The Book of Souls
How does a band revered by millions for its ability to marry heavy metal to progressive rock ambition and punk rock urgency keep the creative well from running dry as it hits middle age? By upping the ante on that ambition, apparently.
“The Book of Souls” is Iron Maiden’s 16th studio album, and also its longest, clocking in at 90-plus minutes, with the final tune, the sprawling “Empire of the Clouds,” taking up an entire side of the gate-fold vinyl version. This is daunting stuff for casual fans, but since Iron Maiden doesn’t have any casual fans, it’s all good – multisection pieces that move freely between time signatures, feature abundant guitar solos, boast more stacked harmony guitars than any band this side of Thin Lizzy or Queen, rarely sign off in less than 6 minutes, and on occasion stretch well past the 10-minute mark, are the stuff of the devout Maiden-head’s dreams.
“The Book of Souls” is the sort of album that no band other than Iron Maiden could get away with in 2015. While the rest of the music world swallows the Kool-Aid regarding digital streaming and the archaic nature of “the album as favored means of listening to music,” Maiden has doubled-down, offering an unflinching double-album of grandiose metal epics, performed with significant virtuosity, gorgeously recorded, and stuffed with the sort of theatrical story-telling and historical narratives that, these days, are considered about as cool as Rick Wakeman’s sequined cape. It’s classic Iron Maiden, but it’s far from a retread of an old pair of shoes – all six members contributed to the writing, with singer Bruce Dickinson (fresh from beating tongue cancer) grabbing the most credits, and if many of the tropes are familiar to Iron Maiden scholars, they are combined with such a gleeful inventiveness that “Book” sounds like the work of a metal band in its 20s, not a sextet of millionaires staring down their 60s.
The album demands to be listened to in its entirety in one sitting, but that’s a tall order. Highlighting certain tunes for grouped listening is the way to go for anyone who doesn’t have a free full day to devote to getting to know this beast. Breaking it down into subsets – starting with opener “If Eternity Should Fail” and continuing through prog-metal masterpiece “The Red and The Black,” and proceeding with the rest of the album in a similar fashion – is one way to offer “Book” the attention it deserves. Repeated listening is rewarded here, however the listener chooses to indulge in as much.
Iron Maiden has at least a half-dozen albums that should be considered among the very finest in the history of heavy metal. “The Book of Souls” is one of them, ranking right behind the unbeatable 3-year, mid-’80s run that included “The Number of the Beast,” “Piece of Mind” and “Powerslave.”
- Jeff Miers