Thursday, September 10, 2015

album review: 'the book of souls' by iron maiden

I've said before that it's hard to talk about legends. It's even harder to talk about acts that were responsible for pioneering sounds and styles within an entire genre of music. And when that band has over thirty storied years of history and discography to examine, it can be an exhausting task going through all of the albums just to get the appropriate context. 

And you all want to know something funny? I'm currently doing this with at least three other acts as we speak, and not all of them are metal. It's a monumental exercise, especially when you realize these acts have so much material, good and bad, that it can feel like you're retracing history to listen through record after record. It's daunting but rewarding, and nowhere has this reward been more pleasing and pronounced than going through Iron Maiden's discography. I don't even need to bother with introductions for this British heavy metal act, mostly because said introductions would be painfully inadequate. These guys were responsible for some seminal metal albums, with their 80s output widely considered their best - and for good reason, because I can count a good four of those records as excellent and Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son as a downright classic.

And then the 90s happened. The 90s were not kind to Iron Maiden, as they went through turbulence, line-up changes and a succession of records that ranged from okay but boring to outright mediocre. It wouldn't be until the mid-2000s that Iron Maiden could pull together quality again, becoming a six-piece act and putting together respectable records like the unmastered, live-show inspired A Matter Of Life And Death or the pretty solid but questionably produced The Final Frontier. And it's been five years since a new Iron Maiden album and when the rave reviews starting pouring in, I was definitely interested, but a little skeptical, especially considering it was their first double album spanning over ninety minutes. But hey, this is Iron Maiden, they've blown my mind before - sixteen albums into their career, can they do it again?

Well, not quite, but the album is still damn great all the same, easily one of their best albums since the 80s that shows a veteran act still deliver quality heavy metal. Now does it rise to the level of those classic records? Honestly, on some level time will tell but I do reckon for as grandiose and huge The Book Of Souls is, it doesn't quite capture that bombast as well as I think Iron Maiden could, although I definitely appreciate they never sacrificed their iconic sound to get there.

And in a sense, it's what makes this album a bit hard to describe and criticize in order to differentiate it from its predecessors: it has the tones, grooves, and punch of an Iron Maiden record. A roiling low rhythm guitar; a focus on prominent melodic grooves and solos that either show off impressive shred or syncopation between guitars that is genuinely impressive, especially on the lead-off single 'Speed Of Light' or 'Death Or Glory'; drums that might feel a little too prominent in the mix, like the cymbals on the title track, but still kick ass; and finally some production that allows those guitars to burn with some real texture and energy. Now when it comes to the Iron Maiden I personally enjoy, the looser and more energetic and prominent the basslines, the better, especially when measured with melodic grooves that can make the most of them, and while there are some sluggish moments like the stiffness of 'When The River Runs Deep' or the slightly more melancholic 'The Man Of Sorrows', most of this album runs at a pretty steady clip while still allowing enough instrumental changeups to make the longer songs feel dynamic. Now granted, in the case for all three songs over ten minutes I'd argue a tighter edit might have helped a little better to strip back some of the more repetitive elements, especially the backing vocals on 'The Red And The Black' which did get a little old after a while, but at the centre is the rock-solid core of Iron Maiden's sound. 

It's where they opt to expand away from that sound where things get a little more complicated. In the simplest case, it's like the cowbell on 'Speed Of Light' or the more rubbery guitar tone on the solo of 'Tears Of A Clown' or the acoustic progressions that open the title track and 'The Red And The Black', or the fantastic piano melody that opens the album closer 'Empire of The Sky'. The problem comes when they try to introduce more diverse instrumentation, like the horns that open the spaghetti-western-esque opening of 'If Eternity Should Fall' or the stingers within 'The Red And The Black' or 'Empire Of The Clouds', or the addition of strings to that track, or the gleaming synth backdrop that Iron Maiden tries to use to add that soaring gravitas to this album. It really does feel like a stab towards more grandiose power and symphonic metal, and being a fan of those genres, I'd normally have no problem with this. But it also allows me to spot when Iron Maiden are opting for a DIY approach to the orchestration instead of pulling in an actual orchestra with real brass and a full strings section. And as I said, I appreciate Iron Maiden doing it on their own and maybe I've been spoiled by Blind Guardian and Epica and Kamelot and especially Nightwish bringing in the full orchestra, but there's no excuse for any of the horns to sound this thin and chintzy or the strings so lightweight or the backing synth so flimsy. And when placed against the incredibly solid baseline for Iron Maiden's sound, these elements are all the more glaring in contrast.

And on the subject of power metal, we should probably talk about vocals. I hate to be the one to say it, especially about a legendary singer in heavy metal with incredible presence, but I don't think it would have hurt Bruce Dickenson's performance if he added some multitracking or turned up his volume just a tad against an already busy mix. I'm not expecting the man to scream like he did thirty years ago, but more often than not, especially when he reaches into his upper register, the edges are showing. The odd thing is that we do get some thicker vocal arrangements across this album, so it's clear he's not against it, and I reckon it probably could have increased the bombast the band was targeting.

Now this takes us to lyrics and themes, with the precursor that Iron Maiden write some complicated songs and any overarching themes are bound to be fairly vague. And indeed, if you're looking for an thematic 'arc' to this record, you're bound to be a little disappointed, as especially on the second half the record seems to break into short vignettes telling self-contained stories, with 'Death Or Glory' focusing on triplane dogfights in the First World War and the death of The Red Baron, 'Tears Of A Clown' operating as a tribute to Robin Williams' depression and suicide in one of the most emotionally compelling moments on the album, and the closer 'Empire Of The Sky' focusing on the crash of the British R101 airship crash in 1930, a track going for Titanic-esque grandeur and nearly succeeding. But the overarching metaphors focus upon meeting death, the great unknown and grand uncertainty of what might come after. Not precisely new - over the past year Devin Townsend and Between The Buried And Me tackled similar themes on their albums, and Epica also took a stab at comprehending unknowable truths on The Quantum Enigma, but to Iron Maiden's credit, they do a pretty impressive job showing the many ways one might approach such an end. From outright nihilism on the soul-eating 'If Eternity Should Fail' or the inevitable pointless slaughter from a world that does not care on 'The Great Unknown' or 'Shadows Of The Valley', to the uncertainty and insecurity at one's own failures that gives pause on 'The Red And The Black'. And then there are songs like the Mayan-inspired title track or 'The Man Of Sorrows' that adopted the shell of the Greek Charon myth to guide or protect souls as they stride into that unknown. But if I were looking for a place where this album kind of loses a bit of punch for me, it'd be the grandiose abstraction of it all. It's one of the reasons why 'Tears Of A Clown' or 'Death or Glory' or 'Empire In The Sky' or even the frustratingly flawed 'The Red And The Black' hit me a little harder, because they've at least got some human pathos - and in the last case, some surprisingly detailed writing drenched in gambling - and Iron Maiden - iconography as it questions how really ready you are to take that final step.

So at the end of the day, I have a hard time disliking much of this album because Iron Maiden's core sound is still inevitably kick-ass and potent in terms of composition, skill, and raw power. But at the same time, I can't really love it either because of the production missteps and outside of a few songs the writing not really resonating with me as powerfully as I'd like. Are they veterans who thanks to their contributions to the industry probably deserve a pass? Yeah, of course, but on the same note, they've also got the budget and clout to have done more, and the fact they didn't does bug me a bit. So for me, it's an extremely strong 7/10 and definitely a recommendation if you're a fan of Iron Maiden and kickass heavy metal. But I'd hesitate to say this is at the level of their 80s output, although if this album proves anything, it's that they can come damn close to getting there again.

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