Iron Maiden, The Book of Souls (Iron Maiden LLP)
The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized just how powerful nostalgia is, and how appealing it is, too. I can’t say for every 45 year-old, but at this age my musical interests have reverted greatly to the eras I’ve been fondest of in my life. Embracing the music of old heroes once again, enjoying new reissues of classic albums, freaking out over reunion tours. For me it’s all a process of looking back to music from happy or formative times in my life, or when it comes to 1980s heavy metal, the music that served as escape and sanctuary from a hellish time at school.
Iron Maiden don’t owe me or any of their millions of fans a thing. They’ve done enough. Their 1980s output remains one of the most important bodies of work in metal history, and the fact that the band has rebounded so gracefully after their disastrous 1990s is just gravy. They don’t need to put out another classic album, as their legacy is already set. And besides, I thoroughly enjoy their post-2000 output. The new records make me happy enough, and if the odd one is good enough to crack my year-end top ten list, then that’s wonderful.
When the band’s 16th album was announced, once again I lobbied hard to get the feature assignment for Decibel magazine. I had a wonderful time interviewing the guys in 2010, and so enjoyed the whole experience that I wanted to do it again, simple as that. Who wouldn’t want to interview at length their favourite band of all time? I got the assignment, which was to be another cover story, but the circumstances this year were peculiar this time around, a little more haphazard. The band members were scattered across the globe, taking time out of their well-earned holidays, so the interviews were to by by phone only. Perfectly fine, but the problem for me was getting to hear the darn album. The record label in the States was only hosting listening sessions in Los Angeles, and they refused to fly me out to hear the thing. My editor stood by me and told them the story would not happen if I couldn’t hear the album, and for good reason. How could I as a writer properly profile this record without even hearing it? After much discussion it was agreed that I would be given my own private stream of the new Maiden album, which to be honest was even better than flying out to LA to hear it in a studio. I got a Haulix link in my email, opened it on my phone, which was connected to my big stereo via bluetooth adapter, and I blasted the thing, probably the only person in the world outside the band and label’s inner circle to be hearing the thing at home.
Five years ago I had to conduct interviews about The Final Frontier album based to two draining listens of it the night before, on little sleep after flying in to Dallas, so I understand the pressure those who attended the LA listening session were under to a) get a grasp of a 90-minute double album and b) think of intelligent questions to ask the band. But having an unlimited private stream I had a very unusual luxury: an entire month to absorb The Book of Souls, to live with it, to get to know its finer points. By the time I got to talk to Bruce Dickinson, Nicko McBrain, and producer Kevin Shirley, I knew the album inside-out.
Going back to that first listen of The Book of Souls, though, I was worried that I’d never be able to get a handle on the thing. It was so sprawling, so ambitious. Plus with all the excitement of hearing a new Maiden album before everyone else in the world, the album’s 11 songs went by in a blur. I remember my first reaction being, okay, it’s pretty good, but man am I tired.
Days passed, weeks passed, and I soon figured, why bother streaming the entire thing if I have unlimited advance listens? So I approached The Book of Souls as a proper double album experience, and the impact of the record changed dramatically. I listened to the album in two halves, living with the first half for a while, living with the second other times. And that’s when it clicked. The more I listened to both halves, the more I liked it, and by August, I loved it. And I still do.
The Book of Souls is a latter-day Maiden classic, the most ambitious album in their vast discography. At 50 minutes, disc one is the best-paced, most ferocious and towering Maiden album since Powerslave. It veers from a theatrical epic (“If Eternity Should Fail”), to a barnstorming single (“Speed of Light”), Steve Harris’s best epic song in 20 years (“The Red and the Black”), and a stupendous title track that evokes the power and energy of Maiden 30 years ago.
The second half, meanwhile, boasts some very rewarding deep cuts (“Death or Glory”, “Tears of a Clown”) that gracefully set the stage for the 18-minute masterpiece “Empire of the Clouds”. I knew going in that it would be the make-or-break moment on the entire album; it was the song that the band was so confident in they decided to make The Book of Souls a double album. What felt like a peculiar departure upon first listen slowly, slowly won me over, first on a musical level, and then, even more effectively, on a storytelling level. Dickinson’s dramatic tale of a real-life airship disaster is heavy metal theatre at its finest, featuring a indomitable performance by the mighty singer, which is punctuated by McBrain’s expressive drumming and some surprisingly atmospheric, textured guitar work by Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, and Janick Gers. That was the clincher right there, and I honestly couldn’t believe it myself when I realized that I was listening to my 2015 album of the year. I was huge into a lot of highly creative pieces of music by younger artists outside metal, but these old geezers came through.
As a music fan there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing a band you’ve listened to for more than 30 years put out an astonishing record. Rush did just that a few years ago with Clockwork Angels, and I still stand by my choice of it being my 2012 album of the year. I can’t believe the same thing happened three years later. But that’s one of the great things about Iron Maiden: they remain uncompromising after all these decades, and they have rewarded their listeners with an album for the ages.
I said “ages”, not “aged”.
Up the Irons, forever, and ever, and ever.