Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Album Review: Iron Maiden - "The Book of Souls"

Chris C: I have been one of the most staunch defenders of Iron Maiden's reunion era. While plenty of fans were disappointed with the slower tempos and progressive bent, I was more than happy to hear the band not resting on their laurels, and fully embracing who they were at their ages. We've seen bands like Metallica and Judas Priest try to recreate their past, and it is almost always met with a sense of what once was. Iron Maiden has, by their choice, been making some of the most vital music of their career, producing four albums that, to me, are their 'classic era'.

"The Book Of Souls" is the most challenging album yet, a double record that showcases every facet of the band's modern sound. Throughout the ninety-two minute running time, we get some of the biggest epics the band has ever written, plenty of traditionally Iron Maiden heavy metal, and a few new twists and turns along the way. Aside from the curiosity that accompanied each change in singer, this is easily the most interesting Iron Maiden album to walk into.

I was concerned about the record being so long, as any sort of music is difficult to take for that long without it becoming stale. "The Book Of Souls" tries its darndest to be diverse enough to justify its length, and for the most part is succeeds. I still would have preferred a seventy-five minute single album, but there isn't anything on this record that I can easily write off as filler. That, by itself, is commendable.

There is plenty about this album that is easy to love. The Bruce Dickinson penned "If Eternity Should Fail" gets things off to a ripping start. Sounding like a cross between Iron Maiden's typical sound and his recent solo albums, it's a dark and heavy number that finds Bruce in fine form, with one of those melodies that only he can seem to come up with. The other songs he had a hand in, "Speed Of Light" and "Death Or Glory" are easily among the catchiest on the record. Janick Gers contributes two excellent tracks as well, as both the title track and "Shadows Of The Valley" use Eastern motifs that blend beautifully with the melodies given to Bruce. They're what you would expect from this incarnation of Iron Maiden, but that's not a problem. Great songs are great songs.

Then there's the oddity that is "Tears Of A Clown", which is one of the most straight-forward rock and roll songs I can remember the band writing. It almost sounds out of place on a record like this, but its low-key delivery works really well, and it's a nice diversion from the weightier pieces here.
But I have to say that, even though I am a flag-waving supporter of modern Iron Maiden, there is also a fair bit about "The Book Of Souls" that I'm not as fond of. Steve Harris' epic, "The Red And The Black", never sounds as vital to me as "Where The Wild Wind Blows" off of the previous record. In fact, several of the tracks with Harris' name on the writing credits lack bite, and don't have the strongest vocal lines for Bruce to sing. That makes a song like "When The River Runs Deep" come across a bit flat.

For me, though, the biggest problem lies in the decision to twice, in the epics "The Red And The Black" and Dickinson's "Empire Of The Clouds", stretch out the instrumental sections for upwards of five minutes. I understand they have three guitarists to cycle through, and the band is well-regarded for their solos and harmonies, but those breaks are too long to keep my attention. Particularly annoying is the break in "Empire Of The Clouds", because as a story that is trying to tell a story, the guitars don't move the narrative along at all. The song on either side is clearly something Bruce poured his heart into, but it just doesn't come together as well as I would have liked it to.

Overall, "The Book Of Souls" is an album I'm having a hard time coming to a conclusion on. They've finally found the perfect balance of studio sheen and live rawness in the production, and there's at least an hour of very good Iron Maiden material here, but there's also nothing that matches the highlights from the previous records. This album doesn't have a "Ghost Of The Navigator", a "Pachendale", an "Isle Of Avalon". So while it's still a rock solid and very good Iron Maiden album, I can't quite say it's a great one.

D.M: Let me be upfront here - "Book of Souls" is, I'm pretty sure, my favorite Maiden record since "Brave New World."  Now that's a lower bar for them to clear for me than it is for you, as I have not in general been a huge fan of the albums since the reunion.  Although, a sidebar, if you'll allow - Iron Maiden, more than many bands, has songs that are just simply better live than in studio.  "Fear of the Dark" is the obvious choice that jumps to mind, but "Hallowed Be Thy Name," while great on the album, is secretly one of the great live songs of all time.  I tell you that story to tell you this one; I struggled to get a lot of value out of "The Final Frontier" on my home stereo, but the songs from that album, particularly "Coming Home" make for an immersive and powerful live performance.  So these albums have value on a sliding scale.

