Book of Souls, Your Album of the Day
One thing cannot be stressed enough about Iron Maiden. They are a silly band. Like classic 70s and 80s metal relics, Dio (RIP) and Judas Priest, the joke was always best conveyed through a sincere indulgence. The best Maiden albums are when they went waayy over the top – The Number of the Beast and Powerslave are still their time tested classics, along with their Live After Death, a live album showcasing a band that relishes in being theatrically evil and don’t give a flying fuck what anyone thinks of them. And that’s what makes those albums so great.
So, it’s been what? 33 years since the 1982’s controversial Number of the Beast. The Book of Souls will be the band’s 16 studio album and 12th studio album with tongue-cancer-free (and cunnilingus giver) frontman Bruce Dickinson. It’s also the band’s first double album and longest running album with a running time of 92 minutes. Like Titus Andronicus’ The Most Lamentable Tragedy, there is, of course there’s a fair amount of bloat. Unlike Titus, however, Iron Maiden uses the bloaty theatrical elements to their advantage, and don’t get bogged down in trying to tell a narrative. They keep most of the album focused with thematic elements of mortality, afterlife, and of course, silliness.
What keeps the album together is the excellent musicianship. Steve Harris’ bass and general orchestration holds truly untouched by time and while it’s a cliché at this point, the cliché is necessary for the joke. And it starts beautifully with the first track “If Eternity Should Fail.” Bruce Dickinson starts with “Here is the soul of a man” with heavy on the reverb and melodrama, equally matched by the silly synth lines that sound like the beginning of an Ennio Morricone movie. This quickly dissolves into the wash of pulsating medium tempo 80s progressive metal riffs.
As usual, Iron Maiden is rooted by Harris’ steady bass, and flanked by the trio of veteran guitarists, shredder Dave Murray, bluesy Adrian Smith, and wildcard Janick Gers. “If Eternity Should Fail” uses a spoken word outro to transition into the extremely riff rocky “Speed of Light,” full of soaring vocal hooks, cowbell, and a plethora of guitar solos. This nostalgia dates the band but also remains true to their ethos: Iron Maiden – at least since 1999 – doesn’t really change as much as it holds steadily to reins still bucking since 1982 regardless what year it is.
One of the more surprising things is that Book of Souls has a variety of songwriting teams, with Adrian Smith and Dickinson collaborating on shorter songs (“Speed of Light” and “Death or Glory”), the longer Harris-written narratives, and also sees the first songwriting by the usually silent Gers on “The Book of Souls” and “Shadows of the Valley.” The album moves forward like a Queen album, where the tone and length of song is often dependent on who does the songwriting. Most of the band’s songwriting work has a similar vision in their songs, but with enough change and dynamic to keep things interesting.
The first epic on the album is the Harris written “The Red and the Black” which follows a similar trajectory as something like “Dance of Death” the title track from their 2003 album. Coming in at over 13 minutes, the synths are tastefully layered into the song, the guitar solos, seemingly endless, and finally, a chanting “Woahoh” part that’s everything a Maiden fan could want in a song. It slides nicely into the comparatively up-tempo “When the River Runs Deep.”
The second epic is the 10 minute Gers and Harris title track featuring an acoustic intro before going into perhaps their most dissonant and groovy riff since their 80s attempt Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. Like the title track to that album, the song is heavy on synth, but only a little distracting. Both epics are a bit clunky in their transitions but man, if there’s any band that can pull off clunky transitions with class, it’s Iron Maiden.
On the second disk of the album it starts with rocker “Death or Glory” which is bluesy and full of fist pumping moments, calling back to some other fist pumping moments like “2 Minutes to Midnight” or “Ace of Spades.”
As with most double albums, it starts to feel tired in the third quarter, with mid-tempo rocker “Shadow of the Valley” repeating a lot of the themes already stated on the album, and its 7+ minutes feeling expendably long. The Robin Williams dedicated “Tears of a Clown” comes off flat, lyrically and tonally at odds with the rest of the album. Dickinson’s operatic delivery doesn’t sell the repeated chorus, and the solos really don’t add anything. It might work better if he sang it in Italian and it was arranged as a ballad? The lyrics might have worked better if the arrangement for the following and penultimate track “Man of Sorrow” had been used for “Tears of a Clown” – more weighted instead of it being just another mid-tempo rocker.
The third and final epic on the album is the Dickinson 18 minute finale “Empire of the Clouds.” It’s a story based on the R101 flight disaster that’s basically the British version of the Hindenburg. Like you can already imagine, it’s a silly topic to write an 18 minute long song about, and the fact that it heavily features pilot Dickinson on piano makes it all the more silly. The lyrics read as a poem assigned in high school about a tragedy, with lines like:
“Royalty and dignitaries, brandy and cigars
Related giant of the skies, you hold them in your arms
The millionth chance they laughed, to take down his majesty’s craft
“To India” they say, “magic carpet float away”, an October fateful day”
Oh Iron Maiden. Only you could get away with this (although there are others who have tried). It’s somewhere between Guns N’ Roses and Dream Theatre, except better executed and with a complete and utter British-ness about it. The cheese factor goes up even more when the song breaks down and narrates the crash of the ill-fated rigid airship and as you might expect the rest of the band is on board with the sinking ship.
The song, like the album, delivers with its indulgence and silliness at the forefront. Since their reintroduction in the 21st century with Brave New World, Iron Maiden has flown in the face of popular music, and found its niche market with metalheads that love the fact that they don’t give a fuck. That being said, 92 minute is a lot of commitment, and not all of it rises above some of the cringeworthy elements to the genre that Maiden has pioneered and made its own. The Book of Souls won’t necessarily make new fans, but as a testament to their veteran status, it will please those already indoctrinated.