Album Review: Iron Maiden ‘The Book Of Souls Live Chapter’

Documenting 117 live shows from ‘The Book Of Souls’ tour (2016-17) must have been an epic task but eventually 15 venues and dates were chosen for the sixteen songs that make up this live album including two from June 2016 at the Download Festival and one from the Newcastle show in May 2017.

The rest of the venues chosen are Dublin in Ireland; Wacken in Germany; Trieste in Italy; Tokyo in Japan; Sydney in Australia; Cape Town in South Africa; Buenos Aires in Argentina; Rio De Janeiro in Brazil; Fortaleza in Brazil; San Salvador in El Salvador; Wroclaw in Poland; and Montreal in Canada.

The set-list includes 6 songs from ‘The Book Of Souls’, with ‘The Great Unknown’ featured instead of ‘Tears Of A Clown’ which was dropped at some point during the tour.
The set-list is a source of endless debate amongst Maiden fans. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that six songs was probably one too many from ‘The Book Of Souls’, which was, as I have stated in my review of it, decidedly average.

‘Children Of The Damned’ and ‘Powerslave’ were good choices but the inclusion of ‘Blood Brothers’, particularly at the climax of the show, was a baffling decision bearing in mind the number of wonderful songs Maiden had to choose from. ‘Wrathchild’ has been played to death and should have been dropped for something else and ‘The Trooper’ could have been given a break as well; unfortunately it has become regarded as the quintessential Maiden song and its exclusion would have annoyed a lot of fans. Perhaps I’m just fed up of seeing the same choreography during it year after year.

The first thing that struck me about this release is that it didn’t include a DVD as I’d assumed it would. In fact, Maiden have given up on DVD’s it would seem, and given in to the inevitability of fans watching the concert on YouTube and not paying for it. Maiden have released the whole thing in a series of videos on their YouTube channel.

The second thing that struck me was how poorly recorded a lot of the songs are. Tony Newton and Steve Harris produced, engineered and mixed the performances, and Harris chose which dates to pick for each song. The way it was recorded is not the fault of Steve Harris. Perhaps they need to sort that out before handing it over to him, his production decisions have been less than impressive in the past (including on ‘The Book Of Souls). Kevin Shirley doesn’t seem to have been involved this time (some Maiden fans won’t miss him). On ‘Powerslave’, in particular, Nicko’s high-hat is overpowering at some points. Have a listen in your headphones and on your particular device or sound system, you may well disagree about how poorly recorded it is, there are too many variables to make a definitive decision about it.

Overall, I feel that this record is for fans who saw the shows and want to have it as a memento, or for completests. Everyone else would be forgiven for giving it a miss. It pains me to say it but, in my opinion, this is far from essential listening for Maiden fans.

Book Review: ‘What Does This Button Do’ by Bruce Dickinson

Things We Don’t Learn About In Bruce Dickinson’s Autobiography

Bruce Dickinson is the singer with one of the world’s most popular bands: Iron Maiden. Iron Maiden has sold a staggering 90 million albums. In 2017 he published his autobiography, ‘What Does This Button Do’, (HarperCollins) having written it out longhand on notepaper filling seven A4 notebooks.

1. Details about his relationship with the rest of the band

Steve Harris is the bassist and founding member of Iron Maiden and pursues his creative vision relentlessly and stubbornly. Both Bruce and guitarist Adrian Smith left and re-joined the band in a turbulent period for Iron Maiden in the 1990’s and Steve Harris’ creative control was one of the issues.

In the book Bruce describes nearly coming to blows with Steve early on in his career with Iron Maiden over Steve’s habit of standing in front of him on stage.

The only other places in the book that Bruce even hints at openly disagreeing with Steve is when he describes being ‘cross and frustrated at the melodies and lyric’s produced by him, and when describing the cover of ‘Dance Of Death’ (2003), suggesting Harris pushed for something that Bruce describes as ‘embarrassing’. We would have liked more about his evolving relationship with Harris but Maiden’s management probably vetoed that particular notebook. Perhaps Dickinson still has a picture of Steve on his dart-board? In interviews he hints at a better relationship and that may well be the case.  However, we don’t learn about it in this book.

The rest of the band are conspicuous in their absence.  They are all mentioned, but only briefly. Perhaps this is down to the fact that the book is relatively short and is not supposed to be a history of Iron Maiden, rather than it being a deliberate Stalinesque erasure of their existence.

2. Anything about his private life

In his ‘Afterword’ Bruce admits that he ‘made a personal executive decision…no births, marriages or divorces, of me or anybody else’. He claims that it is because the book would have been too big, the type that ‘people use to commit murder, or help change tyres on London buses’. So we learn much less about the man and about Iron Maiden in the context of his life.

3. The full story behind his departure from and return to Iron Maiden

In ‘What Does This Button Do’ Bruce chooses to give only a brief explanation for his departure, citing questions over the band’s relevance and interest in his own solo projects.

Bruce’s departure, his solo career, and his return to Iron Maiden seem to be presented in little more than a sketchy fashion. Bruce gives us more detail about flying (which, when you read the book, is what seems to interest him more than Iron Maiden).

Why did Bruce even consider returning to Iron Maiden (a band he describes as having a ‘dwindling audience, particularly in the USA’) when he was producing arguably the best work of his career, possibly better music than Iron Maiden at the time, with his album ‘The Chemical Wedding’ (1998) showing that he was at the peak of his creative powers? He describes it as showing him that he ‘really did have a purpose, a meaning and a real career as a solo artist‘.

Was the real reason, then, the size of the deal that he made with the band’s management, which must have been very tempting considering the drop in income he must have felt following his departure from the band (even though he had earned a relative fortune by this time) and his potential cut in future earnings?

4. Anything about his multi-million pound fortune

Dickinson is worth 75 million pounds according to ‘The Nottingham Post’ and 115 million dollars according to ‘Celebrity Net Worth’. We learn nothing about his houses, cars, or lifestyle.

5. How he writes songs

Following winning an electric piano signed by Jamie Cullum at a charity auction hosted by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver Dickinson wrote ‘Empire Of The Clouds’ (the eighteen minute epic on ‘The Book Of Souls’ 2015) on it in a ‘two-fingered’ style. He wrote ‘If Eternity Should Fail’ as a solo work but gave it to Maiden. He doesn’t say how he wrote that or any of the other great songs he wrote in the Iron Maiden catalogue. Fans would have liked an insight into how he went about writing ‘Revelations’ or ‘Powerslave’ for instance. It’s disappointing that the whole writing process receives little attention in the book.

6. When he plans to retire from Iron Maiden

Dickinson turns sixty in 2018. At sixty-five drummer Nicko McBrain is the oldest member of the band. In recent interviews he has confessed to having arthritis in his hands and sees Iron Maiden’s future as being less than ten years. In interviews Dickinson tends to be non-committal and vague on the subject, which suggests that there genuinely isn’t a definite plan yet. Steve Harris suggested that they might record an album after quitting touring. Undoubtedly Bruce will remain busy!

If you want an insight into Iron Maiden (and Iron Maiden fans will be the main audience for this book) you will be disappointed.  His early years are covered in some detail but the creative process and relationships within the band are glossed over.  We learn more about the recording studio and where he lived during recording. If you want to read about flying you will be happy.  Surely there is another, larger, more candid book bursting to come out, and crying out to be read – even if it might be used to commit murder with or to assist in tyre related problems around London.

Album Review: Iron Maiden ‘The Book Of Souls’

Album Review

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.