Firstly - I would like to say (form all of us at ATTIWLTMOWOS) that we are glad Bruce Dickinson has made a full recovery from his recent health issues. Now with that being said it is time to look at the latest release from Iron Maiden; the sixteenth studio album is quite possibly their most ambitious to date. Stats and figures - first album since 'The Final Frontier' released in 2010 (which I am still yet to review on here - coming soon), two disc album, 92 minutes and 11 seconds in length, recorded at Guillaume Tell Studios, Paris the band aimed for a live and spontaneous feeling in the studio and in relatively quick time for Iron Maiden as well. It is also not a concept album according to reports, although it does have many references to the soul and the existence of humanity. Art work this time is provided by Mark Wilkinson and it sees their mascot Eddie in a Maya theme, it is one of the best art works from Maiden for a long time; possible even back to the classic era covers. Now I really do not need to go into a history lesson, you either know the story or you can find it out yourself; what I am most interested in, is how the album has turned out.
With ominous synths and an atmospheric backdrop, Bruce Dickinson starts off his first solo composition for an Iron Maiden album in years with a question regarding the soul of a man in the song entitled "If Eternity Should Fail"; obviously an album opening track sets the tone of the album and with this eight minutes & twenty eight seconds it is a long track for an opening song (outside of Dream Theatre) - but this song is doing what I have wanted Iron Maiden to do for a long while, it is letting the song expand and finish naturally. I enjoy the story telling nature that Iron Maiden have adopted from the outset here, they are going for broke with their sound and taking a challenge with their sound (to be honest, they have been heading this way for a long time) and it is paying off. Even the spoken word section makes perfect sense when the album is played as a whole, a great opening song for this record. Next is the first song to be released off this album as a single "Speed of Light" which is wrote by Bruce Dickinson/Adrian Smith and I have to be honest when I first heard it, I was disappointed by the song. It just feels like a slowed down version of "Different World" in the verses and the chorus does not float my musical leanings either. But for a long while (apart from "Different World") the lead singles from Iron Maiden albums have not been as interesting as the rest of the album tracks, sadly this is still the case here; it is not a bad song, it just continues the new curse of the Iron Maiden single for me. The follow up track though, that is much more interesting number indeed. From its lengthy guitar plucking beginning "The Great Unknown" it is a song which demands attention and it is in no hurry to give instant gratification to you. I find this song to be akin to "Fear of the Dark" (the song, not the album, it is cut from that epic cloth which makes this tale of apocalyptic doom a stealer number no matter which was you cut it. Adrian Smith and Steve Harris are on top form with this song and the quality of the number shines through like a beacon in the night, worth every second of your attention and it is just to get your taste buds ready for the rest of the album.
The first of the mega-lengthy tracks on this album - "The Red & the Black" starts with an acoustic guitar strumming that still manages to sound as heavy as an anvil being dropped on the floor. It is the first song to be wrote by Steve Harris on his own on the album and it is a meaty song, it is much better than anything which was constructed for 'British Lions' (less said about Carter) and it is a song that is hard to digest in an hour - you will only be able to listen to it four times as it is about thirteen minutes long and it is a number that has sing along built into it, it has epic solos (as every Iron Maiden song always contains - it is a law, or an old charter, or something (thank you Robert Rankin) - which will charm angels to loss their halos. It is a song that you have to work on to understand as it is not giving you everything straight away, it is rich with keyboards and the drumming (Nicko, you have nailed it again as always) is like thunder to these ears and they hold this number together with Mr Harris being the Sergeant at Arms in the centre giving the song its directions. As a short interlude at just under six minutes, "When The River Runs Deep" is another song much like "Speed of Light" for me; nothing is wrong with this Smith/Harris penned number by any means as it has everything us Iron Maiden fans want from an Iron Maiden song - solos, loud drums, vocals like sirens and something that only Iron Maiden can do, the solos are especially riveting in this song. But the song itself does not gel at the chorus, it is weak in comparison to the rest of the number and Iron Maiden rarely have a weak chorus on this album; thus it renders everything else on this number to become average and that is a shame. Ending the first disc of this album is the second of the mega-lengthy tracks in the form of the title track "The Book of Souls" which was created by Janick Gers and Steve Harris, it is another song that takes a while to digest, this time you could listen to it five times in an hour (just over ten minutes in length). Once again we are challenged by Iron Maiden, I prefer this side of Iron Maiden when they are not shy at challenging the audience with their songs and think that they can actually show their audience something new about themselves. They have always created song that are lengthy (it has been something that they have been doing more often recently than at any other time in their career) and the passion in this number shines through from beginning to end. It also helps when the song is as good as this one, it has all the trimmings of being a classic for the band and it is worth the effort.
