Iron Maiden are such a force of nature that there are several compelling stories about the band, so many that no documentary can cover the whole story, thus the release of “The History Of Iron Maiden, Part 1: The Early Days” in 2004 covering only up until 1983. It’s one of the reasons they remain so popular. For a band that formed way back in 1975, before heavy metal was even widely recognized by fans and bands as an actual genre of music, the band has done an amazing job in remaining relatively fresh and relevant. Leader Steve Harris, who’s roots lie solidly in early psych and prog like Wishbone Ash, Stray and Jethro Tull, has played an important role in both maintaining the band’s solid musical identity while also being willing to experiment.
Like nearly all metal bands, Iron Maiden experienced some wilderness years in the 90s, with a decline in quality of albums, Adrian Smith leaving in 1989, and Bruce Dickinson in 1993, replaced by Blaze Bayley. While a few diehard fans have fondness for Fear Of The Dark (1992), many prefer to pretend that decade never happened as far as the band’s history is concerned. Then of course Dickinson and Smith returned, keeping Janick Gers on as a third guitarist. The next year they came out with the triumphant Brave New World (2000) which got generally rave reviews, and the band embarked on tours that reached more parts of the world than any other band. Dickinson was more energetic than ever, and on top of that served as the band’s pilot, flying their Ed Force One jet. The album’s release was delayed so that he could recover from tongue cancer. Of course he kicked cancer’s ass. Is there nothing the bloke can’t do?
What’s really remarkable is how the band has gained an even larger worldwide audience than they had in the 80s, despite the fact that while their albums since 2000 have been solid, they don’t even remotely measure up to their 80s peak. Iron Maiden are certainly one of my top five favorite metal bands ever, and I always look forward to their albums. But there isn’t a single song that sticks in my head like “Hallowed By Thy Name,” “Revelations” or “Powerslave.” It’s probably unfair to compare to their all-time best songs. But even relatively deep cuts like “Still Life,” “Prodigal Son” or anything from Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son (1988) blow away the best of their recent work, like “Paschendale,” “Blood Brothers,” “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns” and “Isle Of Avalon.” While I admire their efforts to build upon the progressive epics from “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the long cuts on Seventh Son, even the best tracks lose me during certain parts. Even live I zoned out for large chunks of the show. A pretty good, well-regarded song like “The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg,” nevertheless feels quite long and has some boring parts. Then consider how short “2 Minutes To Midnight” seems in comparison. Yet that song is 5:59, not a ton shorter than “The Reincarnation’s” 7:22. Iron Maiden aren’t the only band to have certain fans divided regarding the worthiness of their newer work of course. I have similar issues with Rush, among others.
I have to admit, when The Final Frontier came out in 2010, I was swept up in the excitement and thought it was their best since Powerslave (1984). After the buzz wore off, it really didn’t even measure up to A Matter Of Life And Death (2006). Will the same happen with the massive double album, the 1:32:12 long The Book Of Souls? It’s certainly no surprise to see that length, as each album since Brave New World (1:06:57) has been progressively longer, with The Final Frontier at 1:16:33. With the knowledge that I’ve been burned before, I’m cautiously excited that this album is actually indeed their most consistent since at least Seventh Son.
It starts off “If Eternity Should Fail” with an incantation that may be meant to be Mayan, in alignment with the album’s loose theme and artwork. While they did consult with Mayan scholar Simon Martin regarding the artwork (check out the art on the CDs which resembles a Mayan calendar), it’s not meant to be a concept album any more than Powerslave was about Egyptology beyond the artwork and title track. But the best part is that it’s simply a great tune with hooks and melodies that just might stick in my head for months to come, if not years. The production is the best I’ve heard in some time too. Apparently much of it was recorded live in order to give it a muscular, raw sound. Like all their recent albums, it was produced by Kevin Shirley, who had some issues nailing down a satisfying sound, perhaps having some problems with the mastering also in the past. No such issue here. In fact, it might be the best they’ve sounded since before they started fiddling with brittle 80s production and guitar synths for Somewhere In Time (1986). “Speed Of Light” is a nice, compact riffy lead single in the tradition of “Can I Play With Madness” and “The Wicker Man,” and a great video than covers the evolution of Eddie accompanies it.
Even better is “Shadows Of The Valley,” featuring one of the best vocal melodies Dickinson has done in years. “The Red And The Black,” at 13:33, is just one second shorter than “Rime Of The Ancient Mariner.” In a way, I like it better, perhaps partly because I’m not sick of it, and the guitar solos are just fantastic. It’s possible though, after my first dozen listens, I may wish it were about four minutes shorter. The chorus of “When The River Runs Deep” is even catchier than “The Great Unknown.” Holy crap! Can the album really be this great? The title track seems to think so, holding my attention for the entire 10:29, and a favorite during my initial listens. That ends disc 1, probably the closest 50 minute span of music Maiden has gotten to being flawless in over 25 years. “Death Or Glory” is objectively a strong effort, but my enthusiasm starts to wane, and “Shadows of the Valley” and “Tears Of A Clown” reveal themselves as the album’s genuine weak points. Dickinson revives the side with his performance on “The Man Of Sorrows,” and then we get to Bruce’s baby, the 18:03 piano-driven “Empire Of The Clouds,” his opus on the 1930 R101 airship crash. It’s more like musical theater than Maiden, and was initially intended for a solo album. On some listens I find it tedious, others, fascinating. I say it’s a welcome closer that can serve as a nice bonus to be listened to or not depending what you’re up for. There is a nicely rockin’ build-up at 8:30 with a nice pay-off, and while some will consider this the centerpiece of the album, I’ll take everything on side one first.
While the songwriting is still not as action packed and exciting as the band’s peak from 1982-84, it’s surprisingly close, and certainly a peak for this third incarnation of Maiden since 2000. Hails ‘n’ up the irons!