Released 04 September 2015
Review by Suzi Horsley and Rick Ossian
I *love* Iron Maiden. Probably more than any other band ever- seeing them at Sonisphere last year was one of the highlights of my life, and the picture of me screaming my head off to Fear of The Dark remains one of my most loved pictures of me ever. They were my gateway into Heavy Metal. When I was 17 or thereabouts, (I’ve told this story way too many times on here) I nicked my housemate’s copy of Best of the Beast (It might have been Number of The Beast, I can’t remember these days) and was enthralled. I walked around the house snarling “666! The Number of The Beaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaast” for months. From then on, it was a slow descent to my current eclectic tastes which are slowly widening to include Metal of the Black and Death variety. Anyway, Iron Maiden hold a very, very special place in my heart for a multitude of reasons, and I am rather firmly of the belief that it is actually impossible for them to put out a bad album.
However, that being said I didn’t think was possible for Linkin Park to put out a bad album (remember that horror? Or this one?) or for Lacuna Coil to put out a bad album or…well you get the idea. In the last few years I’ve been let down by some of my trusty favourites, so before I gave The Book of Souls (announced on my birthday this year don’tcha know – thanks for the present, guys!) it’s inaugural listening in the southern tower of Castle Wyrd Ways I was somewhat apprehensive. Could a band who have been steadily churning out killer albums for the last 40 years do it again? It’s been five years since we had an Iron Maiden release – what if they’d all forgotten how to play, or something?
Well, I’m very pleased to say that is not the case. I’ll spare you the summation of my feelings and give you a track by track breakdown and as a Wyrd Ways Rocks Show Special and (to save fights) my colleague, the esteemed Rick Ossian, also known as WWRS’s King Of Prog And AOR and Senior Reviewer will be joining me.
Hello Maiden fans and freaks worldwide – Rick here, your favorite Fish-Man, with a few words (or so) to add to my fellow WWRS cohort Suzi’s. Apparently, track listing(s) vary from one continent to the next, so what we shall have here is a Transcontinental Twisted Review with a shared authorship of sorts. Now, normally when I do a review I do a pretty technical breakdown and try to map things out for the listener. I will try to refrain from that to a certain extent here and just get down to brass tacks. Like Suzi, I have become an ardent admirer of the Irons (Up the Irons!) since they appeared in my musical orbit — only difference being that I may have become more aware of them much earlier than Suzi. Then again, the only REAL reason for that is because I am much older. Also, there isn’t going to be a lot of objectivity involved here…let us be clear, this is a completely biased review.
When I first began listening to Maiden, I was a MUCH younger man than I am now. I also have one concert experience to covet, and I can’t even begin to tell you about it, because the memories just aren’t there. I DO recall that Guns N’ Roses bowed out as the support band (supposedly because their star was on the rise and Axl didn’t think it ‘proper’ that G N’ R should open for somebody else at the time). Another American outfit, Hurricane, did the honours instead, and I remember not much else except for Dickinson‘s regular requests for us to “SCREAM FOR ME, OMAHA!!”
Since I’m the boss (or T’Gaffer, to use Yorkshire slang), and Maiden were the band that single-handedly got me into this whole Heavy Metal thing, if you two think you’ll get away without at least the odd interjection, you’ve got another thing coming!
So let’s get to it. Damn straight.
The album is Maiden’s first studio double album (though I have a digital copy from Groove Music) and comes in at a whopping 92 minutes. It has their longest ever track on it, which comes in at 18.01 minutes long and knocks Rime of The Ancient Mariner down to being Maiden‘s second longest track. It is *not* a concept album, although I rather feel it should be, but it quite thematic on the subjects of death and hell and other cheerful things like that.
If Eternity Should Fail is our introduction which kicks off with some weird Spaghetti Western-esque “do-do-dooooooo” stuff before Bruce gives the most beautiful, ethereal standalone kick off to a vocal introduction to an album I think I’ve ever heard. What you then get is gloriously classic Maiden – all the things that make Maiden great – with something that’s new. It’s old Maiden enough that no one is going to be upset, but new Maiden enough that it isn’t boring either. And the lyrics are mind blowing. It’s also instantly catchy. I’m only on my third listening and singing along already. At the end it has some really creepy spoken word stuff which gives you some flavour (and freaks you out).
