There aren’t many metal bands with the legacy of Iron Maiden. The heavy metal legends released their 1980 debut at just the right time, capturing an existing audience reared on Sabbath, KISS and Priest, while subsequent releases caught the ears of a younger generation hungry for the thrill of fast riffs and dark imagery.
From Maiden’s early punk-inspired days with original vocalist Paul Di’Anno, to the more ambitious and best-known Bruce Dickinson years, and even a short and unfortunate detour with vocalist Blaze Bayley in the late ’90s, their reach has remained not just intact, but continues far and wide. Iron Maiden returned to form after Dickinson rejoined the band for 2000’s Brave New World. It also marked an ambitious period for the band, as their songs grew increasingly longer and more complex. But just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should.
Which brings us to Iron Maiden’s 16th album, The Book of Souls, a double LP that attempts to outdo everything they’ve written over the past 35 years—this from a band whose catalog includes some of metal’s classic and most compelling opuses “Phantom of the Opera,” “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” As with 2003’s Dance of Death and 2006’s excellent and sprawling A Matter of Life and Death, The Book of Souls takes Maiden even further from their punk past and deeper into their prog present. It’s an impressive piece of work, but it gets bogged down by the band’s own ambition.
Three of Souls’ songs clock in at over 10 minutes, including the 18-minute closer “Empire of the Clouds,” which builds from a subdued piano intro and continues into uncharted territory through numerous peaks and valleys. “The Red and the Black” recalls the pace and feel of Powerslave’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and keeps on going through fist-pumping chants and an extended showcase for axe-slingers Dave Murray, Adrian Smith, and Janick Gers, their distinct styles providing the only real color. The title track doesn’t feel quite as laborious—worth it for the chugging riff about midway through, although even it gives way to yet another late-song shred fest. In the end, the prog-jam logjam causes these songs to lose some of their impact, even after multiple listens.
Restraint isn’t the only thing missing. With the exception of first single “Speed of Light,” there aren’t really any hooks, either. There was a time when Maiden could squeeze some impressive dynamic twists and a memorable riff and an epic sing-along chorus into five or six minutes. Here we get played-out arena chants and gratuitous guitar solos that stretch songs out too long.
This isn’t to say the songs aren’t played masterfully, or without power. The rhythm section of bassist Steve Harris and drummer Nicko McBrain is a precise as it was on their first turn together on 1983’s Piece of Mind. And Dickinson’s voice is in top operatic form throughout, especially on the excellent “Death Or Glory” and “If Eternity Should Fail.” For a band—especially a heavy metal band—to play with such intensity and purpose this deep into their careers is quite a feat.
As it stands, The Book of Souls is the best Maiden record from Dickinson’s second act, and an impressive achievement from one of metal’s greatest bands. Whether it rises to classic status is another thing—Iron Maiden has only its own history to contend with.