That said, I really enjoy the craftsmanship of "Book of Souls," and I daresay that maybe Maiden has gotten hold of something by sourcing the writing out to different members.  This album doesn't feel as unfocused as many of the recent records have, and there remains a good bit of Maiden's trademark gallop that's preserved throughout the experience "Death or Glory" and "Shadows of the Valley" to cite two examples.

Let's have a quick chat about that, shall we?  It occurs to me that many Maiden fans have dropped off over the years or reduced their fandom over the notion that these recent works don't have the same energy or get up and go as the classics of the past, and maybe that's true.  But for one, I agree with you that it's small-minded to think that so intelligent and skilled a band would be content to create the same product over and over, and I also get that it's pedantic to think that Dickinson would have the same vitriol and rebelliousness in his voice that he did in 1982 - moreover, maybe he does have that, and simply chooses to do something different, what of that possibility?!  Getting back to it in reference to "Book of Souls" however, there are plenty of moments on this record that would have fit perfectly well on the b-side of "Powerslave" or "Piece of Mind."  Is there an "Aces High?"  No, not really, but then that album only has one "Aces High," doesn't it?

Here's where the reviewing gets a little dicier though.  I'm tempted to, but it's too easy an out to simply say that the album is too long.  An album is, after all, a sum of its parts, and so if you have a collection of very long songs, then the album will be long.  So, to me, the issue is that some of the songs are too goddamn long.

I'm actually a little surprised that you and I are generally in such close agreement on these points, because historically we tend to have divergent views unless talking about the general overrated-ness of Behemoth.  This is why, in the what, five years we've been working together, we've named but one consensus album of the year (Graveyard's "Lights Out" for those playing our home game,) and even that wasn't number one on my personal list that year.  (I had it second to The Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell's "Don't Hear It...Fear It!" A decision which I stand by for the time I made it, but might not make again three years later.)  Anyway, forgive me my rambling - the point of all that was that we both hit upon the same stumbling block, which is "The Red and the Black."  I actually like the song on principle.  It's got a nice rhythm, a defined harmony of guitar and a memorable chorus that moves along at a good clip...for about six minutes.  Why on God's green earth is this song thirteen minutes long?

Ultimately, that's my main issue with sections of "Book of Souls," is that the songs are good, but many of them don't fit their own length.  "If Eternity Should Fail," which is a genuinely good song, is about the only cut on the album that can testify convincingly about why it's over six minutes long, while many of the other lengthy pieces could have easily shed a minute or two or six.  They feel, dare I say, long for long's sake, which can be a real problem.  It doesn't detract wholly from the album, but it does make for some eye-rolling, head-hanging and yes, yawning, as you wait for some of these epics to conclude.  "Book of Souls" for this reason, is better thought of, and better ingested, as individual singles.  Otherwise, it gets exhausting.

Where you and I differ is that I actually really like "Where the River Runs Deep," because I feel like it's a song that is perfectly sized for its content and appropriately constructed to be worthy of high praise.  It immediately feels like one of 'those' Maiden tunes, the ones that we'll all be in full throat for, singing along with Bruce at some jam-packed arena show in the not too distant future.  As a general commentary of the whole album, I appreciate Maiden's attempts to do some different things, like bending away from their typically upright and crisp guitar tone for the solos of "Tears of a Clown," and the very idea that Maiden looked at "Speed of Light" and said 'well damn it, we've never written a cock-rock song before, let's give it a shot!'  Those are some of the album's most brilliant moments, capturing off-the-cuff ideas from talented musicians and refining them into something greater.

You know me; I tend to be automatically suspicious of any record where I feel there's a strong possibility that fans and critics will gush over it simply because of the name on the front of the album jacket.  I still feel that way about "Matter of Life and Death," and Black Sabbath's recent "13," and probably always will.  I loathe the very principle that people can say 'well, it's Band X, Y or Z, so it'll be great because they can do no wrong!" or worse yet "it's great because they were great twenty years ago!"  In this case though, I think the praise of "Book of Souls" is well-earned, as the album is enjoyably creative from start to end.  Just be prepared to press 'next track' when these monsters start to get long in the tooth.

