When lead singer Bruce Dickinson returned to the band Iron Maiden after the ill-received Blaze Bayley era, a few other things came with him, and not all of them were complete surprises. The most prominent of these changes was how the band finally fully embraced their place as a progressive metal act. It was hardly an overnight shift, since the band had shown flashes of such for years. 1988’s Seventh Son of a Seventh Son had been the most overt of gestures in this direction. Dickinson’s solo work (with and without the Skunkworks attribution) further put the lean on these aspirations.
The questions persist. You can make a song long, but can you make it count for something? You can stretch the album length out to two, sometimes three disc length, but is it worth it? And, problematically, if you have a long history and you seem closer to the end of the timeline, do you have an obligation to end well? All these questions are answered, more or less, with Maiden’s latest effort The Book Of Souls.
While not a concept record, there are constant themes that populate the two CD release, with the most immediate one being endings. That might not come through on the first few listens; it is, after all, a metal album and is bound to play with the imagery of finality and mortality. Yet, unlike the average bone-crusher collection that suggests some unholy continuance after death, the implication on The Book Of Souls is that your power is at its peak only for a limited time and you won’t get to be the subject of your anthem forever. I’m not sure that is profound as much as it is sensible. For a genre that likes to wallow in unearthly aggrandizement at the worst of times, sensible can be a dirty word.
Let that not come off like Maiden are now folk dirge purists or anything of the kind. They can still kick up a thundering gallop like they used to. See “Speed of Light,” “When the River Runs Deep” and “Death or Glory” for evidence. And they still work some of the cliches of the medium, as must be expected. I’d imagine longtime fans would be put off if they didn’t. But there are moments that pull you back and suggest to the listener that these are individuals who have been at this a long time, and are putting that experience into the work rather than cynically trying to pull the skinny jeans back on or headbanging away what little hair is left. “Tears of a Clown” is actually a very thoughtful note of concern for those who suffer with depression and chase away the worry of others with cheerful facades. While neither inspired by or dedicated to Robin Williams, it is hard not to make the connection while hearing the song.
The end of life and the reckoning of such is the subject of “The Man of Sorrows,” and for those who aren’t familiar with the term, that is a reference to Jesus. The track is not a diatribe against religion, as one might expect. It is instead coming to grips with the passing of friends, the coarsening of the world in which we live, man’s inhumanity to man, and just the vaguest hint that promise is possible, change isn’t lost, and the thought of an afterlife (be it in memory or in a more solidified belief) may not be a fruitless effort. Written by Dave Murray and Adrian Smith, one can’t avoid the feeling they had Dickinson’s bouts with cancer in mind when it was composed. I don’t mean to suggest Iron Maiden is making a bid for Christian rock, mind you. I’m saying that the song is more open-hearted and open-minded than casual observers gave them credit for.
The crowning piece of the record is the one that really cements Maiden’s place as an actual prog metal force, the Dickinson-written “Empire of the Clouds.” Clocking in at above 18 minutes, the track has a satisfying grasp of complex structure and theme-building, and is driven for the most part by the piano. Oh, don’t make that face. Eventually the guitars will come in and drop you on your head as they must, but it is an audacious ride getting there. The song speaks of a massive steel airship heading out for it’s most dangerous aerial voyage. “For all you unbelievers, the Titanic fits inside,” the lyrics boast. Against the warnings of trepidatious groundcrew who say the machine is too heavy, the captain damns the weak, dumps some cargo and the ship soars anyway.
The ship is doomed in the end, but it commands the skies for a brief time, and fights valiantly. The initial read of the track suggests it is a tome against hubris, a sort of Moby Dick for the metal set, with the airship’s Ahab paying for his foolishness, with his benighted crew alongside him. Untrue. The song seems to me to be about seizing your time, making your biggest wave with the mortal knowledge that you can’t be the conqueror forever. You will eventually be brought down, but what will you do with your prime when you have it? See, “Empire of the Clouds” is not so much a fabricated mythology as it is the history and legacy of Iron Maiden itself, wrapped in a metaphor. And you thought I was joking when I said this was true prog metal!
Does that suggest this is the last Maiden album? Maybe. It certainly is grandiose, but never embarrassing. I’ll go so far to say that is is actually a career highlight, although it won’t supplant some of the mainstays of their catalog which were content just to slam hard. Like other rare, few bands that can sustain several decades and still offer worthwhile, warm-blooded efforts The Book of Souls argues there’s still plenty of life left in this beast. But if this is the time when the great airship must fall, Maiden goes out on top, defying convention. Up the irons!