As an opening track, this one sets the stall out well. The intro is a bit… interesting. Very 80’s synths (remember this band telling us in their sleeve notes that Metal and keyboards should never mix? How times have changed!) backing a mournful verse, with Bruce showing another, Blues-y, side to his voice. Then the rest of the band comes in and we’re in familiar territory. This is Maiden. A good one to start with.
If Eternity Should Fail follows The Red and The Black (more on that later) as track 5 in the States, and I was agog at the intro, a purely spacey, Egyptian-style intro that recalled some of the tracks from Powerslave, for me at least. The requisite galloping and guitar-soloing are there, and at the five-minute mark there is a brief bass/drum takeover, of all things. Bruce‘s vocal power is just that, an extraordinary display of an extraordinary man’s talents. The voicing(s) at the end may be these blokes’ way of getting all philosophical on us, but who cares? It SOUNDS cool!
Track 2 here in the UK is the previously released single Speed of Light which is *deep breath* the closest I think Maiden have ever come to releasing a Pop Song. It’s not bad, please do not misunderstand me for a single second, it’s just a bit poppy in a way I can’t put my finger on. It’s my least favourite track from the album, but it’s still good. From any other band I’d think it was perfectly acceptable. Anyway, it’s a bit boppy, and I want Maiden to make me scream and then displace bits of my spinal column head-banging. This track doesn’t do that. I do still find myself bouncing along in my desk chair signing the chorus though so, yeah…
Oh, give over, Elfie! This one’s a cracker! The song gallops along on sheer joy and showcases a band that are enjoying themselves. After the last couple of albums, I’d begun to fear that Maiden had lost the ability to write quick songs. This one proves me wrong, and does it in fine style. Nicko even uses his cowbell!
Speed of Light, the track that first became available to us, is the last track to appear, ironically enough, on the US version. Though it may sound tepid by some standards, it is a truly remarkable piece of work as well.
The Great Unknown starts with all the guitars doing cunning understated things, and is almost stripped back for a Maiden guitar line. The Bruce comes in with some restrained vocals and then you get some keyboards I think, and the track just slowly builds up for well over a minute until finally around the 1 and a half minute mark Nicko gets unleashed on the drums and then the guitars kick into Maiden style and you get hit full on in the face with the glories of a full Maiden line up doing what they do best, while Bruce shows off all that opera singer training he had. Also, epic guitar solos. I can see the crowds going nuts, with horns up screaming this one back in the middle of a festival already.
This one is an example of what Iron Maiden have been experts at for the last thirty years. Slowburning, epic songs that build from quiet and thoughtful to full speed gallops, before returning to quiet, without feeling forced. One thing that you can’t help but notice is the sheer quality of the guitar work from original member Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers (the former White Spirit and Gillan six-stringer who has now been with Maiden for something like a quarter of a century, but still feels like the new boy!), all underpinned and anchored by Steve Harris’s throbbing, galloping bass.
The Great Unknown comes in as the second track on this side of The Pond, and Steve begins this number in rather regal bass fashion. The urgency is there, the in-your-face delivery is there – in fact, it’s ALL there, folks. All we need to do is listen! It occurred to me during my first listen of this track that NOBODY screams/yells at you/us like Bruce. About 5 minutes in there is a contemplative shift of sorts, and …Unknown begins to sound like a different song, hell, even a different band, up to the fade-out. “And the world has fallen/And we stand alone” – kind of prophetic lyrics, but then they do that occasionally, don’t they?
