I think Bruce Dickenson may be an alien – it would certainly explain why Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine is always so worried about otherworldly invasions. It would also explain how he managed to beat cancer, all while writing songs for an incredible album, still working as a pilot and flying the new Iron Maiden plane, and visiting sick children participating in music therapy, even when he was far from out of the woods with his own condition. It would also explain how his voice sounds as powerful as it did in the '80s, how he can hold out notes for over a minute even while recovering from tongue cancer, and how Iron Maiden are able to make solid music this late in their career. The Book of Souls sounds like a mix of some of the best Maiden albums, and absolutely succeeds where any other band on their sixteenth album would certainly fail.
The Book of Souls grabbed my attention with the first song, "If Eternity Should Fail." Clearly, this track title seems to be an unnecessary warning in light of their awesome staying power, but it also holds a special meaning in light of Dickenson's recent cancer struggle. After the somber-sounding intro fades out, a riff that sounds like it's from Powerslave or Somewhere In Time kicks in. I was immediately gratified – it’s still Maiden! And, dare we hope it or say it aloud, it is almost a return to pre-X-Factor Maiden, before they gave in completely to their epic-writing tendencies.
That's not to say this isn’t epic – that's actually the only fault of this album. Some songs go on for just so damn long that you start looking at the timer and wondering when it will end. A natural moment happens where the song could totally end and still be epic, but then it goes back to the chorus, and basically loops around and repeats all over again, this time with another, even longer guitar solo. As bombastic and mind-blowing as closer "Empire of the Clouds" is (it's about a plane crash), it certainly feels like their longest song ever, which it is. But despite this protracted epic-ness, the songs all feel well-executed, catchy, and cohesive, so the little faults are little indeed.
Another album that gets referenced a lot in The Book of Souls is one of Maiden's mercurial but somewhat ignored albums, Brave New World. It's a later record, a concept album about science fiction and the future, and probably the least heavy and brutal and the most introspective of their records. However, it captures a specific mood and the songs are all brilliantly executed. "The Red and Black" is very reminiscent of "Out of the Silent Planet" from Brave New World, and the combination of epic chorus with awesome guitar lead and Dickenson’s signature “whoa” vocal chant definitely made this my favorite on the record.
But the mining of Maiden history sometimes turns sour. "Tears of a Clown" is the worst offender – the lyrics are cheesy and overstated, the music is boring, and it does not fit with the lyrical themes or sound of the rest of the record. It seems more like something from one of their least creative albums, and causes an uncomfortable rupture in the flow of an otherwise brilliant masterpiece.
Everything considered, this is the best record Iron Maiden have made in decades, and this is quite possibly because it stems from a place of truth – rather than putting out more albums for money or to fulfill a contract and obligations to fans, this record was made because mortality is all-too-real, and Maiden still have a lot to say and play. The themes of death and accepting its inevitability appears throughout the album in a very subtle and fluid way. It also doesn’t hurt that the group has revisited some of their most classic albums for inspiration here - that's a tricky tightrope to walk, because a millimeter to the left or right and it sounds hokey or contrived. All Iron Maiden fans should immediately check out this record, as it certainly will not disappoint.