Sunday, 25 October 2015

Iron Maiden's 'The Book of Souls' - Album Review

There are few bands out there (from the metal world or otherwise) that have quite the legacy or status that Iron Maiden do. Since forming in 1975, and releasing their debut album in 1980, the band have continued to push boundaries and create metal music that is creative, memorable, and progressive. Their music dominated metal in the 1980s, and the run of five albums between 1982's The Number of the Beast and 1988's Seventh Son of a Seventh Son is one of the best of any band. Things went slightly downhill after this, and it was not until the band's classic line-up reunited in 1999 that Iron Maiden retook their throne that they lost somewhat during the 1990s. The band's current six-piece line-up has been around since then and have written and recorded five studio albums, the most recent of which - The Book of Souls - was released last month to excellent reviews and the Number 1 spot on the Official UK Album Chart. The Book of Souls is the band's first double album and, running at over 90 minutes over the two discs, this means there is plenty of material to digest. As with all the band's albums since the 1999 reunion, the album has been produced by bassist and Iron Maiden founder Steve Harris; alongside Kevin Shirley, which gives the album a similar overall feel to Iron Maiden's recent work. The rawer 'live' sound Harris and Shirley seem to prefer for Maiden these days has it's pros and cons. It certainly helps to give the albums a great energy to them, but it also robs them of the epic feel that earlier albums had. The album's length also has it's pros and cons. On the one hand, this album certainly has value for money and there are lots of enjoyable songs here. On the other hand however there is some filler, and some of the songs have a tendency to outstay their welcome. This seems to be a problem that Harris (and the rest of the band to be fair as songwriting is fairly even in Iron Maiden these days) have a lot recently. Not every song has to be a progressive epic, and this seems to be something that they forget. That being said, there is still a lot to like about The Book of Souls, even if I feel that there are issues with it. The hype surrounding it was, of course, ridiculous too - which never works in an album's favour I think. A real standout part of the album though if frontman Bruce Dickinson's performance. He sounds as powerful as ever, despite undergoing chemotherapy earlier in the year for a cancerous tumour found on his tongue. Luckily he has made a full recovery with his trademark expressive vocals still intact!

Despite starting with two great tracks, disc one is overall the weaker half of the album. If Eternity Should Fail is a great opening track however, and the swirling keyboards from Harris and long-time sideman Michael Kenney create some excellent initial atmosphere. Dickinson sings well over this soundscape, but it is not long before the rest of the band join in with a traditional burst of harmony lead guitar and a prominent bassline. This is the sort of song that makes modern Iron Maiden albums so strong, yet still manages to feel a little different. The powerful mid-paced feel of the song gives it a real anthemic quality, and Dickinson puts in a great shift throughout; especially during the catchy chorus. The pace does pick up towards the end however, with a great instrumental section that sees all of the band's three guitarists playing off each other while Harris' bass dances around them. The creepy ending is also good, with an effects-laden spoken word section that sits above some delicate acoustic guitar. Speed of Light is also very strong, and has all the hallmarks of a classic Iron Maiden single. There is an old school vibe surrounding this tune, that focuses just as much on the band's classic harmony guitar sound as it does on Dickinson's vocals. The soaring vocal lines here do reveal the rougher edges of Dickinson's ageing voice, but he still does a sterling job here and sounds very powerful. The guitars are what stand out for me throughout this song however, and there are a couple of great guitar solos part-way through that show off the skills of the players (I wish the album's sleeve notes would credit the solos!), and reinforces the band's classic sound. Despite opening well, The Great Unknown does see a drop in quality from the opening two songs. I really like the slower opening section, with a hypnotic guitar and bass combination that is a great contrast to the all-out rocking of the previous number. When the rest of the band join in however, it never really seems to get going. While the song is still quite enjoyable, it lacks the powerful melodies that make the best Iron Maiden songs so special. It is rather one-paced, and Dickinson's performance is a little strained at times. That being said however, there are still some great guitar moments. The Red and the Black is one of the songs that definitely outstays it's welcome. At over 13 minutes in length, there is a lot of fat that could be trimmed here. There are plenty of enjoyable moments throughout the song, but there is just not enough to justify it's length. The folky main guitar refrain is very memorable, as is the wordless chant section that is sure to go down well live. The more the song goes on however, you realise that it does not have much else to offer and keeps returning to these familiar motifs to re-spark interest. I feel there is a great five or six minute song here trying to escape! When the River Runs Deep sees the quality pick up again somewhat after the last two songs. It is a fast-paced rocker with a great guitar intro and a crunchy chorus that effectively slows the pace and makes use of big palm-muted power chords. This is a song that proves that often the simpler songs can be the best, and it plays to the band's strengths to make a memorable modern Iron Maiden classic. The guitar solo here has a lot of wah effects on it which helps it stand out, and it is a joy to listen to. The final song on disc one is the title track, co-written by guitarist Janick Gers (all songs up to this point have been written by a combination of Dickinson, Harris, and guitarist Adrian Smith). This is a rather epic, progressive number that has a great acoustic intro and a powerful orchestral accompaniment throughout. Eastern-style melodies are woven well throughout the song, and helps give it a specific identity. This song is a real grower, and deserves it's 10 minutes-plus length. It makes sure the album's first half ends well, and shows that the band can write longer songs without them being boring.

