File Under: Quite Surprising, and very very welcome.
That was my reaction earlier this year to the news that, now Bruce Dickinson has received the all-clear on his cancer treatment, the album Iron Maiden recorded before his initial diagnosis was to be recorded, the world tour to proceed next year, maybe even with Bruce in the cockpit of Ed Force One again. They're even coming to New Zealand again - I might get to see them at last!
But first, the album.
The Book of Souls is a long-player - ninety-two minutes of screaming, solos and Steve Harris and Nicko McBrain holding the furniture down. It is, we are told, not a concept album, although some now very familiar Maiden tropes are evident here: historical figures ('Death or Glory', about The Red Baron - not the Snoopy one, mind), death (including the suicide of Robin Williams - 'Tears of a Clown'), the afterlife, and the very Maiden-styled genuflection on both where lead single 'Speed of Light' recalls the likes of last album's 'Starblind' and 'The
Final Frontier' to put everything in place. Harris has removed his trademark pinstripe leather trousers and is now wearing his Prog pants, so The Book of Souls will be for most people a lengthy listen or a two-session job, spread as it is between two discs.
Fortunately with such length there's room for variety, and pleasingly, all songwriting members of Maiden contribute lyrically to the album - and the title track is a Janick Gers number! Readers of my previous Maiden posts may recall that I rate Maiden's newest member as a strong pen lyrically and musically, and of the several tracks here, the aforementioned title track and 'Shadows of the Valley' (co-written with Harris) are among the more lively on offer, and personal picks. In general, perhaps it's the impatient listener in me, but I prefer disc one (songs one through six) to the rest of the album; they're quicker-paced, more varied, referential to traditional and recent Maiden song styles and sit well alongside one another. Side two has the track that makes The Book of Souls a two disc experience - the eighteen-minute 'Empire of the Clouds'. Penned by Dickinson this tribute to the ill-fated R101 airship is a significant piece, and not just for its length; lyrically it's well balanced (though it perhaps reads in places better than it sounds) and sensitively composed. Dickinson performs the opening piano parts, having taught himself the instrument to do so, and there's a pleasing mix of real orchestra and band. The subject matter is curious - unsurprising, perhaps, as it ticks a lot of Maiden boxes - British history, flight (blame Bruce!) and so forth, but after the slightly trainspotter-like description and detail, there's pathos, and in the song's elegaic closing, Dickinson places himself in the narrative:
"here lie their dreams/ as I stand in the sun / on the ground where they built / and the engines did run"
The subject and title reference Dickinson's own interest, of course, and the R101 connection is noted, too, in his outside investments in Hybrid Air Vehicles, operating out of the airship's birthplace. I do wonder whether this aspect of the story puts a cap on Maiden's approach to such subjects; and I reckon that the band of thirty years ago might well have instead shoehorned a reference to the airship's afterlife in supernatural lore. Somehow I don't think the omission is an accident.
In all, then, a decent album with some plodding and a luxury-length approach to editing. I think there's a good single disc album in here, at least, but tha there may be more one-off hits in The Final Frontier. The final analysis sggests, however, that after the last two or three years, we should be very grateful for a healty band's return, new album, and world tour - it may be their last, and it's the chance of that especially that will get me thinking about that concert again next year.
As described previously, a nice, though a little static, head shot of your actual band ascot in Mayan get-up. Marillion album illustrator Mark Richardson seems to 'get' Eddie's look better on this cover, so I can cut him some slack - plus the white on black logo is rather nifty. Inside there are Photoshop spreads of the band as totem poles, ruined temples, and Eddie looking ticked off again - this time he's cut his own heart, out and is showing it to us. Tsk. That boy - you just can't leave him on his own at all.
For obvious reasons, nothing of the album has appeared in live form yet, so in the mean-time, we're into the realm of static images and fan videos. Godspeed and good searching, everyone...
If Eternity Should Fail
Speed of Light
The Great Unknown
The Red and the Black
When the River Runs Deep
The Book of Souls
Death or Glory
Into the Valley of Death
Tears of a Clown
Man of Sorrows
Empire of the Clouds