Up next is my favourite track from the album – The Red and The Black. Kicks off with Spanish-style guitars and then kicks into a high octane, thumping, thrumming wall of glorious, multi-coloured sound. Seriously, it is an aural orgasm. You know how Maiden have a back catalogue full of songs that you can just jump and down to, singing “woaoh ah ohhh oh!” along with a slamming guitar line and drums that are just right where it’s at (Lars Ulrich can piss off, Nicko is king FOREVER) THIS IS THAT TRACK. It’s just perfection. I can’t even begin to tell you how perfect it is – it jumps to being my number three favourite Maiden track (Fear of the Dark and Number of The Beast are at 1 and 2. Incidentally Can I Play With Madness is fourth). It’s also a glorious 13 minutes long. There’s always a risk with long tracks that they’ll get boring halfway through. Not so, with this one. It’s 13.33 minutes of sheer perfection.
The Red and the Black is up fourth here in the expanse that is Nebraska too, and I don’t know that a bigger track has been heard (at least not to these ears) in quite some time. Steve begins the proceedings again, I believe, though these ears MAY be a bit untrained. Any bass players out there that would be willing to express their opinion(s) would be more than welcome! Emotions and guitar solos are running high on this track as well, and at about the ten-minute mark things shift to a more uptempo rendering. At ten-and-a-half the repetition, though oh-so-subtle, is the only thing that takes away from the track. Repetition CAN be cool, methinks. Perhaps in another world, repetition is all the rage! At twelve minutes in we do another shift to that world-famous, globe-trotting gallop, and then Steve ends things, kind of like he did at the beginning – you remember, back at the beginning of this track?
There’s some very interesting guitar work on this one, acting as a mirror to Bruce’s melody line, playing along to his singing, matching him note-for-note. The wash of keyboards in the background adds colour and depth without overwhelming anything else. Probably the most striking thing is that, four songs in, with nothing clocking in at less than five minutes (most either pushing or exceeding 10 minutes) none of these have overstayed their welcome or sounded forced. It’s really looking like Iron Maiden have completed their transformation from meat-and-potatoes NWOBHM to a fully-fledged Prog Metal band of the type the likes of Dream Theater can only dream of being. The Red And The Black is just one of the tracks that reinforces that. Then there’s the gear shift at around nine minutes in that just makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.
When The River Runs Deep should then be an instant disappointment, following such an epic little adventure. However it isn’t. The Red and The Black has a peaceful finish to it and then When The River Runs Deep slams right into your face with a full-on start, and no build up. It’s “only” 5:52 long (there’s only one track shorter than 5 minutes on the whole album and it comes in at 4:58), and I’m sure there’s some cowbell in it. Just the right amount, it doesn’t need more. We’ve got Her Majesty’s Right Royal Air Raid Siren, Bruce Dickinson after all.
When The River Runs Deep is one of those classic Iron Maiden songs. Unmistakeable. Riffs, vocals and solos… all perfectly weighted and placed.
I found myself immensely enjoying US track 7, When the River Runs Deep, which in Maiden World is short but sweet at only about six minutes, but still an excellent track, with a super fucking bad-ass main riff and some soloing featuring one of those wah/crybaby pedals (I’m thinking probably Janick there). The solos abound on this and all of the tracks.
The Book of Souls is the last track of Disc One for those with a physical copy here in the UK and track 6 for those with a digital version. It’s a 10 minute long epic, and it’s best listened to by sitting back and closing your eyes and letting it wash over you. While you headbang, obviously.
Now then. The title track. The Book Of Souls. Is it epic? Yes. Somewhat surprisingly, the keyboards are a lot further forward in the mix than you’d expect. Again, that raises a wry smile, but it turns the song into something huge. Then the pedal goes down at the halfway point and the goosebumps are back. The soloing again is incredible. Guitar afficianados bang on about Vai, Satriani, Friedman and Malmsteen… but if you want guitar heroics that actually serve the song, you really can’t do any better than Murray, Smith and Gers. The energy and imagination in this track alone put bands twenty years younger to shame. THIS is how you do Prog Metal. Yes, you can do all the Proggy twiddly bits, but you remember the Metal.
