Encapsulating an Iron Maiden album into a few hundred measly words is a hard job. You have to mention the fact that now on their sixteenth album, they are arguably better than they were 40 years ago when Steve Harris started this whole thing. You could then throw in the fact that live they are still a life affirming experience and doggedly refuse to follow their peers into becoming a heritage act. After that you’ll probably get round to mentioning the music, which usually defies words anyway. With The Books of Souls, Maiden seem to have set out to make that process even harder, releasing a double album which is just over an hour and a half in length and includes three songs over ten minutes long. Here we go anyway.
Let’s get the simple stuff out-of-the-way first. This is a good Iron Maiden album and at times it verges on being a great one. Five years on from The Final Frontier they don’t see to have to have lost a step. It’s also a Maiden album that sees them continuing to brace the prog sound of their repertoire, perhaps unsurprisingly considering its length. Opener ‘If Eternity Should Fail’ starts atmospheric, allowing Bruce’s vocals to take centre stage. Then one of those big galloping riffs comes flying in and we’re off.
No one does big and epic the way that Maiden do it. Where other bands would come off as silly they still come off as cool. ‘If Eternity Should Fail’ ends with Bruce’s voice being altered in a creepy way as he declares ‘My name is Necropolis and I am formed of the dead’. Yet rather than laughing you are there with them every step of the way. ‘Speed of Light’ follows on from that and sounds as good here as it did as the single. At five minutes long it’s maybe a stretch to say this is Maiden stripped back and raw, but it’s obviously the more rock and roll edge of their sound and despite it not being at all representative of the album, you can see why it was released into the wild first.
The dual centre-pieces of the first disc are ‘The Red and The Black’ and the title track, both of which come in at over ten minutes long. ‘The Red and The Black’ feels a tinge over indulgent, with it getting quite repetitive in the middle and a long instrumental sections surely testing even the most strident of fans patience. It would be harsh to call it bad, but if it had been trimmed of a few minutes it definitely would have been improved. There are moments like that littered throughout this album and it is what prevents it feeling like a stone cold classic.
There is relief to be found in the fact that Bruce’s recent cancer scare doesn’t seem to have affected his voice at all, as he seems to have no problem hitting all the marks you expect him to hit. While those big riffs are still littered throughout the album. Something that is evident as disc two opens up with ‘Death or Glory’, which joins ‘Speed of Light’ in being the more accessible Maiden. It charges along in a while of glorious fun and is sure to join it in becoming a live favourite.
More interesting is the double-header of ‘Tears of a Clown’ and ‘Man of Sorrow’. With the first inspired by the suicide of Robin Williams, they see Maiden taking on a more melancholic edge to their sound. That big feeling is still there, but the music itself is more introspective. It’s a feeling that continues into the 18 minute long closer. Opening with pianos and a string section, it is very much a Bruce Dickinson song, his vocals coming across strong and determined and aviation being very much the theme of the day. It feels like the final climatic battle and is so incredibly over the top that Iron Maiden are probably the only band on the planet who could get away with it, because here in this setting, it just works.
Iron Maiden continue to be one of the best bands on the planet and at this stage in their career that is an incredible achievement. This music still feels fresh and exciting and even when it is overindulgent, it never feels like something put together by a band that have nothing left to prove. While other bands consistently underwhelm, Maiden still prove to be as vital as ever. Let’s just hope that never ends.