The anticipation for an Iron Maiden record is really a unique thing for the band's fans. With most bands, you hope that a new release will offer well written songs and solid performances from its current members. Hope is a big factor. With Iron Maiden, it's become automatic that whatever they do will be top notch. It's a given. If you know of anyone that can point out an album where bassist Steve Harris was just ordinary, please get them medical attention. I'm really not sure what I want from this band at this point. I guess there are some questions about vocalist Bruce Dickinson's abilities, having undergone surgery to remove a cancerous lesion on his tongue around the time of recording. Dickinson is also at that age where many vocalists, especially in the metal genre, start to lose a step or two. Other than that, I think we're curious to see if Maiden will change their approach in some way. Will the album have anything new dynamically - perhaps keyboards, orchestration, or even something more adventurous like horns? With all of that said, I think what most people look for in a new Iron Maiden record is consistency, and perhaps another classic metal anthem.
So, what do we get here with The Book Of Souls?
Well, we get the band's first double album and its longest, which weighs in at a hefty 92 minutes.
We get the band's lengthiest song as well. "Empire Of The Clouds" takes the distinction from the band's classic "Rime Of The Ancient Mariner," and it makes itself a worthy successor.
We also get Dickinson playing keyboards for the first time, which is a nice enhancement to the sonic landscape without being intrusive to the band's signature sound.
And yes, we get a song or two that just might be considered amongst the band's greatest.
"Empire Of The Clouds" deserves a bit more discussion as it is the most adventurous song on the album. Aside from Dickinson's piano, there is also a cello that adds to the somber feel of the introduction. As you might imagine, the song goes through many movements and shifts, peaks and valleys. Around the 6:30 mark you may hear tunings similar to a classic Wishbone Ash sound. At 7:30 I was reminded of a Trans-Siberian Orchestra feel. At 11:00 we get a symphony to build up the regality of the song before another frenetic guitar solo. At 14:30, orchestration and piano go in a bit of an avant-garde direction. This song proves one thing for certain, they sure know how to make 18 minutes pretty damn interesting. It's an epic, classic Iron Maiden track.
I could spend a whole day and tell you how amazing the guitar solos are, or how perfect Nicko's drum breaks are, but any Iron Maiden fan knows the musicianship will be perfection. So, let's address the elephant in the room - Dickinson's vocals. I'm happy to report that the vocals here sound youthful and inspired. He may have an ever so slightly lower register (and then again, maybe not), but his strength and unrelenting spirit are in full bloom here. You can hear a real connection between Dickinson and these songs. So much of his performance is heartfelt and raw, which makes for a very successful connection with the listener. "Empire Of The Clouds" is the story of the 1930 R101 airship disaster, and with Dickinson's passion for aviation it's no wonder that this sounds inspired. But, it's songs like "Tears Of A Clown" and "The Great Unknown" that come as more of a surprise, with Dickinson exhibiting a range and vigor that is above and beyond what may have been expected from the aging frontman.
Aside from "Empire Of The Clouds," I think the other track that will go down as a true Maiden classic is "The Red And The Black". Coming in at just over 13 minutes, it has every element that we treasure in an Iron Maiden song. From the galloping bass and chugging guitars that carry the majority of the tune, to the arena-ready chanting, to the wickedly complex time changes and the exchange of some of the greatest guitar solos that metal has seen in decades. The song even has an uncharacteristic keyboard strain that starts around the 5:00 mark and adds great melody. This is a real Maiden masterpiece.
Is Iron Maiden a band that does the same album every time out?
I can see where one might say that. They don't stray too far from the path, and their signature sound runs through each and every song. (And, boy oh boy, does the intro riff to "Shadows Of The Valley" sound like "Wasted Years"....)
Is the band getting a little self-indulgent?
I can see where one might say that as well. Turning to a more progressive, less simple structuring of their songs this may come over as self-absorbed or over indulgent.
Is The Book Of Souls one of Iron Maiden's greatest albums?
I can see where one might say that. The entire band is firing on all cylinders, and the songs are very well crafted.
Is Iron Maiden the greatest metal band of all time?
I can definitely see where one might say that as well.