The Mancunian Inquisition: Iron Maiden - The Book Of Souls
The Manchester Rocks weigh in with their answers to the burning questions that surround the mighty Maiden's sixteenth studio album
After a storied 40 year career, Iron Maiden are the front runners to be the Rolling Stones of heavy metal when all is said and done. The Book of Souls – their sixteenth studio album – comes after Bruce Dickinson’s fight with and successful recovery from cancer and off the back of a five year absence from studio material. As a result, expectations for this record were already sky high, but when Bruce announced that it would be that most risky of gambles – a double album – and would feature the band’s longest song to date at 18 minutes, fans were unsure of whether number sixteen would be a misstep or an absolute opus. Now, with reviews of the album pouring in and Metal Hammer awarding it with a perfect 10/10 score (the same they gave to 2006’s superb yet polarising A Matter of Life and Death), the Manchester Rocks team are ready to give their verdict. Can an old dog learn new tricks?
In the interest of context, when did you first listen to Iron Maiden and what’s your favourite record?
BA: Besides hearing Iron Maiden on music channels and the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater Soundtrack, my first exposure to the band was around the time Dance of Death came out. I’d have been twelve, or so. I remember loving the guitar melody in Rainmaker and ended up buying Piece of Mind and Powerslave shortly after. My favourite Maiden records are undoubtedly 1988’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son and 2006’s A Matter of Life and Death. I suppose the 18 year gap between these two albums shows you how much they’ve developed and changed with the times.
DW: Around 1993 when I heard A Real Dead One. Hearing Sanctuary, Remember Tomorrow and Hallowed Be Thy Name blew me away as a 10 year old.
AF: Fuck! I am going to show my age now, I was first aware of Iron Maiden back in ‘79 as they popped up in the music newspaper called Sounds, wearing black spandex and I thought they were cross dressers because sexy disco girls wore spandex! 1980 was a huge year for Maiden and I saw them (without having head them) on the legendary Metal For Muthas tour at UMIST in Manchester, Diamond Head were also on the bill and possibly Praying Mantis and Angel Witch but cannot be certain after all these years (Bad Manners were also reportedly on the bill but I have no recollection of them).
PC: I first got into Maiden in 1980. I was 10. I heard Running Free on a metal compilation album (Axe Attack) and was hooked from then on. My favourite LP is Number of the Beast (my first gig) and I keep going back to that LP but I love Killers, Piece of Mind and Powerslave. In fact I have a massive collection of Maiden vinyl, picture discs, box sets and rarities, so you could say I’m a big fan!
Do you think that the double album format was the correct choice for The Book of Souls? Does one half pale in comparison to the other?
BA: Double albums are pretty much the boldest feat you can attempt in music. They nearly always fall short of expectations, do little to justify their existence, or fail entirely. Even the best double albums could probably have been condensed into an hour of incredible music (See: Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness or Biffy Clyro’s Opposites), but the ones that work the best are two discs with strongly different yet complimentary themes. Records like Death Grips’ The Powers That B and System of a Down’s Mesmerize/Hypnotize are extremely satisfying projects where each disc draws from a different sonic palette.
So, The Book of Souls. Does it need to be a double? No, absolutely not. The record works as one continuous piece and should really be listened to as a single 90+ minute suite. Should it be as long as it is, though? Absolutely. I think Maiden have worked nothing short of a miracle with this project in bringing us eleven incredible songs, each justifying their place. For me, the first disc is stronger and a nearly perfect Iron Maiden album in itself but disc two keeps the quality level high all the same. When I’m in the mood for something a bit more epic, I’ll spin disc two for Empire of the Clouds – for casual listening, disc one is where it’s at.
DW: It was always on the cards when you see the albums getting longer and longer, and more progressive. Whether it's right or wrong is personal preference I guess. I'm all for it, but some of The Book of Souls could have been lost to make it more tight.
AF: As a double CD it comes in at about 91 minutes, they could easily cut some of the fluff and slotted it in nicely into less than 80 minutes but it is what it is.
Disc one is a cracker – If Eternity Should Fail is old school Maiden and is instantly recognizable as such. Single Speed of Light is superb as is the rest of the CD although The Red And The Black is tad too long, the bass solo bits that bookend it could be cut. The strings in The Book Of Souls reminded me at times of Kashmir and it is another track that could have been cut back. Other than …Eternity… it doesn’t sound like classic Maiden and benefits massively from it, like they have moved on.
