A while ago I was asked to write not just a review of the new Iron Maiden album but also a piece on what they mean to metal and why they’re so enduring – if you missed it then, here it is now.
It’s been 35 years since Iron Maiden released their debut self-titled album and it’s safe to assume that no one foresaw what they would become.
Maiden have transcended being a mere metal band, they are for all intents and purposes THE quintessential metal band. They’ve stayed strong and true to the essence of the band without stagnating and the have been a constant for a legion of fans.
While others sold out to commercial temptations, wrestled with their identities or just gave it away altogether Maiden battled on. Even the six year hiatus of frontman Bruce Dickinson couldn’t stop them and when he came back into the fold in 1999 it was as if he never left and the band continued to produce what can only be described as “more Maiden”.
You could argue that Black Sabbath gave birth to the genre or that Judas Priest have been as influential or that Metallica have a larger fan base and bigger reach sure but none of them have dominated the musical consciousness and imagination of metal fans in quite the way Iron Maiden have.
The iconography of the band sets them apart too, as important a member of the Iron Maiden family as Steve Harris, Nicko McBrain, Bruce Dickinson, Dave Murray, Adrian Smith or Janick Gers is the unofficial 7th member of the band Eddie.
The creation of artist Derek Riggs, Eddie or Eddie the Head has adorned Iron Maiden album and single covers in one guise or another since that self-titled debut, hell he even has his own video game.
My first “metal” t –shirt, like thousands of metal fans, was Iron Maiden. A gift from my metal loving cousin, who had earlier introduced me to Twisted Sister, it featured a Sphinx like Eddie on the front and though I was yet to hear Powerslave I loved it already. The fact that my Mum hated it only added to the attraction and Iron Maiden had a new fan just like that.
It’s the power of the pull of the bands artwork and Eddie that makes the packaging and everything that comes with a new record so exciting. While waiting on a new album the anticipation isn’t just what will the new record sound like but also what will Eddie look like this time?
We’ve had Zombie punks, time travelling gunslingers, lobotomised mental patients amongst many incarnations of Eddie and for the bands 16th album, The Book of Souls, we have possibly the most intimidating and striking Eddie yet – the living dead Mayan sacrifice complete with a hole in the chest cavity and ruby red eyes – well done lads you’ve out done yourselves!
So for me Iron Maiden is the first thing that comes to my mind when I think metal and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Iron Maiden’s 16th album The Book of Souls has been delivered in their 40th year of existence and it’s testament to the drive and artistry of the band themselves that after so long they keep evolving and exploring their talents. The scope of what Steve Harris & co have achieved here is remarkable, not only delivering fresh takes on what you would expect from these bastions of British metal but also pushing the boundaries at every opportunity.
That said, it’s only natural that a band with this kind of longevity will eventually borrow some idea’s from their own back catalogue, the intro to Shadows of the Valley for example has a real Wasted Years feel and in Death or Glory there’s an echo of the Running Free melody through the chorus but it feels more like a nod to the past than dredging inspiration.
There are some truly epic new Iron Maiden classics on The Book of Souls, and the opening track If Eternity Should Fail with its eerie cosmic effects, Maiden’s trademark gallop and Bruce Dickinson’s soaring vocal foretelling of a bleak, perhaps non-existent, future is possibly the strongest statement they’ve ever made to open a record.
Speed of Light, the first single is a raw throwback track that echoes classic Deep Purple and drives home with real intensity while The Great Unknown, the first of three Smith/Harris compositions, builds like the cadence of marching jack boots with Dickinson’s commanding wail soaring over the top.
Commander in chief Steve Harris has just the one solo writing credit on The Book of Souls and The Red and The Blacks warm bass intro with a vague promise of doom leads your ears into a near 14 minute odyssey twisting riff and Dickinsonian shanty of woe.
The River Runs Deep is a frenetic guitar duel that decelerates into the chorus just enough for the vocal to catch up before disappearing ahead again in a blur fret dancing axemanship then, to use a vinyl parlance, we hit the end of “side one”.
The title track, The Book of Souls, is a brooding atmospheric piece from which imbues a sense of most definite mortality, interestingly the song takes a departure at the midway mark driving deeper in the darkness and offering some of the heaviest moments on the album.
Bruce Dickinson’s love or historic flight gets its first outing on the album in the form of Death or Glory, a hooky mid-tempo single in the making that’s an ode to the Red Barron while Shadows of the Valley has Dickinson referencing both Edgar Allan Poe and the Old Testament as the rest of the band delivers what maybe the most complete performance on the album.
What follows is probably the weak point of the record in Tears of the Clown, a song written about the late Robin Williams. It’s the only track on The Book of Souls that I think is predictable, almost has an 80’s hard rock feel to it and as a result feels out of place here.
The Man of Sorrows is as close as the album gets to a ballad, it is guilty of building nicely without really going anywhere but Dickinson’s vocal really carries the song through to the guitar solo which is superb.
The final track, Empire Of The Clouds, is not only the longest track, at 18 minutes, the band have ever recorded it’s also the most challenging. Steve Harris refers to the Dickinson penned piece about the death of the Airship R101 in 1930 as a metal opera and it’s easy to see why. The opening four minutes is all the vocalist on piano and McBrain accenting the melody and when the guitars are brought in it’s subtly backing up what the former have built. It’s very definitely Maiden but there more than a touch of Prog influence at play here too.
Recorded at the same Parisian studio that the band used for Brave New World in 2000 The Book of Souls marked a change in the way Maiden wrote and recorded. Instead of bringing completed songs into the studio they wrote in studio and laid down the tracks as soon as the song was completed and this approach has captured them at the their best, uninhibited and playing with the vim and vigour of a band half their age, this doesn’t feel like a swan song but more like the start of a new chapter, confidence and direction for the challenge still to come.