Iron Maiden have always been a band to do things on a large scale. With every step they’ve taken on their 40 year long career, they’ve seemed to find a way to get bigger and, somehow, better. The only time they appeared to downsize a little was when Adrian Smith left the ranks shortly after Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son. At that point the band returned to its roots, adopted a far less polished sound for the next album No Prayer For The Dying, and subsequently toured smaller venues rather than huge arenas (and we’ll draw a veil over the Blaze years).
This slight blip aside, Maiden’s usual modus operandi has been to go one louder, one bigger, and to push themselves and their fans. In terms of touring, they’ve been unrelenting and have visited places most other bands have never even heard of. Of course, it helps when you’ve got a pilot in the band and your own plane to gallop (Maiden always gallop) around the globe in. As per usual, the forthcoming tour for The Book Of Souls requires a bigger and better plane, and the band have upgraded to… a 747. Naturally.
Over the years, the musical template of the band has remained largely intact, but there’s always been scope for a little experimentation. As one of the creators of the template of the new wave of British heavy metal, they’ve consistently toyed with the form. Once vehemently opposed to synths, they eventually relented and adopted keyboards for what might well be their finest album to date Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son (at the time, this was quite a big deal). There have been concepts, changes of pace, explorations of poetry and history, and occasional forays into prog territory with long expansive songs like Rime Of The Ancient Mariner. Yet no matter what changes are made, the band are like their shape shifting mascot Eddie; there’s always a fundamental essence that remains.
Most recently the band has been getting progressively more Progressive. The obvious step for any band wanting to tip its hat in the direction of Prog is to go the whole hog and write a double album. This being Maiden, the vinyl of The Book Of Souls is a triple. If you can, always go one louder; it is the way of things. In recent years, they’ve not produced anything punchy like Wrathchild, The Trooper, or Run To The Hills; instead, their songs have been largely sprawling affairs that have taken time to reveal their hidden depths. A song like The Red And The Black would have clocked in at around four or five minutes way back when; now the band are content to draw it out for 13 minutes. There is of course a danger of considerable bloat, and there are times when The Book Of Souls feels a little too over done, but surprisingly, this isn’t a problem the band encounters too often.
As long and winding as The Red And The Black is, it encapsulates almost everything you’d expect from a Maiden song. Galloping timeshifts? Check. Traded guitar solos and harmonies? Check. Those chanted sections that go “Woah-oh-oh-oh!”? Check. Bruce Dickinson leading the line like a turbocharged air raid siren? Check. The title track is another example of Maiden drawing a song out but managing to not give in to overindulgence; hidden in its depths are hints of Powerslave in the riffing and melodies that grow out of the winding exposition. Finishing the album is an 18 minute behemoth entitled Empire Of The Clouds. It’s a song created by Bruce Dickinson on a keyboard he won at a raffle (but of course, most people win a box of chocolates or a porcelain pig, Dickinson wins keyboards), and details the ill-fated story of the R-101. Maiden throw everything into the mix here, piano, orchestration, storytelling, and the archetypal Maiden signifiers. The sheer scale of the song is impressive, but it does lose its way on occasion. Where Rime Of The Ancient Mariner (previously the record holder of Maiden’s longest song) keeps moving and develops with purpose, that’s not entirely the case with the album’s closer. It’s still a mighty achievement even if it does feel like something of a folly.
Ninety-two minutes earlier, back at the start of the album, is another Dickinson composition, If Eternity Should Fail. From the Ennio Morricone-esque opening to the earworm chorus, it’s a reminder of just how effective Maiden can be when they’re firing on all cylinders. Interestingly, this is perhaps the most inclusive Maiden album to date, with all the members (except for Nikko) getting a songwriting credit. Due to a bereavment, Steve Harris’ contribution was scaled back this time around, but nonetheless his presence is all over Book Of Souls, such as on the tribute to Robin Williams, Tears Of A Clown. However, it is the band’s ability to work like a little family, supporting each other in times of turmoil, that impresses and appeals to their eternally loyal fanbase. It’s an aspect of Maiden that was tested to its limit when vocalist Bruce Dickinson was diagnosed with mouth cancer. That they, and Dickinson, have come through loss and illness with such a strong, cohesive and collaborative work is testament to the work ethic and belief that runs through the band. There might be a few clunky tracks here and there (The Man Of Sorrows is a bit run of the mill, for example) but this is right up there with the best of the later Maiden works.
Of course there’s always a possibility that this is not just a Book Of Souls, but also something of a last will and testament for the band. For just a moment, back when Dickinson’s prognosis was made public, eternity seemed to be eluding them. Obviously Iron Maiden can’t continue forever but with the band continuing to write vital songs, and constantly looking for new avenues, bigger ideas – and planes – there is, thankfully, life in the old beast yet. Long may it continue, because metal without Iron Maiden will be be a strange world indeed.