Is it possible that Iron Maiden just released the album that surpasses “Powerslave” in Ger’s Power Rankings for best Maiden album of all time? By God, it’s not only possible; I think they’ve done it (by George!).
“The Book of Souls” is an epic, moving, daring and, at times, very personal record. I’ve listened to literally nothing but this double-CD set (Note: CDs are physical discs containing music that you can hold in your hands, kiddies) since its release on September 4th, so you’d think I’ve had ample time to digest the songs and formulate definitive, objective opinions. The truth of the matter is, I don’t feel I’ve even scratched the surface on most of the album’s 92 minutes (!) of music. Nevertheless, I’m going to try to assemble my thoughts, so here we go.
“If Eternity Should Fail” – 8:28
The album’s opener begins with a synthy, droning intro laid underneath Dickinson’s soulful vocal. The song rips into the main riff around the 1:30 mark, settling into a mid-tempo gallop that gets the head nodding. The tempo picks up into a flying flurry of solos and bass riffing, culminating in the three amigos harmonizing like only Gers/Smith/Murray can. The song ends with a heavily processed monologue delivered by Dickinson, echoing the album’s themes of death, afterlife and spirtuality. A masterfully crafted and thoroughly satisfying listen.
“Speed of Light” – 5:02
This song is the “Wickerman” or “El Dorado” of the record; a spirited, up tempo romp that will absolutely KILL live. As fellow Maiden fan Blake Sparkes succinctly put it, this song is an excellent Iron Maiden single, but will probably be my least favourite song on the album. He’s right. It’s not a knock on “Speed of Light”, but a testament of how incredibly strong the rest of the record is.
“The Great Unknown” – 6:38
Harkening back to the subtle intros on a lot of the songs of “A Matter of Life and Death”, “…Unknown” builds upon Harris’s steady bass opener and settles into a mid-tempo groove. The chorus soars with its memorable melody and the deft right foot of Mr. McBrain. Leading into the solo, one gets a “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” era vibe, which crops up at different times throughout the record.
Ok, let’s step out of the review for a minute because it’s about to get strange. This point in the record marks the first occurence of an intangible feeling that I’ll try to explain: this song gives me the slightly anxious feeling like that of a long wait. There’s something big and complicated and unstoppable looming on the horizon and I’m marching ever onward toward it. I feel it on the three songs that are directly slotted before each of the album’s 10+ minute epics. It’s not a feeling of dread (far from it), but there’s a wait and an anticipation that I feel every time. It’s not at all unpleasant; it’s like Christmas morning. Does that make sense? Probably not.
“The Red and the Black” – 13:34
This is the first of the sweeping epic songs on “The Book of Souls”. Harris opens with a flurry of furious bass chords that teeter on the brink of being out of control. This song encompasses everything that Iron Maiden is; headbanging gallop, soaring “WOAH-OH-OO-WHOA-OH!” shout-along chorus, themes of life, death and the afterlife, crazy time signature changes and masterful guitar work. Smith’s bluesy solo is a stand out in a sea of artfully crafted riffs. The song’s third act has the band in full flight like only Iron Maiden can. For a song clocking in over 13 minutes, not once does it drag and have you looking to see how much is left. This is Steve Harris at his best and it’s something to behold.
“When the River Runs Deep” – 5:53
Here’s another “Seventh Son…” moment! The song opens with a lick very reminiscent of “Moonchild”, and keeps the pace of the “SSoaSS” opener. The verse riff is furious and up-tempo, offset by the half-time feel of the chorus. Just another solid tune that will kill live if it’s included in the set list.
…and the sense of anticipation again.
