I cannot think of any artist or band that upon entering the later years of their career have not had to suffer complaints from critics or fans suggesting they may not be able to live up to the expectations set during their younger years. Sure, many artists perform admirably well in their twilight years, but it is unlikely that any of them escape without hearing phrases like "He just can't hit the high notes anymore" or some similarly disparaging remark.
I don't like to hear people talk about veteran artists this way. Since no one can escape the ravages of time, it seems pointless to fault people for something they have no control over. As such, when my favorite bands start getting a little long in the tooth, I understand that I will have to adjust my expectations accordingly and enjoy the music they produce as best I can. If the spark is gone, as is sometimes the case, then I will simply respect their legacy and enjoy their earlier work.
I hate to admit it, but for the better part of the last decade I have been growing increasingly sure with each new release that Iron Maiden's spark was gone. Of course, I religiously picked up each new album as it dropped, but Brave New World is the last Iron Maiden album where I remember songs and how they sound. The three albums since then, while not necessarily terrible, did not imprint upon my consciousness the way earlier material did. Despite what was becoming a predictable disappointment I still always become excited by the prospect of a new Iron Maiden album. So when I heard that Bruce and the lads were planning to release their first double studio album this year, you'll forgive me if I was only cautiously optimistic.
Between the time the band recorded their new album and when they set a date for its coming release, it was announced that singer Bruce Dickinson was starting treatment for a cancerous tumor found on the back of his tongue. I, along with every other Iron Maiden fan in the world, was immediately deeply concerned about Bruce and his ability to return to full health. I couldn't help thinking of when I learned about Ronnie James Dio's cancer and how that eventually ended. But it seems that early detection and prompt treatment have won the day, and Bruce is supposedly back to full health and strength.
Whether brought on by the thought of possibly losing Bruce, excitement over his triumph, or simply curiosity over an Iron Maiden double album, when Bruce was healthy, and the release date was finally set, I was more eager than usual for the new Iron Maiden album that would become The Book of Souls.
A few weeks before The Book of Souls was to be released the band dropped the first single, "Speed of Light." I was afraid to listen; I wanted it to be good. I pulled the trigger and watched the lyric video on YouTube. My heart sank as I reached the midway point and realized the song wasn't going to get any better. On the next METALHEADS podcast, Buke and I expressed our disappointment while Jay, the true believer, proclaimed it a winner. Swayed by Jay's enthusiasm, I vowed to reserve final judgment until hearing the whole album and placing "Speed of Light" in context.
I first heard the rest of the album while driving in my car on the way to the grocery store. I had only been on the road a few minutes when "If Eternity Should Fail" required me to pull over to the side of the road. I shit you not when I say I could not see through the tears streaming down my face. Goosebumps had all the hairs on my arms standing at attention. This! This is what I had been waiting the past decade to hear. I promptly began hammering Jay with text messages about how great this first song sounded. Having not heard it himself, he could only chuckle and reply that he was glad I was coming around. By the time I retrieved my groceries and made my way home I was firmly behind The Book of Souls.
Before I move on to the rest of the album, please allow me a moment longer to reflect on "If Eternity Should Fail." During the slow build up to the chorus, I was entranced by Bruce's vocals. When the chorus finally hit it became inscribed on my brain. It has since refused to vacate my gray matter, and I have on more than one occasion awoken to find it already humming along in my head. This song is good; really, really good. It is the kind of song I have been waiting for these many years, and for Maiden to pull it out of their hat at this point in their career is truly magical.
I should also spend a little more time discussing "Speed of Light." Part of my initial dislike of the song was because the songwriting style was more reminiscent of latter-day Maiden than of earlier material. I was afraid that the whole album would head in that direction and be yet another forgettable bummer. It turns out "Speed of Light" is an anomaly on The Book of Souls; none of the other songs sound anything like it. Having heard the rest of the album, "Speed of Light" stands out as the clear choice for a single, partly because it is one of the shortest songs. I must admit that after many more repeat listens, the song is a bit of a grower, and I am now a big fan of it, even the cowbell. The lead guitar work on the song stands out with a tone not found anywhere else on the album, and it sounds to me like a lost solo from Joe Satriani's Surfing With the Alien.
Many of the remaining songs on The Book of Souls have bits and pieces that remind me of other great songs from the Iron Maiden catalog; a little "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner" here, a little "Wasted Years" there. I have seen other reviewers complain about this saying that the band is recycling older material for want of any good new material. I don't see things that way at all. First of all, these little Maiden-isms as I call them, are visits back to elements about Iron Maiden that have always worked for the band, and I think this is what has been lacking in the last few albums: there was very little of the Iron Maiden spirit. I also look at these moments as Easter Eggs for the hardcore fans to pick out and share with each other. You will not find me complaining about the fact that Iron Maiden sounds like Iron Maiden.
There is one other song that begs closer inspection here, and that is the oft-mentioned 18-minute epic "Empire of the Clouds." When Iron Maiden announced they were including an 18-minute track on the new album, my first thought was "awesome!" while everyone else's seems to have been "oh no, boring!" Some of my favorite Iron Maiden songs are the long ones: "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner", "Alexander the Great" and "To Tame A Land." Why wouldn't I be excited about the prospect of another song joining the ranks of such titles? The song details the tragic flight of the British R101 airship, a small piece of history I was unaware of up to this point. Being a fan of history, I immediately headed online to learn more. I would say that my Internet search fulfilled Bruce's purpose in writing the song. And for the record, I never got bored with the song. It is epic, and I welcome it to the list of Iron Maiden classics.
On the whole, I think The Book of Souls is easily Iron Maiden's best album since Brave New World, and possibly even further back. While I won't say that I am a huge fan of every single song on the double album, I can say with confidence that there are at least elements I enjoy in each of the songs. I don't know if the band has any plans to continue making new albums in the future, but if they decided to stop now and simply focus on touring from here on out, The Book of Souls would be a great note to go out on.