Very few things in the world surprise or excite a jaded old metalhead like myself. Iron Maiden releasing their best album in at least 23 years is an obvious exception. There, I said it right in the opening! There is no point beating around the bush on this one: The Book of Souls, in addition to being Maiden’s first-ever double studio album is easily their best effort since 1992’s Fear of the Dark. Don’t get me wrong, there have been plenty of great tracks among the band’s six studio albums that were released during that 23-year period, but not a single one of those records maintained the quality throughout that is so richly on display with The Book of Souls.
It is a record that has been five years in the making. Iron Maiden is known as one of metal’s most exciting live acts and they have been traversing the globe tirelessly since the 2010 release of their prior record, The Final Frontier, and working on the new album along the way. The Book of Souls has actually been done for a while, but it’s release was delayed by singer Bruce Dickinson‘s battle with tongue cancer. The band wanted to wait to release the album until their front man was fully recovered from his successful round of treatments so that they might immediately hit the road in support of it. The fact that Dickinson recorded his parts for the album while delaying the treatments is belied by the fact that his voice sounds the best that it has on record in some time. The Book of Souls is also the first Maiden album to feature solo compositions from the singer since 1984’s epic masterpiece Powerslave.
One of those solo compositions is the stellar opening track “If Eternity Should Fail.” The song begins as a slow bluesy burn with Dickinson crooning lyrics including “Here is the soul of a man” over an Egyptian keyboard motif for nearly a minute and a half before the track explodes into the signature Maiden gallop and the record is off and running full steam ahead. The chorus is one of the hookiest things that the band has turned out in years and one can almost hear 20,000 metalheads singing along to it at every gig. It’s such a perfect opening salvo that I wouldn’t be surprised if they start opening shows with it as well.
Up next is the album’s first single “Speed of Light.” It’s a barn-burner of a track that is reminiscent of the vibe of one of the band’s all-time great songs, “Aces High.” You can check this track out for yourself via the very clever animated video here below.
“The Great Unknown” starts with an eerie guitar pattern. The song scales all the way up to a bombastic middle before revisiting the opening motif at the end.
The next song is perhaps the most likely candidate to become a permanent staple of the band’s live canon. “The Red And The Black” features a massive “whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh” singalong chorus that is reminiscent of the title track of “Fear of the Dark.” This track features perhaps the most atypical and refreshing guitar solo in the entire Maiden catalog. It is also the only song on the album that was composed entirely by the man who has traditionally been the primary songwriter, bassist Steve Harris. Herein may lie the key to The Book of Souls‘ ultimate greatness: the extensive and high quality contributions from his bandmates seems to have relieved the pressure of writing an entire record, allowing Harris to contribute only the highest quality of material as well. If this song were the only highlight of the album, it would still be worth the price of admission. Fortunately, that’s far from being the case.
“When the River Runs Deep” is a classic, unrelenting Maiden track featuring searing guitar work from axe masters Adrian Smith, Dave Murray and Janick Gers.
The first half of the double album concludes with the ten and a half minute title track. An acoustic guitar intro gives way to a winding mid tempo dirge that up-shifts midway and features some of the most stunning performances of the album. Dickinson, in particular, is in top form here.
The second half kicks off with “Death Or Glory,” another selection that would’ve been right at home on any of the band’s mid ’80s run of classic records. The same could be said of the next track, “Shadows of the Valley” as well, which harkens back to the Powerslave era in particular.
Frankly, it’s the next song that keeps me from giving The Book of Souls a perfect score. “Tears of A Clown,” which is about the late comedian Robin Williams, is the sort of album track that can be found in abundance on later Maiden records. It’s not a terrible tune, but given the very high watermark of the the rest of the album, it sticks out as the record’s only misfire.
“The Man of Sorrows” puts things back on track before the record reaches its breath-taking conclusion. “Empire of the Clouds,” the second Dickinson composition, bookends the album in an unforgettable fashion. This track is an 18-minute journey through all of the elements that make Iron Maiden metal royalty. Comparisons are already being drawn between this pièce-de-résistance and the band’s storied epic “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” If it should turn out that this is to be the final Iron Maiden album, I can’t think of any more appropriate way to sign off.
Let’s hope it’s not their last stand though, because clearly The Book of Souls is proof positive that Iron Maiden still has the capacity for creating art that leaves band’s one-third of their age in the dust.