Often it's more that time flies by so fast you didn't even realize that years had gone by since a certain event occurred, but the half-decade interim since Iron Maiden's last LP, 2010's The Final Frontier, has conversely seemed like a real eternity. It may be that Final Frontier "didn't count" for many fans, as it received a wildly mixed reception, some praising its fidelity to the kind of long form, epic songwriting that the band made their bones with in the 1980's, while others found it bloated and lacking in memorable hooks. And when the track listing for this year's Book of Souls was revealed – special emphasis being placed on the 18-minute "Empire of the Clouds", to date the band's longest track – there were similarly equal amounts of anticipation and trepidation: did the band learn from the mistakes of the last album or, conversely, would they be able to build on its strengths? The Book of Souls offers a textbook example of how a band's previous album can effectively set fan's expectations for the follow up before a signal note of new music has been heard by the public.
It probably didn't help that Iron Maiden chose "Speed of Light" as the first (and only pre-release) single. The track isn't a dud exactly – if anything it's a bit of a grower – but its stripped down, almost rustic vibe is certainly not what the lead up hype had led us to believe the new album would sound like. Much of the goodwill surrounding the single's release focused more on Llexi Leon's spirited music video than the tune itself:
Even posthumously revealed to be a singular anomaly amidst an album full of songs that sound little like it, "Speed of Light" still grates a bit in contrast. It's not that it doesn't belong here at all, but as the second song in an expanded track list of songs that have a similarly epic feel it could have been better programmed; two songs in and we haven't even gotten our bearings yet, but five or six songs in and we actually could have used the breather that "Speed of Light" would have provided if sequenced mid-album.
This turns out to be a minor gripe in the end, as the remainder of the album occupies a rarified range between the merely very good and the utterly fantastic. "If Eternity Should Fail" is a great lead-off track as it demonstrates the two primary strengths of the album as a whole: extended song structures and a punchy, anthemic sing-along chorus (that song and the aforementioned "Empire of the Clouds" mark the first songs penned solely by Bruce Dickinson without the involvement of other bands members since 1984's Powerslave).
Book of Souls truly hits its stride with "The Red and the Black", at 13.5 minutes nearly equaling the length of "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", which stood for three decades as the band's longest ever track. It even feels like an old Powerslave anthem, its patient, unhurried main riff displaying a confident pace… the band know damn well they're scratching an old itch on behalf of its fan base, and they relish in the sheer, overwhelming success of the endeavor. The "whoah-oah" bridge should prove an instant crowd favorite should Maiden find space for it in their next set list.
For my money the best song on the album is actually one that goes the opposite direction, the succinct, five-minutes-even "Tears of a Clown". Much has been made already of the fact that the track was penned (by Adrian Smith and Steve Harris) as a tribute to the late Robin Williams, but its theme is broad enough to encompass anyone maintaining a game face while internally suffering from crippling depression. The clown theme is pretty shopworn, going back at least as far as Jerry Lewis if not Smokey Robinson, but hey, Maiden have pretty much always plied their wares around established conventions, so a cliche here and there shouldn't throw anyone off at this point. Smith's riff on "Tears of a Clown" is definitely among his all-time best, to the point where – between the obvious Robin Williams appeal and its immediate accessibility – you have to wonder why this wasn't the obvious choice for a first single.
It would be futile to itemize every single thing that's great about the album, but lest this sound like an a-critical fanboy ball washing, let's end by coming back down to Earth a little bit. "Empire of the Clouds" is certainly an ambitious way to close out Book of Souls, 18 minutes of cinematic grandeur that, with its heavy reliance on Dickinson's own piano playing, somewhat recalls old Emerson, Lake and Palmer crossed with the operatic sensibilities of Queen. But it"s also symptomatic of a certain amount of unchecked bloat that occasionally permeates the album. "If Eternity Should Fail", while an overall great song, could have easily wrapped up two minutes earlier without losing anything of substance. Conversely, the title track actually concludes with a flurry of interesting ideas, but takes its time leading up to them. And "Empire of the Clouds", which would have made a stellar song pared down to nine or 10 minutes, sags a bit under its own weight at a full 18. It's the old Lord of the Rings ending where everyone keeps saying goodbye but no one really wants to leave.
But hey, that's the academic in me talking. By and large The Book of Souls looms over the Maiden catalog like a cocky monolith, essentially daring us to posit our traditional favorites as superior to its heft and might. Whether it is entirely consistent enough to successfully contend against the leaner 80's albums is debatable, but the fact that the band is even attempting something of this scope and accomplishment is a wonder to behold. There's been a lot of handwringing over whether any of the younger metal bands will ever be able to draw the kind of festival-headlining crowds that longer-in-the-tooth bands like Maiden and Judas Priest enjoy even in their senior years. Well, let those bands put forth an album of this weight and we'll talk.