Still a question nags me, one that I hate to even address for fear of sounding like a recalcitrant - is it possible that Iron Maiden has composed these long pieces, this ninety-plus minute epic, in some small measure because of arrogance?  Not arrogance that the fans will take what the band gives them and like it, but rather an arrogance in the vein of 'we are Iron Maiden, and we can do whatever we want?'

Chris C: We have certainly held different opinions of the most recent Iron Maiden albums, but I'll be honest here, my own opinion on them has been shifting as well. The more that I listen to them, and the more that I've been exploring some new sounds, I my rankings of them have changed. For as long as we've known each other, "Dance Of Death" has been my favorite of their albums. While I do still love that record, my own experiences as a songwriter have made it a bit harder to enjoy these records than it used to be. What had been dubbed 'repetitive chorus syndrome' never bothered me much in the beginning, but now I find it very hard to listen to songs like "Blood Brothers" and "Dance Of Death" without wondering how a writer could allow that to happen. The one record that has been aging the best for me is "The Final Frontier", which tapped into the same bent of progressive music that I was in at the time. It still has flaws, and does drag on, but it may have taken up the mantle of my favorite.
Maiden fans are like fans of most bands; they say they don't want more of the same, but they really do. There is a very limited window of evolution that fans are willing to accept, before the band has veered too far from their identity. Maiden was never just the three minutes of speed band that their reputation became, but at a certain point the slower tempos and longer songs got to be too much for a lot of the fans, which is silly, because who expects a band of guys in their 40s to be playing torrid metal like that? Doing so would have felt even more fake than trying something new that perhaps didn't work.

We do have very different perspectives, which is one of the things I love about these projects of ours. It shows that great heavy music can appeal to all manner of people. And while we may have only converged on one Album Of The Year, hindsight has shown me that if my hears knew then what they know now, we could have also agreed on Graveyard's previous album.

But you are right about some of the songs being too long for their own good. One such song would be ok on an album; an indulgence of art. But when there are two and three, it becomes tiresome, even for someone who listens to a fair amount of prog. I actually think it's less of a problem here than it was on "A Matter Of Life And Death", as we get more 'shorter' songs this time out. The massive length of the double album makes it seem worse than it is.

Here's my armchair psychology: I don't consider Maiden's recent work to have much to do with arrogance, but with mortality. Let me explain. Steve Harris has always had an appreciation for progressive rock, and Bruce Dickinson for classical art (he did, after all, make a solo album based on the art and poetry of William Blake). When the band reformed, and they didn't know how long they had left as an entity, they decided to prove that they were more than just a heavy metal band. I attribute this era to a desire to be remembered for more than "The Trooper", to be real artists and not just a group of guys who played fast music. To me, these five albums made more sense that way, as there's a real through-line of thought that connects them, and explains why they don't go back and give people the short, speedy album they claim to want.

That's something I respect Maiden for. They have absolutely decided to make the music they want to make, and they consider their recent work to be just as vital as their early stuff. That can't be said about most bands of their age, who make records merely as excuses to go back out on tour. "The Book Of Souls" might not be my favorite Maiden album, but it's something you absolutely have to respect.

So let me finish by asking a question; if Iron Maiden had debuted with these records in the 80s, would anyone be complaining?

D.M: Okay, we're agreeing entirely too much for my own comfort here.  This is weird.  Human sacrifice, dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria!  Let me create a little separation just for comfort: I like "The Book of Souls" a lot, it's a pretty damn fine record, and we're really picking at nits here overall.  That said - it's no "Number of the Beast."  Yes yes, I admit, I am one of those Maiden fans.  Which dovetails nicely into --

I don't know if anyone would have complained about these albums if this were the first thing we had ever heard from Iron Maiden (after all, what reference would they have had to complain about,) but I do think these records might have been more easily passed over. 

