A new Iron Maiden album is always a big event, not least because the band have somehow sustained a startling level of popularity for the vast majority of their three decades.
What is less frequently acknowledged, however, is that since the return of Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith for 2000’s Brave New World, Maiden have not only cemented their status as metal’s most revered band but, audaciously, built upon it, becoming ever more dominant and in-demand as a result. Of course, The Book Of Souls arrives amid an additional storm of drama, Dickinson’s genuinely shocking brush with cancer erecting an unexpected and unwanted backdrop of struggle and triumph behind a long-awaited album – Maiden’s 16th – that didn’t exactly need an extra boost. Completed before their singer received his jarring diagnosis, The Book Of Souls is the sound of a band at the peak of their powers, both individual and collective, and Dickinson’s own performance gives no clues whatsoever as to his then vexed state of health. One might glibly note that this would have been an excellent final statement for all concerned, but it’s hard to think of another band of this vintage that would be capable of sounding this vital and inspired.
It begins with one of two songs written solely by Dickinson. If Eternity Should Fail starts with an eerie, almost psychedelic intro, the air raid siren’s restrained tones floating in shimmering space, before the first of countless towering riffs crashes in. Dark in tone and texture and a dash heavier than Maiden have ever sounded before, its eight-and-a-half minutes rush by in what seems like half that amount, soaring choruses and a typically deft change of pace midway through adding bite to the barrage. Maiden’s recent albums have been notable primarily for the epic and progressive nature of their contents, and while The Book Of Souls certainly saunters down that avenue on numerous occasions, it is also an album that brims with flashes of succinctness. Speed Of Light, Death Or Glory and Tears Of A Clown all climax at around the five minute mark, and all three are instant top-notch Maiden anthems, the shrewd songwriting hand of Adrian Smith making its presence felt and bringing plenty of that off-kilter edge that was sometimes missed during the decade he spent away from the line-up. Meanwhile, both The Great Unknown and When The River Runs Deep speak volumes about the intuitive chemistry between Smith and Steve Harris, their collaborative efforts producing monstrous mini-symphonies for Dickinson to unleash that vein-popping vibrato over.