Disc two opens with Death or Glory, a great fast paced rocker that could have easily sat on one of the band's classic albums. Dickinson is at his expressive best throughout the song, and his performance is the highlight of the track. The guitar work is a little more restrained here, but the bouncy main riff is still very effective at building excitement as the track progresses. The chorus and pre-chorus sections are very stirring, with excellent vocals and rhythms. I am sure this song will go down well with any Iron Maiden fan, as it manages to capture the band's early feel really well and is very easy to get into. Shadows of the Valley, another Gers composition, opens out sounding like the 1986 single Wasted Years, but it soon turns into another bouncy guitar-led tune as subtle orchestrations swirl around the riffing. While the song is not as instantly catchy as others here, it has that epic feel to it that Iron Maiden are often known for. The orchestrations really elevate this track to new heights, and give it some real class. Another decent tune. Tears of a Clown, about the sad demise of Robin Williams, opens with some big ringing chords before a snaking riff takes over that leads into a simple verse that is dominated by Harris' bassline, with the guitars adding colour. It is the album's shortest song (the only one under five minutes long), and it arguably the simplest too. There is nothing complicated musically here, instead letting the poignant lyrics dominate proceedings. The fluid guitar solo sections is good too, with two distant sections to keep things interesting. The Man of Sorrows, guitarist Dave Murray's sole writing contribution to the album, is next and it is easily the weakest song on the second disc for me. I really like the song's opening section, but it then proceeds to lumber through many different sections rather clumsily with rather messy transitions. It has a very 'pieced together' feel to it, which hampers my enjoyment of the song. This is strange as I usually like songs that Murray writes for Iron Maiden, but this one I feel is poor. The atmospheric outro is quite good however, and has an old-school prog feel that works quite well. All thoughts of that song however are soon banished when the final track Empire of the Clouds starts playing. Dickinson's piano lines introduce what is the band's longest song to date. At just over 18 minutes long, the song never feels too long and is a true masterpiece. The way the piano and the orchestra mix together conjures up many great feelings, and when Dickinson's voice is added to the fray it creates something special. Iron Maiden have never sounded like this before, and shows what they can do when they think outside the box a bit. I did not know that Dickinson was an accomplished pianist, and I am glad he has decided to add his skills to the Iron Maiden cannon. Of course, there are plenty of great musical moments throughout the song as the three guitarists do their best to not be outdone by Dickinson. The song is a true progressive metal epic, and is one of the best things the band has ever done. The lengthy guitar-led instrumental sections are pure Iron Maiden in style, and the last sections after the pace picks up is very powerful with some soaring Dickinson vocals and tricky riffs. It ends as it began with delicate piano and ensures the band's sixteenth album ends on a high. Overall, The Book of Souls is a very good release from Iron Maiden despite some filler songs. Empire of the Clouds is worth the price of admission alone and really is rather fantastic. Now all we can hope for is some proper UK shows, as the headline slot at next year's Download Festival does not count!

The album was released on 4th September 2015 via Parlophone Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Speed of Light.

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