Being honest, the last few years could have been the last phase of Iron Maiden’s career. Their two year long Maiden England World Tour finally finished, culminating in a triumphant headline set at Sonisphere in 2014, and grossing nearly $70 million, giving them more than enough of a scope to retire happy. On a less joyous note, Bruce Dickinson’s revelation of a cancerous tumour on his tongue late last year could have easily put paid to their illustrious career entirely. Fast forward to the present day though, with Dickinson making a full recovery and The Book Of Souls – the band’s first album since 2010’s The Final Frontier – is ready to go, and it’s clear that this isn’t a band coasting.
It’s nothing if not ambitious – the band’s first double album, sprawling over more than 90 minutes while still managing to cram in ideas that have remained previously unused throughout ‘Maiden’s back catalogue. It’s perhaps in this technical sense that The Book Of Souls is most impressive. Even with age, illness and whatever other obstacles the band have weathered, it’s still the sound of six musicians not even close to being ready to slow down. Bruce’s vocals are as majestic and powerful as ever on the likes of the title track and the zipping Speed Of Light, while the triple guitar assault of Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers produces the sort of solos that would have been impressive even in the band’s heyday. Then there’s the new elements like the thin veneer of orchestral compositions spread over a number of tracks, or the gentle piano and strings that kick off grand finale Empire Of The Clouds, making it one of the most sonically layered albums of Iron Maiden’s career.
While the composition may dazzle though, the actual songs do anything but. The Book Of Souls is at its strongest when it reins in its tendency to sprawl and sticks to a simple, relatively short songwriting formula – both Death Or Glory and Tears Of A Clown become strong trad-metal tracks by following this. When Mssrs Murray, Smith and Gers are left to run wild is where it all gets a bit muddled. Given how long most of the songs are (almost half of the tracks on here break the seven minute mark), it often feels like the album becomes devoid of actual songs, instead feeling like solo piled onto solo. The likes of The Red And The Black and Shadows Of The Valley have greatness buried in them, and would be allowed to show it if a few minutes were shaved off of each. Instead they become a chore to listen to in the end, such is the extent that it feels like grandiosity has taken priority over actual songwriting.
While such a flagrant disregard for traditional songwriting has been fairly commonplace in the past, The Book Of Souls simply feels like Iron Maiden trying too hard. Let’s not forget that this is a band four decades into their career, and a project as ambitious as this smacks of trying to recapture their glory days. There’s no doubt that they’ve still got the skill to do that, and The Book Of Souls has plenty of instances where that’s the case. Unfortunately, this probably won’t be the album where that’s the end result.
For fans of: Judas Priest, Dio, Saxon
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘The Book Of Souls’ by Iron Maiden is out now on Parlophone Records.