Thursday, November 9, 2023

Iron Maiden - The Book of Souls (2015)

Iron Maiden's first double-album arrived at an era in which the band would be highly unlikely to fill 90 minutes with the sort of immortal, quality material that marked their ascent through the 80s, but the hope is that you can pick through all of its bloated carcass and find a few bits of tasty meat within, which you can then carve away from the fat. After years of trying, I can't seem to find enough of that choice protein. The Book of Souls is no hit machine, but rather the sort of record one grows to appreciate merely because of its experiential qualities. A good 90% of the material present on these two discs is harvested from similar and superior songwriting from across the band's past, but reconfigured just enough to feel like it still might be relevant, and the result is a pretty pleasant chunk of Iron Maiden lite that is well suited to background aural radiation...but you see, it's still Iron Fucking Maiden, and that matters.

I enjoyed this one for what it was when it first dropped, but admittedly had it shelved for years before deciding to finally draft up some thoughts on it. Listening now, it's much as I felt back then, professionally and competently executed Maiden with all the trademarks: mid to slow, plodding, majestic rhythms that occasionally stir an emotional response, Bruce Dickinson's distinct pipes sounding as well oiled as they've been in the 21st century, and a lot of interesting subject matter to inspire its lyrics. Toss in a production so clean that you could sniff Eddie's mummy dust off its surface without contamination, and add to that a rather simplistic but effective cover with the mascot looking his creepy best. Being an hour and a half of content with 11 tracks, there are bound to be a lot of overstuffed songs, and few of them really warrant the riffing and arrangement to justify that; but even if you take "The Red and the Black" at its 13 minute whole, there is still enough of the dreamy escapist quality to their classic material circa Somewhere in Time or Seventh Son of a Seventh Son or even Brave New World to not hit the Skip button. "Empire of the Clouds" at 18 minutes seems a little more adventurous, akin to a "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", sans the excellent payoffs and narrative quality of that track.

When they do occasionally manage to pick up the pace for chunks of  "When the River Runs Deep" or "Death or Glory", you immediately perk up, because it just stands out from the more gleaming, polished melancholy that comprises so much of the remainder. Both of these tunes are worth hearing extracted from The Book of Souls as a whole, but even then if I were to compare them to the classics of yore, they still tend to come up short in terms of having legendary choruses. The leads throughout the album are serviceable, but again you rarely get anything past 'just alright', and Iron Maiden is never a band that should settle for 'just alright', or anything less than excellence. I've seen other refer to this album as Iron Maiden 'covering' themselves, and I don't know that I agree with that, it all seems genuine enough, only played too safely, like the well of ambition behind these legends has run dry, and they've sealed it off rather than wait for that rainfall of ingenuity to arrive again. The Book of Souls gives them something more to tour on, to rally around, to churn out a bunch of non-challenging, acceptable tunes, but I'd much rather they tried to kick us all in the proverbial balls again (in a good way, not a Virtua XI way) and fail, then summon up another lukewarm offering like this one.

This album does manage to squeak by on my scale, hitting all the superficial chords I expect, with decent lyrics and production, but there's just no "Wicker Man" here. No "Can I Play With Madness?". No "Powerslave". And hearing how obviously competent the band remains, I think they could still pull such glories off, it's just going to require a little more pickiness in the writing phase, and a long look in the mirror without the shave.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

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