Iron Maiden: Up The Mayans!

It’s time to get very, very excited.

In the wake of Bruce Dickinson’s first public appearance since his cancer scare – a visit to charity Nordoff Robbins’ London HQ in support of Music Therapy Week – and Iron Maiden’s well-deserved receipt of an O2 Silver Clef award honouring their vast contribution to the music industry over the last 30 years, news about the imminent return of the UK’s greatest ever metal band is coming thick and fast.

Their 16th studio effort, 92-minute double album The Book Of Souls, is due for release on September 4. But dig beneath the surface of the new Maiden record and there is much more going on than even the most obsessive fans might expect, particularly with regard to the album’s stunning artwork, which draws from the iconography of ancient Mayan civilisations.

In the process of assembling the concept and artwork for The Book Of Souls, Iron Maiden have recruited noted British historian, writer and Mayanist Simon Martin to ensure that every aspect of the album’s art is true to the ancient Mayan language and culture that inspired it. Having studied the history and legacy of the Mayans for the last 30 years, Simon is the perfect man for what is, in typical Maiden fashion, the meticulous job of translating songtitles into authentic Mayan hieroglyphs.

“I am pretty much the only person in Britain who does this, so they didn’t have a lot of choice, really!” Simon tells Metal Hammer. “I got together with Maiden’s representatives and they talked a bit about the concept. They didn’t want it to be bullshit, they wanted the real thing, so that’s why they came to me. Many of the words they have in the songtitles don’t appear in the existing hieroglyph system. There are about 500 signs in the system and about 150 of them are syllable signs… the rest of them are whole words, for example, the word ‘clouds’ appears in one of the new Maiden songs [Empire Of The CloudsThe Book Of Souls’ epic final track] , and so ‘cloud’ could be a whole-word sign that depicts a cloud, but for most of the titles I had to use phonetic signs to create the words. What I did is basically translate the titles into Spanish and then into Mayan language, so we ended up with proper grammar and a proper Mayan translation that could then be turned into hieroglyphs.”

Although not a concept album in the traditional sense, The Book Of Souls does return frequently to themes suggested by its title and underpinned by that stunning artwork. As Simon points out, the album title has no specific origin in Mayan culture, but the album’s preoccupation with the human spirit and its perceived destiny is certainly something the ancient Mayans would have recognised and appreciated.

“Oh yes, the Mayans are very big on souls,” he explains. “They thought that people make a passage through the surface of the earth and into the Underworld, where they then have to battle with the gods of the Underworld, before your soul leaves the earth and goes up into the sky. So as a title, it’s appropriate to Mayan culture, but it’s very much Iron Maiden’s own thing.”

The arrival of the new Maiden album looks certain to inspire a lot of people to discover the arcane wonders and intricate imagery of Mayan civilisation. A regular visitor to the Mayans’ ancient sites and ruins in southern Mexico and elsewhere in Central America, Simon Martin has some shrewd advice to pass on to any Maiden fans considering following in his footsteps.

“I get a lot of bug bites!” he laughs. “It’s a different world down there. The wildlife is amazing. It’s like stepping into a David Attenborough documentary, and that’s pretty special. On the whole, there’s some sort of road that’s been cleared, but there can be elements of bushwhacking to see more remote places, and that’s when you need bug spray, plenty of water and good boots!”

For the full, exclusive story on The Book Of Souls, Bruce’s recovery and Iron Maiden’s triumphant return to action, don’t miss the next issue of Metal Hammer, on sale August 18.

The Book Of Souls is released on September 4 via Parlophone


All you need to know about The Book Of Souls

The Book Of Souls is Maiden’s 16th studio album in 35 years. It was recorded at Guillaume Tell Studios in Paris and produced by Kevin Shirley, with whom the band have worked on every album since 2000’s Brave New World.

• Due to its 92-minute duration, The Book Of Souls will be released as a double CD and a triple vinyl set. We want both.

• Tracks include If Eternity Should Fail, Speed Of Light, The Great Unknown, The Red And The Black, When The River Runs Deep, The Book Of Souls, Death Or Glory, Shadows Of The Valley, Tears Of A Clown, The Man Of Sorrows and Empire Of The Clouds.

• At a startling 18 minutes, the Bruce-penned Empire Of The Clouds is the longest song Maiden have ever recorded. It also features the effervescent frontman playing piano for the first time in Maiden history. This is the first album to feature two songs written entirely by Bruce – the other being opener If Eternity Should Fail – since 1984’s Powerslave.

The Book Of Souls’ artwork was created by renowned artist Mark Wilkinson, who is best known for his work with Judas Priest – including the iconic Painkiller cover – and UK prog titans Marillion. Mark has worked with Maiden before, on artwork for singles The Wicker Man and Out Of The Silent Planet.

• Iron Maiden are expected to announce details of their future touring plans later in 2015. We can’t fucking wait.

Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.