Disc two starts with "Death or Glory" and I am wondering why this Smith/Dickinson number was not released as the leading single for this album? It has all the classic hallmarks of an Iron Maiden old school single: A galloping riff, the bass and drums bouncing along with enough energy to make a room sing out in unison, Bruce sounding like a he is on top form, a chorus that is instantly catchy and a song about the glories (and follies) of war. Why was it not the single! Seriously ballsed up that one, it is not the best song of the album, but it is the most accessible song of the album with a solo that will thrill all metal heads around the world. "Shadows of the Valley" once again goes for the classic Iron Maiden sound, it sounds like it could have been wrote around when the band released "Somewhere in Time". It feels retro without feeling backwards; it feels like it is not aiming for old glories, but that it is trying to reinvent them into something new. The focus on the end of the world is back for this album, it is another song from Steve Harris and Janick Gers and it does go on a bit too long which is strange as there are longer songs on this album which are over far too soon. By no means a bad song, but not as good as other tracks on the album. From the pen of Adrian Smith and Steve Harris comes "Tears of a Clown" which deals with having to hide behind a mask whilst feeling pain and having to lie and saying everything is ok (since posting the review I have found out this is a tribute to the comedian Robin Williams). The music suits the mood, very moody and slow paced and the solo towers above the rest of the number, however it is another song that is decent without being explosive (apart from that killer solo) and there is not much here that makes it worth more than a filler track.
The penultimate track of the album, "The Man of Sorrows" which is concerned about the concept of religion and trying to find out the truth about the universe. This track is the only song to feature Dave Murray in the writing credits as he works with Steve Harris on this song. It is a wordy song, it feels like the lyrics were created after first and the music in places feels like it is pushed to fit around the words. It is a slow, almost blues natured song that is the slow burner of the album; the first listen was, well let’s say it was not impressive - but subsequent plays showed more about the song which was not there upon the first spin of the record. It is another song which shows Iron Maiden are not content to just do the Iron Maiden traditional song and whilst it is not the biggest risk to take, it could have easily gone south very quickly in places. But this song truly intrigues me, it is hooked into my brain and it will not let go - a sure sign of a grower track if ever I saw one. Ending the album is the second track to just come from the hands of Bruce Dickinson alone, it is called "Empire of the Clouds", this song is about the 1930 R101 airship crash. It is the first track to feature Bruce Dickinson on piano and that was recorded first, with the rest of the band performing around the piano. It is a long song to take in, obviously with it being over eighteen minutes it is not something you pop on whilst your moving around the house. It is something to be lost in and lose yourself as the band tell the tale of that fateful journey eighty five years ago, with this song the band have pushed themselves to the limits of what they normally do and succeeded in achieving a masterpiece. The song is a towering performance and whilst it might make some people recoil in horror that their heroes have dared to do something outside of what they perceive as normal, they should not be as this is a brave track that does the band (and the people who lost their lives) proud.
A few people I know have commented that it does not know when to stop, but I have to disagree; they are actually going in the direction they should have done after 'Seventh Son of a Seventh Son'. It is something that has really been brewing in the band from 'Dance of Death' onwards and it really should not be a surprise that they are going more progressive in their later years. It is a lengthy record by any measuring simile you care to use; surprisingly it is for an eleven track album a few tracks too long and both of those tracks are shorter numbers that for me did not gel, "Speed of Light" & "Tears of a Clown" just do not hit the mark (apart from that solo on "Tears..." - that part is awesome). But here is the rub, it is a very good album which takes the band further down the road towards a new era for Iron Maiden, they are leaving behind what they used to be in some ways but without doing it drastically. It does not shine as bright as "The Final Frontier" for me and I am not totally in love with it yet, this opinion is subject to change as I am still trying to get my head around the record. But as it stands (and as I do not have the luxury of advance copies here), it is just an album that can only be classed as a good Iron Maiden album, but not a classic one.
7.5 out of ten - This is good and worth checking out
Top track - Empire of the Clouds
You can purchase one of the version of 'The Book of Souls' from Amazon here
You can visit the Iron Maiden website here
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You can stream the album on Spotify here
You can stream the album on Deezer here
You can stream the album on Tidal here