A new Iron Maiden album is always a big event, not least because the band have somehow sustained a startling level of popularity for the vast majority of their three decades.
What is less frequently acknowledged, however, is that since the return of Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith for 2000’s Brave New World, Maiden have not only cemented their status as metal’s most revered band but, audaciously, built upon it, becoming ever more dominant and in-demand as a result. Of course, The Book Of Souls arrives amid an additional storm of drama, Dickinson’s genuinely shocking brush with cancer erecting an unexpected and unwanted backdrop of struggle and triumph behind a long-awaited album – Maiden’s 16th – that didn’t exactly need an extra boost. Completed before their singer received his jarring diagnosis, The Book Of Souls is the sound of a band at the peak of their powers, both individual and collective, and Dickinson’s own performance gives no clues whatsoever as to his then vexed state of health. One might glibly note that this would have been an excellent final statement for all concerned, but it’s hard to think of another band of this vintage that would be capable of sounding this vital and inspired.
It begins with one of two songs written solely by Dickinson. If Eternity Should Fail starts with an eerie, almost psychedelic intro, the air raid siren’s restrained tones floating in shimmering space, before the first of countless towering riffs crashes in. Dark in tone and texture and a dash heavier than Maiden have ever sounded before, its eight-and-a-half minutes rush by in what seems like half that amount, soaring choruses and a typically deft change of pace midway through adding bite to the barrage. Maiden’s recent albums have been notable primarily for the epic and progressive nature of their contents, and while The Book Of Souls certainly saunters down that avenue on numerous occasions, it is also an album that brims with flashes of succinctness. Speed Of Light, Death Or Glory and Tears Of A Clown all climax at around the five minute mark, and all three are instant top-notch Maiden anthems, the shrewd songwriting hand of Adrian Smith making its presence felt and bringing plenty of that off-kilter edge that was sometimes missed during the decade he spent away from the line-up. Meanwhile, both The Great Unknown and When The River Runs Deep speak volumes about the intuitive chemistry between Smith and Steve Harris, their collaborative efforts producing monstrous mini-symphonies for Dickinson to unleash that vein-popping vibrato over.
Nonetheless, The Book Of Souls will doubtless be celebrated most for its epics, and if you thought Maiden had pulled out all the stops in the past, you may need to strap yourself in and say a quick prayer to Eddie this time round. The Red And The Black is Harris’ only sole composition here, but it’s one of the most exhilarating and fluid things he has ever written; nearly 14 minutes of interwoven rhythms and riffs, a brief nod to the dramatic thud of Flight Of Icarus here, a dewy-eyed salute to Thin Lizzy there and a healthy slab of mob-friendly backing vocals that must surely mean that this will become an immediate live favourite when Maiden take The Book Of Souls out on the road. The same goes for the title track, an almost ludicrously grandiose and theatrical affair that crams more smart ideas into its ten-and-a-half minutes than any band this enduring should have left in the tank at this point. And if Dickinson could sound any less like a man about to discover a tumour in his throat… well, needless to say that his recovery has been perhaps the least surprising thing about Maiden’s recent history. The interplay between the Three Amigos reaches a similar peak on the rumbling sprawl of Shadows Of The Valley and, best of all, on Harris and Dave Murray’s dark and unsettling The Man Of Sorrows, wherein Kevin Shirley’s powerful, unfussy production shines a light on the sublimely organic interplay between these six musicians.
So far, so brilliant. And yet even the most wildly optimistic Maiden fan might find themselves momentarily gobsmacked by The Book Of Souls’ conclusion. The longest song the band have ever recorded, Empire Of The Clouds is essentially an 18-minute heavy metal opera, replete with Dickinson on piano for the first time and sumptuous orchestral flourishes that add hugely to the song’s cinematic feel. A detailed but poetic account of the R101 airship disaster of 1930, it’s a stunning piece of work and clearly a labour of love for Dickinson, the song’s author, in particular. And coming at the end of such a consistent and remarkable slab of idiosyncratic heavy metal, it poses one obvious question: is there anything that Iron Maiden can’t do? The Book Of Souls suggests not. Given that this sounds nothing like the work of a band nearing the end of their love affair with music, the future may even hold greater wonders. Bloody hell.