Disc two still has the old school sound but more muted throughout. As for the “epic” Empire Of The Clouds, oh dear, this was a seriously misguided idea. If they were going to do such a long track they should have listened to Yes’s Close To The Edge or any number of extended pieces ‘that work’ to see how tight they really need to be. There is probably eight minutes of great music hidden in this…it is just way too long and the lyrics are not that great either.
PC: I seem to remember Fear of the Dark was a double album, on vinyl at least. In the case of The Book of Souls, Iron Maiden are writing songs that are getting so long that one day they’ll need one disc per track! In fact it wouldn’t surprise me if they did that one day. Bring back the shorter, in your face aggressive metal tracks. Less potatoes and, (gasp!), salad… more meat! I think disc 1 has the best tracks though. So far……
How does this album match up to, firstly, Iron Maiden’s discography as a whole, and secondly, against the ‘modern’ Maiden sound (A Matter of Life and Death/The Final Frontier)?
BA: It’s bold statement time! This is Iron Maiden’s second best album ever in my opinion, after the perfect Seventh Son of the Seventh Son. It’s hard to compare this with albums pre-Brave New World because for all intents and purposes, Maiden aren’t making similar enough music these days, however I think if this album had been recorded in the 80’s then it would be a classic now. It takes everything good about the band and pushes it further than ever with longer songs, more detailed arrangements and (a special nod to the) absolutely stellar production job. It really is the best produced album I’ve heard all year. It’s leagues ahead of The Final Frontier and even nudges out AMoLaD as my second favourite Maiden record.
DW: It's better than the last one but not sure it tops AMOLAD. That album is immense. As far as the rest of the back catalogue; it's certainly a strong effort and will grow on me. Hard to place it at the moment for me. At the moment it is up there for me; but does it top Seventh Son? No.
AF: As I am not a massive fan it is difficult to say how it matches up. I prefer the more modern sound to the classic 80’s Maiden sound which had really been done to death. The new sound falls a bit flat in places but is still good.
PC: In terms of Maiden’s entire discography I think most of the stuff they’ve done since Seventh Son has lacked the fire and attack of everything that came before it. They’ve gradually evolved into more of a prog-rock beast than a heavy metal band. The guitars seem a lot subtler and less furious, especially if you compare them to how heavy, say, modern Judas Priest, Saxon, Slayer or Motorhead still sound. And for me, those football stadium ‘whoa whoa whoas’ need to go. It’s lazy song writing and as dumb as Jordan on Mastermind.
People, and quite rightly, say that Maiden can’t keep re-doing The Trooper or Beast – but they seem happy to keep trotting out the sonic waffle of longer tracks like When The Wild Wind Blows which, if I’m brutally honest, is just boring. And when compared to the Raymond Brigg’s book it is based on it contains none of the original story’s emotional power or meaning.
That being said, I actually think this album is the best of the reunion albums. There are some genuinely great moments on The Book of Souls and the first single Speed of Light is one helluva catchy tune! However there are a fair few rehashed riffs and lyrics on Souls that I’m sure any hardcore fan will notice. Shadows of the Valley is Wasted Years surely! It is enjoyable though. I mean the album Virtual 11 made me cry, it was that bad! I’m over it now but when your ultimate musical heroes let you down it’s a difficult thing. Like shitting with no arsehole.
What’s your favourite song on the record and why?
BA: Since it’s all so bloody good, I’ll have to go with my gut and choose the Steve Harris song The Red and the Black. The front half of this 13 minute beast is traditional high-tempo Maiden fare but the last seven minutes or so feature some of the best guitar solos, interchanges and harmonies I’ve ever heard on a heavy metal record, period. All three guitarists pitch in to create one of the most spellbinding songs I’ve heard this year and one of the highlights of Iron Maiden’s career overall.
DW: The title track is a monster. Very heavy and the kind of bombast I love Iron Maiden for.
AF: That is easy, the single, Speed Of Light. I love it! It is just the right length and bounces along nicely.
PC: I’m loving Speed of Light but The Red and the Black is a corker if not a tad long. I like the piano intro of Empire of the Clouds even though the melody reminds me of MacArthur Park by Richard Harris!
BA: Disc one – 10/10, Disc two – 9/10,
DW: Disco one 10/10, Disc two 7.5/10
AF: Disc one, 4/10, Disc two 4/10
PC: Disc one, 7/10, Disc two, 7/10
Words: Ben Armstrong, Dom Walsh, Anthony Firmin & Paul Cooke