
I am a fan so my bias is inescapable. That will always influence my opinion of new music Iron Maiden releases. So my review should be understood with that in mind. My conclusion is this: not only is Book of Souls one of their best albums, it is possibly their greatest album. It is up against serious competition of course and I usually find my feeling about Iron Maiden albums evolves over time before settling. Right now though I am putting it up there with Seventh Son of a Seventh Son and Piece of Mind.