Take a look at the contemporary market of the first five Maiden records - so, 1980-'84.  The metal scene is very much in flux for this stretch - Black Sabbath was transitioning into the Dio years and the fan base was divided on that count (still is.  Plus, they were coming off the last two Ozzy records, which were, well, shitty.)  Cirith Ungol was active, but couldn't get a foothold; their reputation was as that band your weird uncle listens to that sings about elves and isn't Jethro Tull.  Motorhead was pretty firmly established by 1980, but never considered themselves a 'metal' band.  Venom would release both "Welcome to Hell" and "Black Metal," and I enjoy those albums as much as the next guy, but I think we can all agree they're not up to the same standard as those Maiden records and mainstream sales numbers evaded them for a long time.  The Big 4 (and the other American thrashers) wouldn't debut until 1983, and wouldn't conquer the world for another two to three years at least.  Even the lofty veterans Judas Priest, who dropped "Screaming for Vengeance" in '82, are plagued with inconsistency in this era (any defenders of "Point of Entry?"  Anyone?) and are also still more a rock band at this point.

In the meantime, England's progressive scene was choked full - By this time, Yes, ELO, Asia and King Crimson are all active and firmly embedded in their careers.  Prog was no longer new or novel, and the popularity of those bands likely overtook the combined popularity of the bands in the previous paragraph.

So, see, a big piece of what made "Number of the Beast" work so well was its timing.  The audience was starved for a band who could deliver an album that combined punk's merciless, no-nonsense attitude with metal's speed and fantastic, visceral imagery.  "Iron Maiden" and "Killers" both make their mark, but it's the addition of Bruce Dickinson's literary intelligence and ability to set the stage that truly broke the dam open for metal in the modern sense.  By the end of 1982, the band is selling out Madison Square Garden on the strength of that album alone.  "Number of the Beast" sets the stage for all the metal that follows and also sets the typecast for metal as a whole, with its threatening undertones, mature themes and 'demonic' subject matter.

Circling around, my point is that I think if Maiden releases "The Final Frontier" or "Matter of Life and Death" or even a goodly chunk of "Brave New World" (sans "The Wicker Man") in that same time period, they would have been just another cog in the long-form prog wheel, or at best, a rich man's Cirith Ungol.  Now yes, they may have been the king of that world, but they still would have been confined to that world.  These are not the albums that audience would have snapped up, at that specific time.

Whew.  I think that's my final thought.  In closing, yeah, "The Book of Souls" is a long but overall listenable record, with a lot of highlights that are worth hearing.  Probably second in line behind only "Brave New World" of the post-reunion records.

Chris C: I probably should have been clearer. My hypothetical wasn't intended to be a game of "what if" for the entire world of music. I was concerned more with merely the level of criticism Iron Maiden receives from the old-guard fans for not following the blueprint of those days (which really wasn't a blueprint - they still released a fourteen minute prog epic, introduced keyboards, and made a concept album). It's nothing but a guess on my part, but I'm of the opinion that the criticism would not exist at nearly the same level had Iron Maiden been more brazen about these influences at the time. They were always there, but were lurking more under the surface, which rose-colored glasses have made people look past.

Not to get off-topic, but since you brought it up, let me say one thing about the Dio years of Black Sabbath. Whether you love those records or not (I am in the former group - "Heaven & Hell is, to me, the greatest metal album ever made), Ronnie James Dio allowed Black Sabbath to become something more than they were with Ozzy. They were trying to become more than what they had been pigeon-holed as, and it was when Dio gave them melodic freedom that they were able to show their true musical skill. That's not to say Iommi and Butler weren't coming up with great riffs before, but much of the admiration that they get as musicians, and not just as metal players, comes from those two records they made in that first run with Dio.

To finish off with the topic at hand, I actually agree with you that "The Book Of Souls" is a very good record. There are certainly highlights here that are worth seeking out, even if the album as a whole overstays its welcome a bit. At an hour and a half, I don't think any album would be able to stand up to nit-picking. "The Book Of Souls" is on its own a very good album, but when you compare it to the late-career double album made by that other British metal mainstay, it's a damn miracle.

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