Wednesday, 30 September 2015

#385 Iron Maiden - The Book of Souls

You don't get a new Iron Maiden album every day. Not these days, anyway. The 80s were another story, of course - Iron Maiden, Saxon, Mötorhead... all releasing a new album every fifteen minutes or so. Now, things are different. A lot has happened since The Final Frontier - its been almost five years - which, to put that into perspective, is roughly the temporal distance between "Iron Maiden" and "Piece of Mind". Regardless, where the band have slowed down in terms of prolific output, they come to reimburse in terms of sheer ambition. We all knew that the band were moving towards extremely long records - you could project if from existing data... But this is the first of their records that has ascended into the form of the famous - or infamous - double-album; in the process, making it one of the longest records I've reviewed in some time. Fortunately, the music was good enough to make eternity feel nothing but a short while...

Not all Iron Maiden albums are created equal, but throughout their career the band always seem to make an effort. 'Maiden are, perhaps first and foremost in the world of giant metal bands, equipped with enough self-respect to steep even their most unremarkable works in a sincerity and attitude which other bands might be wise to take inspiration from. By this point, a vague bond of trust exists between Iron Maiden and every listener; you can probably expect a solid album. Nonetheless, the journey up to - and then past - a records release date is always an interesting one, particularly of a record of such magnitude as this. The rise in the intensity of expectations, the excitement, the enthusiastic first-listen to the single - which in this case an excellent old-fashioned romp of a track reminding you that the band are, first and foremost, of the heavy metal persuasion. Then, of course, time is taken to digest the entire record. Nowadays, I listen to a record like this quite a bit before casting forth any views about it. New records always have a mind-warping aura to them; they sit "highlighted" in the perspective of the bands catalogue - to review a record the day it comes out can often lead to saying things you yourself disagree with barely days after. Nonetheless, the positive first-impression of "The Book of Souls" has stood the test of a dozen listens. Fleeting hype gives way to sincere satisfaction - heck, outright enthusiasm and cheer. The record certainly deserves praise - it has the freshest production and quite possibly the greatest reserves of energy found anywhere in the bands recent back-catalogue; a vitality sometimes lost in the extensive and ambitious labyrinths of Iron Maiden's more progressive and hefty work - but not this time.

It's not that The Book of Souls is less ambitious however. A brief scan of the song-lengths reveals plenty of massive epics. No, the secret to this album lies in its seemingly inspired song-writing, as best I can tell. It's been a few years, and it sounds like they have been well spent crafting and honing the record. Even the extremely long tracks, - the monumental album closer being a prime example - have a memorable, sharp and lean feel; delivered with a clarity which was sometimes seen to meander out of focus on previous records. Extremely inflammatory and potentially hyperbolic proclamations sell very well, as far as review snippets are concerned. Mine, for this record, would be something along the lines of "this is the best-executed 'Maiden record since Seventh Son...". Brave words indeed... but the fact is, at some of the crescendos, peaks and most inspired parts of the record, I damn well believe it, too. Sure, the band don't push any sort of barrier with regards to tempo - the album tends to stick with the comfortable and spacious mid-tempo they have favoured of late. Sure, Bruce doesn't quite have the slick smoothness his falsetto used to, but I would never say it's knackered - it's just antique, and in that paradigm, it leads the charge with as much power and class as ever. It sounds older, but not, necessarily, worse - indeed, for what little wear and tear the band seem to have sustained over the decades, they don't show it one bit. Perhaps the thing which gives the record the appeal to me, personally, however, is the throwback-like feel to some of the material -  and more than just in the "Isn't that the melody from The Clansman...?" sense. The album has a balance of progressive and ambitious with downright fun that in retrospect might have been skewed far towards progressive for a long time - in fact, the great sonic victory of The Book of Souls is that it reconciles everything the band have stood for over the years; flamboyance and pomp, grit, and good old fashioned rock n' roll - exceeding expectations all the while.

"The Book of Souls" is strong. Almost surprisingly so. Iron Maiden aren't in the business of making bad albums - they never have been - but after forty years, you could be forgiven for thinking they might not be in the business of making albums which are quite this good, either. Once again, the band continue to carve a brave path, never once acting as if their legacy is over. The band always give the impression that their new album carries as much validity as anything they have ever done - and without that attitude, who's to say we'd be seeing such an excellent album by them in 2015.

This is an 8.5/10.

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