''Still shining in the dark'': A review of Iron Maiden's ''The Book of Souls''
British heavy metal legends Iron Maiden are back with a colossal new release covering two discs and a whopping running time of ninety-two minutes. Those who were afraid that this epic release might be even more progressive, lengthy and harder to digest than the cacophonic ‘‘The Final Frontier‘‘ five years earlier, can relax and breathe again. Despite many overlong tracks, the eleven diverting new songs sound more structured than the material on the last studio album. The six artists go back to the classical heavy metal sound with some minor progressive guitar sounds as on ‘‘Powerslave’’ and ‘’Somewhere in Time’’. The record also has a few darker tones that remind of ‘‘The X-Factor‘‘ and especially ‘‘A Matter of Life and Death‘‘. The record this new output is best compared to is though the underrated ‘‘Dance of Death‘‘ because of this release’s enormous diversity.
Bruce Dickinson’s vocals sound even higher and more skilled but also more joyous and natural than on ''Dance of Death''. The bass sound on this album is a little bit less dominant than usual but still perfectly audible and the album even includes a short bass solo in the beginning of the classical epic ‘’The Red and the Black’’. The twin guitar leads are as melodic as always and the record includes a few solid but maybe slightly too experienced solo parts. Adrian Smith adds some progressive guitar sounds in the dynamic ‘’When the River Runs Deep’’, Janick Gers has a weakness for almost folk-influenced guitar leads as in the rather average title song ‘’The Book of Souls’’ and Dave Murray is the man for calm and psychedelic retro guitar leads as in the appeasing ‘’The Man of Sorrows’’ that needs numerous spins to grow on the listener. Nicko McBrain’s drum patterns and fills sound a little bit too experienced as his performance is probably the least spectacular on this album. His fills in ‘’Speed of Light’’ sound exactly the same as in ‘’El Dorado’’, ‘‘Different World‘‘ and ‘‘Wildest Dreams‘‘ before and he could have tried out a few new things here and there.
The production is quite straight and transmits a dynamic live in studio atmosphere. This record can’t mess with the crystal clear and powerful sound of ‘‘Powerslave‘‘ and the likes but along with the rejuvenated and straight unmastered sound of ‘‘A Matter of Life and Death‘‘, this record might have the best production since ‘‘Fear of the Dark‘‘. The simplistic yet effective album cover also shows a more grounded approach where the band goes back to basics.
The best new tracks are written by singer Bruce Dickinson. ‘‘If Eternity Should Fail‘‘ is the best opener in at least two decades and comes around with a creepy and psychedelic atmosphere in the introduction and the epilogue while the centerpiece of this track is powerful, diversified and yet catchy with an incredible vocal performance. ‘‘Empire of the Clouds‘‘ is one of the band’s very best album closers and feels like a cinematic experience for all your senses. Bruce Dickinson is a gripping storyteller who introduces us to a topic he really cares about and the way he narrates, sings and whispers this track is authentic, diverting and intense. As if this wasn’t enough, the song constantly shifts and changes hand in hand with the dramatic story without losing momentum or a clear guiding line. Bruce Dickinson’s piano performance might not be spectacular but it fits and adds a credible dose of atmosphere to the tune along with some chilling orchestral passages. There is no doubt that both songs by Bruce Dickinson are among the very best tracks in the band’s stunning career. These two tracks should become instant band classics.
Those who like it less ambitious but more focused, should try out the powerful and raw single ‘’Speed of Light'' that works very well in the album context, the catchy and more enthusiastic ‘’When the River Runs Deep’’ that would make a great second single, the simple yet efficient ''Death or Glory‘‘ that opens the second disk or the charming and melodic ‘‘Shadows of the Valley‘‘ that includes some memorable ‘‘Somewhere in Time‘‘ reminiscences. These songs might not be the most original ones in the band’s impressive career but they stand for the band’s rekindled lust for music. You can feel and hear how much the band must have enjoyed creating these new songs together before the shocking news that Bruce Dickinson had a cancer that surfaced right after the recording process. I'm convinced that all these tracks have the potential to become immediate live anthems.
If you took a look at the band’s past few records, you would realize that Bruce Dickinson, Janick Gers and Adrian Smith have added the most interesting new songs to the band’s extensive repertory while Steve Harris and Dave Murray kept repeating themselves. That’s also the case on this release. Dave Murray’s calm ‘‘The Man of Sorrows‘‘ sounds like the timid little brother of ‘‘The Man Who Would Be King‘‘ and needs a lot of patience to grow. Steve Harris is clearly running out of ideas on ‘‘The Red and the Black‘‘ which is clearly too long and repetitive to work efficiently. Iron Maiden's mastermind also copies several of his very own songs like ‘‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘‘, ‘‘Heaven Can Wait‘‘ and ‘‘Blood on the World’s Hands‘‘ in this track. Even though they are not plain horrible, Harris‘ and Murray’s songs are clearly the weakest on an otherwise surprisingly diverting, organic and passionate double-album.
In the end, Iron Maiden’s new release proves that this band is still alive and kicking. ‘‘The Book of Souls‘‘ mixes the band’s greatest inspirations from the past with a few new elements brought in by a very creative Bruce Dickinson. Even though the album might have been one or two tracks shorter, this release is a highly diverting trip for any heavy metal fan. Most bands that have been around for four decades fail to equal their successes from the past and deliver lukewarm new material as a pretext for new touring opportunities. Iron Maiden though delivers a very good new release that might not beat their very best efforts but which is far above their most disappointing outputs. This new record is in the upper high-quality middle section of the band’s studio outputs and while this position might only be of a good average quality for a band like Iron Maiden, there is no doubt that this fiercely glowing genre highlight easily beats any similar release of the past decade. Up the Irons!
Final rating: Highly recommendable (8/10)« ''Extremely unique madness in lyrics and sounds'': A review of Mono für Alle!'s ''#D.I.Y. - Live''''European power metal revival from Saguenay's underground legends'': A review of Drakarium's ''DrakariuM'' »