Iron Maiden: ‘The Book Of Souls’
Maiden released their sixteenth studio album in the autumn of 2015 and their subsequent live album ‘Live Chapter’ in November 2017 following an extensive tour. The album was their fifth number one and well received by critics, reviewers and the media in general.
Iron Maiden are heavy metal royalty and national treasures nowadays. Back in the early days they received no air-play and if they were to have been mentioned in the mainstream media (and they weren’t) it would have been only to mock them. They were well ahead of their time and gloriously British, like Deep Purple, one of their main influences: turn it up to the maximum and give it both barrels! Although there were glimpses of influences Maiden were and always have been, totally original. There will never be another Iron Maiden. There has only ever been one.
Their journey from those word-of-mouth days and gruelling low budget tours in clapped out vans and buses to national treasures has been long and hard fought. For a long time being an Iron Maiden fan was like being a member of a small exclusive club, a club with a dress code of jeans, denim or leather jackets, and, of course, long hair. Parents all over the country were starting to be seriously annoyed. Nowadays whole families go to Maiden concerts; lead singer Bruce Dickinson has cut his long hair off, and is a highly-qualified commercial airline pilot. He used to be a long-haired caveman. Walking down every high street you will see an Iron Maiden t-shirt and not be surprised. Back in the day underneath every Maiden t-shirt there would be the belly of a creature familiar to you by name. Nowadays total strangers proudly display Eddie in any number of his many incarnations. There was nothing that the media could do but employ the old motto: ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’.
I have been a massive fan for some twenty-six years now they are my band. I love them dearly.
I want to make that clear.
Everybody knows that Maiden’s best work was done between 1982’s ‘The Number Of The Beast’ and 1988’s ‘Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son’. When Bruce Dickinson left two albums later a very dark period for Maiden and its many fans began. Following Bruce’s return to the band for ‘Brave New World (2000) a familiar pattern emerged. On every album there would be a brilliant song, for the most part the standard of songs would be good and not great, with the odd stinker thrown in (‘New Frontier’ comes to mind).
Given all that ‘The Book Of Souls’, although much heralded, is disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, a disappointing Iron Maiden album is better than anything else around. Every Maiden album is a cause for celebration. That being said, I believe the outpouring of love for this album is really a recognition that Maiden is still going after all these years and hasn’t got long left. The media has finally ‘joined them’ because they just couldn’t be beaten.
But when I really analyse the album I’m reminded of something in Dickinson’s recent autobiography ‘What Does This Button Do’ (Harper Collins, 2017). He writes:
‘Honestly, I think we had all fallen under the spell of papal infallibility. Why is the Pope always right? Because he is the Pope and can never be wrong. Well what if he actually is wrong?’ (Page 211).
He explains that this leads to ‘artistic stagnation’. No-one is telling Iron Maiden that they have got it wrong. They just want the great money-train to keep rolling.
The cover is reasonable but nothing like the quality of the work of former collaborator Derek Riggs. The first song ( Dickinson’s ‘If Eternity Should Fail’) is the one on the album that will make it on the ultimate greatest hits collection; but even that is marred by a dreadful synth sound at the beginning, like something found on my daughter’s toy keyboard. The spoken word section at the end is ill-fitting. Don’t get me wrong it is a great song and when I heard it live, right under the noses of the band, it was probably one of the best live Maiden moments that I have experienced.
However, despite the greatness of the song one can’t help noticing the staggeringly poor production and I’m afraid the culprit is Steve Harris. Martin Birch captured Maiden perfectly with ‘Powerslave’, but Kevin Shirley’s partnership with Harris has made Maiden’s sound seem amateurish. They must have a bottomless production budget and yet this is the best they can do? I always get the sense that Harris is striving for something in his head that is impossible to capture: hence the difference between ‘Seventh Son…’ and the follow up ‘No Prayer For The Dying’.
‘The Speed Of Light’ is another safe, familiar, formula: the classic Adrian Smith short, hooky, song. It is rather symptomatic of the point that I am making: like the predictable elements of the live concerts (we all know where the band will stand for ‘The Trooper’ right?) Maiden are stagnating.
On the rest of the long-running double album ‘The Great Unknown’ is the first of five unremarkable and decidedly average songs. During the tour it actually made it into the set-list as a substitute for another song, a decision I found hard to believe. The rest are: ‘When The River Runs Deep’; ‘Shadows of The Valley’; ‘Tears Of A Clown’, and ‘Man Of Sorrows’.
‘The Red And Black’, another Harris epic, has some truly great moments on it but is let down by the awful high-pitched verses that Dickinson is forced to squeak completely above his range. At times it labours. To me it sums up the impression I get of Steve Harris at the moment and that is: mainly tired. He always looks tired. He can’t run about like he used to and he seems to be enduring rather than enjoying concerts nowadays. This song sounds like a parting gift from a man on the verge of retirement, clutching at former glories that are not quite within his reach anymore.
The title track also has some nice melodies and heavy moments but is not one those truly ‘great’ maiden epics.
Other songs of note bookend the second CD. ‘Death Or Glory’ is another Smith-manufactured number reminiscent of Thin Lizzy in its chord changes. Live, there is an amount of tongue-in-cheek tomfoolery, with monkey masks and banana throwing (‘climb like a monkey’), and I’m sure it was written in that vein. Nevertheless this is not the Iron Maiden that I want to hear.
The final song, which is in fact about three or four songs seemingly cobbled together, brings us back to papal infallibility. ‘Empire Of The Clouds’ shouldn’t have been let anywhere near an Iron Maiden album and I’m certain that Dickinson thought Steve Harris would veto it. There are parts of it that show glimpses of form but I find it hard to listen to, Maiden perfectionist that I am.
To sum up, there is a staleness and predictability about this decidedly average record that is saved only by ‘If Eternity Should Fail’. Whilst any Maiden record will beat almost everything else around today, I do hope that this won’t be the last studio album that they produce. To use a music themed cliché, they should go out on a much higher note than this. Let’s hope that their last album is heavy (they have got very ‘poppy’ since Dickinson returned), proggy and ground-breaking – as ground-breaking as this band used to be.
Overall, you should buy this album. You should buy every Maiden album. Maiden rule. But don’t be fooled by all the praise: this is decidedly average for a number one record.