“The Book of Souls” – 10:32
A tastefully subtle acoustic opener sets the atmosphere for the album’s title track. The main riff is a syncopated line, highlighted by some acrobatic bass by Harris. Although set in the mythology, mysticism and ancient history of South America, the melody harkens back to thoughts of ancient Egypt, where Maiden has been known to tread (obviously). It is to be noted here, especially in the chorus, that Dickinson sang this entire record with a golf ball-sized tumour in his tongue. It’s absolutely remarkable how Bruce not only manages to hit the notes he hits, but hit them with authority. At the song’s 5:48 mark, it’s goosebump time for any true Maiden fan. The tempo and mood of the song changes from one of sombre reflection to unleashed fury. With a riff that conjures up thoughts of “Losfer Words (Big ‘Orra)”, the band kicks into flight mode again, grabbing us helpless souls by the back of our black Maiden tour shirts and taking us with them. The 1st CD ends with the same acoustic riff from the top of the song and we’re on to disc 2.
“Death or Glory” – 5:13
The Smith/Dickinson penned tune about WWI dogfighting is an instant Maiden classic. Snapping everyone to attention from the start, the song doesn’t build up; doesn’t ease into anything. Like a triplane’s engine kicking over after some bloke yelling “CONTACT!” and cranking on the plane’s prop, it’s full RPMs and never lets up. The bass riffs at times feel very “Running Free”-ish without sounding like a rehash. For as long as Dickinson is fascinated by planes of war, I’m happy to listen.
“Shadows of the Valley” – 7:32
“Wasted Years”-esque opening riffs are always welcome and Smith brings the spirit of that “Somewhere in Time” classic back in this song. The lyrics even have the words “Sea of Madness” in there! The similarities between those two “Somewhere in Time” tunes kinda end there and “Shadows…” settles into a familiar up-tempo Maiden pace. The track would fit very well on “A Matter of Life and Death” or “Dance of Death”. It’s the post-2000 Maiden sound done to perfection.
“Tears of a Clown” – 4:59
Written as a tribute to the late Robin Williams, the song touches on themes of depression, internal isolation and the struggles people have to face when dealing with this crippling disease. Musically, the song is tastefully mid-tempo and groove-laden. The music allows for more of the message and lyrics to permeate through. This is a shining example of a mature band playing mature music.
“The Man of Sorrows” – 6:28
Mr. Murray’s songwriting contribution to the record is a reflective piece that opens with some masterful guitar work that’s a bit of a departure for Murray’s typical flurry of trills and acrobatics. It’s almost proggy in a way, as is the rest of the song, with its subtle synth beds and flowing instrumental sections. Each of the three amigos have their turn at very bluesy-slanted solos, ending with a free flow, Pink Floyd/Robin Trower section.
…and the anticipation culminates.
“Empire of the Clouds” – 18:05
Before “The Book of Souls” was unleashed, it seemed the only thing reviewers of the album wanted to talk about was Bruce Dickinson’s masterpiece; the beyond epic “Empire of the Clouds”. And for good reason. Written about the R101 airship disaster of 1930, one can tell that this song is a deeply personal topic for Dickinson, given his fascination of all things aeronautical. Bruce gives us many things we haven’t heard from Maiden before, not the least of which is a piano. Dickinson has stated that he’s not much of a pianist, but his playing is simple enough that it actually adds to the sadness and loss felt through the telling of this tragic story. Highlighted with somber strings and the rest of the band’s consciously subdued approach, you are instantly swept back to 1930 and feel the range of emotions one must have felt on that day; pride, daring, and adventure giving way to terror, panic, loss and overwhelming sadness.
As you would expect, the 18+ minute song has many different sections, all telling the tale of that fateful day: from the misty morning’s dawn and the anticipation of the flight by the British royalty in attendance, to the concerns of the coxswain about the ship’s weight and arrogance of the captain, to the tragedy itself, to the aftermath. Mid-song, the band hammers out an SOS and the journey of the R101 turns tragic, which is an incredible thing to listen to. Literally, without one lyric of description, the listener can visualize the fate of the airship through the changes in the music. Maiden is truly unique in their telling of historical events through the medium of music. Whether it be fictional ancient mariners or conquering Macedonian kings or soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy, Iron Maiden can transport the listener back in time (somewhere). This is truly a masterpiece in every sense of the word.
So there you have it. “The Book of Souls”. Buy it. Up the Irons. \m/