Genre: Heavy Metal
Producer: Kevin Shirley
Released: September 4, 2015
Becoming middle-aged is one of the biggest pitfalls that a musical artist meets during their career; doubly so when it’s not the members, but the band itself that starts pushing forty. For a while it has seemed that even the British metal behemoth Iron Maiden is not safe from such hazards. The gaps between album releases have grown with each new record, and sometimes it has not been worth the wait: despite some high points, the previous album The Final Frontier felt rather uninspired and sounded like it had been recorded in a cardboard box and mixed using a potato.
So now, after five years of waiting the band has released their alleged postmillennial magnum opus, an hour and a half long double album The Book of Souls. It is clear that the band wanted the album to be a special landmark in their career: in addition to the massive length the album features a lot of additional strings and keyboards to elevate the record above the standard Maiden fare. The lyrical themes circle around mortality and the soul, giving the album a sense of finality and gravitas.
What stands out, especially when comparing to their last album, is the absolutely pristine production. Every instrument stands out clearly without sounding too clinical and overproduced. The drums pack a serious punch, and every tiny cymbal hit is clearly audible; the driving bass lines are easily distinguishable from the mix. Even the three guitars do not drown each other out. The improved mix is welcome, as the instrumentation is inspired and inventive. Every member of the band is bringing their A-game, and even vocalist Bruce Dickinson, whose instrument is most susceptible to the damages of age, sounds great.
The instrumentation is further exalted by the tight songwriting, which seems an ironic choice of words as the average track length exceeds eight and half minutes. However, despite the drawn out duration of the album only few minutes seem superfluous. Only “The Red and the Black” could have used some condensing. All the more compact (‘short’ would be insulting to the concept of brevity) and straightforward songs like the lead single “Speed of Light” (which by the way has a video a game designer like myself appreciates) are all perfectly serviceable despite getting slightly overshadowed by the longer, more ambitious tracks: The ten-minute title track paints images of the Maya civilization; even though “Shadows of the Valley” initially seems to borrow from about half a dozen other Maiden songs throughout their career, it slowly builds into grand finish that completely justifies its existence. The absolute crown jewel is the album closer, the 18-minute long “Empire of the Clouds”, a piano-driven epic about the R101 airship disaster of 1930. The song takes its time to beautifully paint the soundscape and tell a story utilizing its span to its full potential.
Some things just get better with age. While Iron Maiden definitely is not one of those things, it’s good to see that even after forty years in business they can bring something fresh on the table. While not the instant classic the band painted it to be, The Book of Souls is one of the best Maiden records of the new millennium and one of the better metal albums this year.