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Iron Maiden
Book Of Souls Mark Eglinton , September 8th, 2015 12:05

The first listens to Iron Maiden's two-disc follow up to 2010's excellent (and not final) The Final Frontier, did not bode well. Page-long NDAs signed here, miscellaneous organs sold there — and the receipt, undercover of darkness, of an audio stream called nothing even faintly resembling The Book Of Souls, all suggested that Maiden wanted this one pretty heavily locked down until release date. Clearly they knew something but, rather disappointingly, the first impressions of the double album seemed so very uninspiring. After giving The Book Of Souls another few spins, the record revealed its many qualities in measured doses over time.

On one hand it would be quite easy to view Iron Maiden as a heritage act. A forty-year long career almost guarantees that. But on the other hand, when you examine it, they have never really been a band content with simply placating their audience with safe new music that, while cosily referencing their massive back catalogue, also doesn't try too hard to push any boundaries. That's not really the Iron Maiden way. They've always taken a subtle step here, refined things a little there, and at odd times experimented considerably with a very successful formula that, while very much what normal people would consider to be 'heavy metal', has also taken them far beyond that genre with a list of records that all possess very distinct sonic, visual and thematic identities: Powerslave, Piece Of Mind, Somewhere In Time… the list goes on. We know what they are, what they look like and represent in terms of a phase of our lives.

Album number sixteen, The Book Of Souls, will shortly sit squarely among these with an unique identity of its own and, amazingly, it is a much larger step than they've attempted previously. Recorded in Paris in the latter part of 2014, even the mechanics of the process of creating these eleven songs, overseen again by producer Kevin Shirley, were a radical departure. In the past, songs would be written and rehearsed long in advance of the band even convening in a studio. They've done it that way for years and it has worked. But a new set of self-enforced circumstances seems to have squeezed even more creativity from the band. In this case, almost nothing other than skeletal outlines was in place prior to entering Guilaume Tell Studio (where 2000's Brave New World was also recorded) in September of 2014. They were suddenly forced to wing it on the spot and compose and record as they went, within the confines of just four months.

The resulting 'live' feel is a revelation, but is not immediately apparent on the lead single 'Speed Of Light' which, while unmistakably Iron Maiden, is something of a red herring in the context of the wider album (Decoys of this kind are not uncommon in the Iron Maiden catalogue, alas. 'Wasted Years' from Somewhere In Time, 'Can I Play With Madness' from Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son and, more recently, 'Eldorado' from The Final Frontier, were lead singles, but are all fairly non-representative of the albums they inhabit)

It's the gigantic opener 'If Eternity Should Fail' that really sets the tone and it's Bruce Dickinson's voice that grabs the ear. Very much further forward in the mix than on The Final Frontier for example, there's a bellicose low-end strength there in the range that hasn't been heard before. It's quite startling — and serves, in combination with some interesting lyrical phrasing and that mighty rhythm section, to present as measured and grandiose an opening statement as the band have ever offered. Not pacey in the style of an 'Aces High' or a 'The Wicker Man' but possibly more effective because of the restraint. It's one of two songs solely credited to Dickinson it's a massive beginning.

Equally gripping is 'The Great Unknown' with its bass-led intro building into another mid-tempo showcase for Dickinson's stunning delivery. It's quintessential Iron Maiden: Steve Harris's bass rumble beneath the three-pronged guitar salvo. The luck/fate themed 'The Red And The Black' is a Steve Harris sole-credit and it's as tight as hell, and thirteen minutes long. The jaunty verse structure strongly recalls the utterly classic 'The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner' whereas the gang-vocal chorus section faintly references the better aspects of Maiden from the Fear Of The Dark/No Prayer For The Dying era. It's a mightily effective amalgam. Ending side one of The Book Of Souls is the title track and it's a mystical-feeling ten-minute long epic with an acoustic intro reminiscent of 'The Talisman' from The Final Frontier, that builds, via a galloping mid-song breakout, to a conclusion consistent with its significance to the record. It's all very measured and self-assured.

One of the many ways in which Iron Maiden on get it absolutely right on The Book Of Souls is with the pacing. While three tracks clock-in at ten minutes plus (the piano-led closer 'Empire Of The Clouds' at almost double that) there are shorter, sharper tunes like 'The Speed Of Light', side-two's ultra-lean 'Death Or Glory' and the quite unusually short and poppy 'Tears Of A Clown' there to compliment them. The balance is always right there and the quality just doesn't relent at all although, if you're really digging for a tiny weakness, the aforementioned, eighteen-minute long 'Empire Of The Clouds' does threaten to swallow its own tail a few times; it's just a tad laboured and self-indulgent but brilliantly composed and conceived all the same.

In the context of late-career Iron Maiden, i.e. from Brave New World forward, The Book Of Souls is as good as anything — perhaps superior by virtue of the sheer scale of the effort and scope of the ambition. There is nothing remotely safe about The Book Of Souls and in many ways it represents a level of risk that a band like Iron Maiden simply don't need to take at this stage of their career. But that's not the Iron Maiden way. The way is, apparently, forward and while The Final Frontier wasn't the end it was mooted to be, there's nothing to suggest that The Book Of Souls signifies anything other than a band, or institution, with a lot left to do.