The title track, which you will find in penultimate position Stateside, begins life as it ends, with some positively heavenly acoustic guitar work. Since when do these guys deploy such subtle weaponry? I haven’t heard it on any tracks since, oh, say the last album? All kidding aside, dear readers, The Book of Souls is a piece of work that needs to be heard to be believed. It is incredible – it is fantastic. It is, as Bruce intones, the “food of all the gods“. Their are many sweet solos, and the crybaby pedal is broken out again.
Disc 2 kicks off with Death Or Glory and is an instantly upbeat faster paced (and shorter) track than The Book of Souls. It’s fairly punchy, with memorable lyrics, and is again, bound to be a crowd pleaser, but I got distracted listening to it and forgot to write anything. (Elfie! – T’Gaffer)
Death or Glory, which occupies the eighth slot here, features another big rock intro, complete with more wicked vocals and even a couple of paradiddles (getting a bit technical there, Rick! – T’Gaffer) from Nicko. We get the full package here, folks, with no less than three guitar solos to boot!
Now this is what an album opener should sound like. Yet Death Or Glory could be classed as the opener for “Side 2”. This one’s got the Maiden swagger all over it. This really is the sound of Iron Maiden in full flight, and it is truly majestic. The goosebumps are back again as soon as they get to the bridge. If you don’t get the urge to get out your air guitar about three minutes in, you have no soul. On any other album, this would be the highlight track… but as my colleagues have already mentioned, this album is something special…
Shadows Of The Valley follows Death Or Glory in the UK, and again it’s fairly fast paced. Disc One may be all slow build up songs that then smack you in the face, Disc Two is full of boiling over tracks who have already reached a full head of steam by the time they start. I can’t put my finger on which previous release this track puts me in mind of, but whichever one it is, they’ve done it before. This seems to be a subtle re-working than an entirely new track. Still, bloody good though.
Unlike the UK version, Shadows of the Valley is the album opener on the Stateside version. I can hear Steve REALLY well, and of course that classic Maiden gallop is there. Nicko’s drumwork is wonderful, I might add, and I can hear that beautiful ting ting ting of his cymbal(s). Bruce is in wonderful form, considering his recent bout (Bruce wins!) with cancer, and there are plenty of guitar solos to go around. “Into the valley of death“, Bruce intones, which we should realize takes on a completely different perspective, again considering Dickinson’s brush with the Reaper.
They’re at it again on Shadows Of The Valley! Another slab of classic Maiden. Bruce is singing out of his skin… which is truly amazing when you consider that, when this was recorded, he had a tumour “the size of a golfball” on his tongue. There’s the hint of an Eastern influence on the riffing. Those solos… as I type this, the song is playing and the hairs on the back of my neck are standing on end. This one is going to go down a storm at the live shows.
Tears of a Clown is the albums shortest track coming in at a mere 4.58. It’s also (apparently) based on Robin Williams’ death in 2014. The opening guitars don’t quite ring right for me – they’re a little off beat somehow, but then it improves. The opening lyrics:
All along in a crowded room
He tries to force a smile
The smile it beamed or so it seemed
But never reached the eyes, disguise
Masquerading as the funny man do they despise
…are absolutely heartbreaking and a very poignant reminder of the complexities of mental health. It is, a solid tribute both to Robin Williams (assuming the story is true) and to those battling mental health stigma everywhere. Never let it be said that Maiden are scared to tackle the hard subjects. And unlike a lot of bands they manage to do it in a non-sensationalist way as well.
It’s absolutely spot-on. Despite the somewhat cliched title, the song itself is pretty much perfect. Lyrically poignant… and that guitar work. I know, I keep coming back to it, but this triple attack from Messrs Gers, Murray and Smith is truly awe inspiring, and there’s no hyperbole in that. Each and every time, the soloing is incredible.
Tears of a Clown is the shortest track on board here, at just under five minutes, but it is no less cooler than the remainder of the tracks. It features a wickedly cool intro, and is probably a perfect example of the stop-start, proggy time signature freak-outs that our parents warned us would screw up our ears and the rhythm of our hearts! More of the wah-pedal being stepped on, which I ALWAYS enjoy, as well.
