When every superlative known to man has already been used a hundred times over, it’s difficult to find something to say about Iron Maiden that hasn’t already been said. Every lyric, song, album and music video has been rated and evaluated to within an inch of its life. Business dealings and interviews are scrutinized in microscopic detail, and the minutiae of every record cover examined and dissected like a hairy art project. The moment anything regarding the band is released, the global hive mind that is Maiden’s information-hungry fan base not only know about it but have already expressed their opinion.
The arrival of a new Iron Maiden album is nearly always something to be celebrated. Probably the most consistently inventive and compelling heavy metal band of the past thirty years, the band’s new record, a double album effort, The Book of Souls (Parlophone/Sanctuary/BMG), is their 16th opus. For a band with such a celebrated history, it is a joy and delight to confirm that it stands resolute as one of the best things the band has produced. Ever.
Given the backdrop to the arrival of this record, notably lead vocalist Bruce Dickinson’s unexpected brush with cancer, one could be forgiven – and forgive the band – if you thought that, given the turmoil, something sub-par might turn up. Not a bit of it. Far from The Book of Souls being a “will this do?” contractual obligation effort, The Books of Souls sees the band in ridiculously fine fettle, delivering an album with heart and chutzpah in equal measure. It is a record of heft, of innovation and invention. It is an album to cheer from the rooftops.
The first two songs on the album are Dickinson only compositions and, perhaps more so than any Iron Maiden album even since his debut on 1982’s The Number of the Beast (EMI) his personality and musical talent positively radiates and dominates the record. ‘If Eternity Should Fail’ and ‘Speed of Light’ are both superb tracks, full of power and emotional range, substance and guile. On ‘The Great Unknown’ and ‘When the River Runs Deep’, the creative and intelligent interplay between Adrian Smith and Steve Harris is much in evidence. Harris’s role as a key driving force in Maiden has never been in doubt; Smith’s song writing is taught and focussed as ever, his musicianship breathtakingly accomplished. It’s a performance of valediction.
For an album that lasts the length of a movie but contains only eleven tracks it is perhaps inevitable that much of the focus on The Book of Souls will revolve around the album’s epic songs: ‘The Red and the Black’, ‘The Book of Souls’ and ‘Empire of the Clouds’.
‘The Red and the Black’ is a Harris-penned song and his only solo effort on this album; however, when it is as powerful and inspiring as this, you need not worry. This is a magnificent composition, fourteen minutes of atmospheric, captivating metal that is so brilliant put together that you can only sit back and admire the artistry at work. Whether it’s the infectious wo-oh-ohs, the cheeky and cunning nods to ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ on parts of the musical interludes, or the sheer bloody joy of it all, it scarcely matters. This is Maiden at their most epic, most versatile and most bellicose.
The album’s title track is similarly effortlessly brilliant. A continent-sized riff eases the listener into one of those epic, universe spanning classics that lets Bruce and his not inconsiderable lung power free. It’s familiar, alien, exotic, defiantly Maiden. The middle part sounds awfully like ‘Losfer Words’, the instrumental track off 1984’s Powerslave (EMI) but, as with the rest of the record, this sounds more like a band embracing their heritage rather than plundering it.
It’s the piano that initially knocks you sideways on the stunning coda that is ‘Empire of the Clouds’. Dickinson’s retelling of a British R101 Airship disaster of 1930 is, simply, majestic. This is historical narrative set to a Maiden soundtrack, passionate in its re telling the tale of human frailty and human heroism. This is progressive music at its very best: complex without indulgence, structured but not arch. Above all, it’s a song that for all the talk of it being eighteen minutes long, is actually something that would benefit from being longer. It’s an extraordinary way to end what is, let’s not be coy here, an extraordinary record.
The Book of Souls is everything that you hoped it would be and more. In this world of short attention spans, the announcement that Iron Maiden’s new album was going to be a proper double, weighing in at a hefty 92 mins felt like some statement of intent. Iron Maiden have never been ones to follow the vagaries of fashion and given their history and their collective sense of purpose they were deeply unlikely to start that kind of nonsense at this stage in their career.
An album that works on a number of levels – the strength of the songwriting, the collective and individual musicianship, the range and power of the entire album are all deeply impressive. This is a record about confronting mortality in an adult and mature way but it is no maudlin self-indulgence and is resolutely in favour of life and resolutely life-affirming.
The Book of Souls is the collective endeavour of a band still resolutely in love with music and still gracious and humble enough to want to share that with its audience. Happy and glorious, from epic start to bombastic end.
Well, that’s shut me well and truly the fuck up
It’s apt to begin a commentary on a release from one ex-Helloween guitarist (Roland Grapow) with reference to the man he succeeded in the pumpkin-obsessed kings of Power Metal, one Kai Hansen, who titled the third Gamma Ray album Insanity & Genius (Noise) and referenced in the lyrics how thin the line between the two is. Well, the line between generic and uninteresting pap and Power Metal Glory is even thinner, perhaps as thin as the hair-line on Herr Hansen’s fivehead these days. But with As Daylight Breaks (Nuclear Blast) Serious Black (contenders for best new band name – certainly best Harry Potter themed one) have released a debut that is so far over the line on the side of quality, the line is a dot to them (answers on a postcard if you get that reference).
Having written off Power Metal in my mind as a genre that, no matter how well its composite parts could be put together, was done, creatively redundant and in the type of artistic morass that Death Metal found itself in for twenty years, nevertheless, like the child poking the disembowelled frog with a stick and hoping for some twitch or reaction, with morbid curiosity I find myself drawn to it. See, when Power Metal is on it, there’s very little better for invigorating the mind and soul. And Grapow’s latest offering slapped me round the chops, leaving me with a fiendish grin, a rediscovered enthusiasm for the genre and a frog named Lazarus.
The brainchild of Grapow and former Visions of Atlantis bassist Mario Lochert, with the rhythm section rounded out by former Blind Guardian tub thumper Thomen Stauch, Serious Black absolutely nail everything that is joyous about Power Metal infused hard rock, from the driving opening pair of ‘I Seek No Other Life’ and the simply massive ‘High And Low’ through to the theatre-y and slightly camp closing ‘Older and Wiser’.
The band is led by the underrated and under-celebrated vocal talents of former Tad Morose pipes, Urban breed who avoids being one of a million Kiske-clean wannabes by injecting power and tone; at times channelling Jon Oliva, particularly on the keys led title-track, at others Mike Howe (Metal Church), and able to carry a faster verse alongside the ubiquitous sizeable choruses.
Musically, you can bandy about names such as Kamelot (‘Akhenation’), Within Temptation (the uptempo rock romp of ‘Trail of Murder’), Savatage, Stratovarius, and Sonata Arctica if you like; there definite elements of Blind Guardian and Helloween, and that’s absolutely fine, as Serious Black sit as a kind of summation of all that “is” from the polished end of Power Metal.
As Daylight Breaks benefits from a great, full, vibrant production and above all exudes the sensation of a band really enjoying their work. As they rightly should. I once incorrectly tagged Grapow as a Janick Gers figure who had ruined one of my favourite bands. He well and truly proved me wrong – I even quite like Pink Bubbles Go Ape now, and I’m one of the few people on the planet who love Chameleon (both EMI) – and with Serious Black he’s done it again, proving as Edguy did with last years’ Space Police (Nuclear Blast) that, when done well, Power Metal can be fulfilling rompy-pompy.