Iron Maiden are a band who command the utmost respect for their contribution to heavy metal and British musical heritage as a whole, their numerous seminal studio (and live) albums, and their resilience to changes within and without the music industry, not to mention their increasing age. Powerslave, The Number of the Beast and Piece of Mind sit among the great albums of the 1980s. The Book Of Souls has already topped charts across Europe, and looks to be continuing the band’s globetrotting success, but for possibly the first time in their career, the band have released an album that really shows their age.
First off, it is sensible to be forever wary of what is probably the least successful phenomenon in popular music: the double album. At best, a double album contains too much material to form a cohesive listening experience; at worst, half of the songs should have been binned in pre-production. The Book Of Souls isn’t quite that flabby, but there is certainly ample opportunity here for the band to have been more frugal with their arrangements. An unnecessary amount of this album is acoustic sections, spoken word, and truly awful MIDI strings and horns: things most people go to Dimmu Borgir for, not Iron Maiden. These make up only part of the excessive 92-minutes runtime, though: the rest is made up from the three songs that clock in at over 10 minutes, with change.
‘The Red And The Black’, at 13:34, is as dull as the Stendhal novel of the same name, though the band has not followed through on anything as complex as its socio-political subject matter. ‘Empire Of The Clouds’, the album’s closer and newly-ordained ‘Longest Iron Maiden Song’ at a Wakeman-esque 18:01, actually starts with piano, and eventually develops into quite stirring piece; unfortunately it never quite escapes the melodrama that makes it sound like a song that didn’t quite make it into the final cut of Les Misérables. The title track, at a restrained 10:28, is the best of the bunch, maybe even a classic-in-waiting with its titanic main riff, but is still bookended by a couple of minutes’ worth of acoustic fiddling that should have seen more of the cutting-room floor.
The rule for The Book Of Souls does indeed seem to be that the shorter the song, the better. Though they sit slightly incongruously among the epic progsterpieces, ‘When The River Runs Deep’, ‘Death Or Glory’ and ‘Speed Of Light’ are textbook classic Maiden, and are all the better for it. ‘Tears Of A Clown’ suffers only from the humorously bad strings behind its chorus, and ‘The Great Unknown’, at only 6:38, is epic enough to be the grand centrepiece of a different album that was not dominated by other, longer songs.
Despite the gaping chasms here between the songs that sound like ‘Maiden Doing Maiden’ and those that sound like ‘Maiden Doing Yes’, there are a few uniting factors. Firstly, in contrast to the terribly flat sound of the band’s previous effort, The Final Frontier, the production on The Book Of Souls is excellent. There has obviously been a deliberate effort to capture the character of the band’s best studio work of the 1980s, particularly in the wide, roomy sound of Nicko’s drums and the warm, layered rhythm guitars, mixed characteristically low, as well as Harris’ impressively audible bass.
Unfortunately, the second uniting factor of this LP’s track listing is the evident ageing of Bruce’s voice: his newfound difficulty in reaching the upper registers for which he has been so legendary is evident on every track, particularly the chorus of ‘Speed Of Light’, where it begins to grate. The fruits of the periods the band spent without Bruce show that a future without him may not be viable, and so Maiden fans around the world can only wait with bated breath to see when the behemoth will finally come to a halt. Hopefully they will be treated to a slightly more concise album before Eddie has to hang up his costumes.