The Book of Souls (2015) is the sixteenth full-length studio album by the UK heavy metal legend that is Iron Maiden. The album is the band's first in five years, and is the follow-up to The Final Frontier (2010). We may have got this album a bit sooner than we did, but the band decided to delay it while vocalist Bruce Dickinson received treatment for cancer, which he has fortunately now been given the all clear from. This has been the longest gap between Iron Maiden studio albums. But while the band's output may have slowed their creativity has not, with the albums put out since Dickinson and guitarist Adrian Smith rejoined the band beginning a new run of high quality releases. With The Book of Souls Iron Maiden has given the world a first for them though: a double disc studio effort, a milestone in itself but also the album is complete with a new record holder for Iron Maiden's longest song in the closing Empire of the Clouds, which clocks in at 18:01, replacing the 13:36 Rime of the Ancient Mariner from Powerslave (1984). Additionally The Red and the Black is only seconds short of equalling Rime of the Ancient Mariner's length. The title track adds a third 10+ minute track to the album. This is also the first Iron Maiden album since No Prayer for the Dying (1990) to feature tracks penned solely by Dickinson.
The first song to be given a single release from the album was Speed of Light, the second song on the album. The Smith/Dickinson written track has all the makings of a classic Iron Maiden single and is one of the more direct and full-on heavy metal tracks on The Book of Souls, so it's no surprise that it was chosen for just that purpose. Another Smith/Dickinson number kicking off the second disc is Death or Glory. I'd be really surprised if this one isn't the album's seemingly inevitable second single at some point down the line. Both will be sure crowd pleasers in the live environment too.
The bigger focus on The Book of Souls seems to be on Iron Maiden's progressive side, with several long songs featured. The crowning achievement is of course Empire of the Clouds, the 18 minute track right at the end of the album, which is unlike any other song Iron Maiden has ever recorded. In that respect it brings mind to Journeyman from the Dance of Death (2003) album, which achieved a similar status with its full acoustic approach. What sets Empire of the Clouds apart from the rest of Iron Maiden's work is not it's length, it's the piano. Yeah that's right, the piano. Played by Dickinson (the track is solely written by him too), the melodies are pretty awesome. Lyrically it's a thought provoking piece about the R101, an airship that crashed in 1930, killing 48 of the 54 people on board. While following a fairly standard song structure for a little while, with the full band kicking in after the intro the song then transforms into a prog epic, giving us listeners one of the most epic instrumental sections that Iron Maiden has ever recorded, before concluding with a final vocal section.
Another song that is bound to be a real crowd pleaser is The Red and the Black. This song sounds quite Fear of the Dark to me with those chants. You know the ones that the crowds do whenever Fear of the Dark is played live? It's like that. Only the album version of Fear of the Dark never had them. Maiden finally put something like that on record with The Red and the Black. Aside from that though, it's a pretty damn epic song in its own right. Some parts of it even have this quasi folk feel to them.
The band are in fine form on all counts. Considering Dickinson was suffering with (then undiagnosed) cancer at the time he actually sounds the best he's been in a long time. The production work is also very well done, more powerful I think than that of The Final Frontier.
I'm heaping a lot of praise onto The Book of Souls, but it does need pointing out that this hasn't proven to be the most instantly likeable release from Iron Maiden for me. I did still get into it pretty quickly, but it did take a few spins of the album more than usual for one of their albums. But not being instantly blown away is perhaps a good thing, as I've found more and more to like with each listen to the album, finding myself more and more impressed by what Iron Maiden have created each time. Despite the 90 minute length, it doesn't drag in the slightest. In fact it seems to be over all too quickly, and I think that's a sign of a damn fine album right there, that the hour and a half running time seems to fly by and I want to instantly restart it all over again.
The one song on the album that I think could be considered a filler track is The Great Unknown. The Smith/Harris penned track flows pretty well with the rest of the album but it's the only song that I don't find anything memorable about after the event. All the other songs have something or other that allow me to hear them in my head just by thinking about them, be it a catchy chorus or a strong instrumental section. This one, even after over half a dozen complete spins to the album, I still don't remember at all.
You may have to re-ask this of me in maybe a year or so, but my impression right now is that not only is The Book of Souls a top tier Iron Maiden release, but it's also worthy of being counted among the top five albums of the group. Maybe even top three. For now though one thing is clear: 5 stars.