The Man of Sorrows isn’t any more cheerful and is the penultimate track of the album which also is seemingly based on a mental health theme. It’s probably the most haunting track on the album, and has slower paced verses and vocals that really let Bruce’s range go to work. Like all Maiden tracks there’s a fairly long vocal free intermission in the middle. Always a pleasure to listen to musicians who are skilled at what they do making some melodies work their asses off.
The Man of Sorrows has a sweet guitar opening, weighing in as track 6 in the US, and an extremely cool ending as well, with a slamming pounder of a riff (1:30), more galloping (2:00), and more guitar solos (4:00/4:30).
Finally, the album comes ot a glorious close with The Empire Of The Clouds. Written solely by Bruce (as was If Eternity Should Fail), it boots Rime of The Ancient Mariner from the longest Maiden track slot, being as Rime is a mere 13 minutes long, and Clouds comes in at 18.01. It also features Bruce on the piano and begins with a distinctly unMaidenish piano intro. This is not a headbanger, this a Lie Back And Enjoy It. And it’s beautiful. There’s even a violin. Or something with strings at any rate. Anyway, it’s a gloriously fitting closer to an album that has been a long time in the making.
Empire of the Clouds (US track 3!) pretty much sums up the definition of epic, and even when faced with other standard side-long prog tracks, it does NOT lack whatsoever. There is plenty of pomp and circumstance, Stürm und Drang, as it were, and you know it’s going to be an absolute monster when there are keys and strings involved! The introduction features a beautiful piano piece, and about a minute in we get some gorgeous violin work. Two minutes in, we get some powerful vocals. You don’t really hear your first taste of guitar until about three-and-a-half minutes in! At the four-minute mark, things get decidedly heavier. This one is positively hair-raising – I literally had gooseflesh during my first listening to it! Again, plenty of lead guitar work to go around, and the big Nicko shift (7 minutes in) is interesting to say the least. If one were to look in Webster’s (or the Oxford English Dictionary for those of us on this side of The Pond! – T’Gaffer) under ‘vocal prowess’, then there would be a big picture of Bruce there with this track! There are transitions a-plenty as well, and at fifteen minutes in, you would swear we were listening to a different track again! Towards the end, at about 17 minutes in, as the track begins to fade out, we get more of that ‘grand’ piano stuff. This track in particular kind of says it all, and could even be indicative of a Maiden ‘formula’, if there were one!
So after 1600-odd words of my waffling at you, what do I think of The Book of Souls? Well, frankly I think it’s a continuation of a 40 year long career standard. There’s not many bands who can consistently turn out excellent albums. Iron Maiden are one of those bands. Longterm fans won’t be disappointed and new fans will be left wanting more. I’m rating this album 5/5 but only because Carl won’t let me rate it as an 11. (Just this once, I might let you do that, Suzi – T’Gaffer)
It’s been five years since The Final Frontier (which I have to admit was something of a disappointment). The question that has to be asked is, “Has it been worth the wait?” The answer has to be, and can only be in the affirmative. If you’re going to call this a “comeback” album, it’s been the best return since Osiris. This is a band that, even after nearly 40 years, are capable of working magic. Not content with nostalgia trips, this is a band that is pushing forward and pushing forward hard. It’s likely we will never see the like of Iron Maiden again, and the credit for that lies firmly in the hands of Steve “Bomber” Harris. He put this band together. He’s the lynchpin that holds this band together. His drive, determination and sheer ability to pick exactly the right musicians to fit his vision have absolutely come to full fruition with The Book Of Souls. Every single note played on this incredible record just proves that Iron Maiden are the greatest Heavy Metal band in the world. Ever.
If you disagree, you’re wrong. It’s as simple as that. Full marks. Album of the fucking DECADE. UP THE IRONS!
For those of you whose musical orbit does not land in Maiden Land, this may NOT be for you. However, for those of you who are about to Rock, as we all do from time to time, this is the stuff right here! I am in complete agreement with my cohort, Suzi – at the very least, highest marks with two thumbs straight the hell up!
(P.S Maiden for Bloodstock 2016 alright? Please don’t let them Download, I don’t want to deal with the tweenagers)