The Mighty Maiden
Their Renaissance Continues with The Book of Souls

Last week I talked about a couple bands I’ve been following for seven years. This week I’d like to talk about one I’ve been following for most of my life.

I honestly can’t tell you the first Iron Maiden song I heard. It was in the throes of my teenage metalhead years, and if you had teenage metalhead years, you know they’re the perfect time to be introduced to a band as grandiose and theatrical as Maiden. This is a band always trying to be bigger than everyone else, go further over the top, and when you’re 14, that resonates pretty powerfully. (It’s no secret that Queen was my favorite band in high school.) Maiden came along around the same time as Metallica and Megadeth and Anthrax for me, and I only learned later that Maiden actually influenced them all.

I’m fairly sure the first Iron Maiden album I saw was Powerslave, and I am completely sure that I saw Powerslave before I heard it. I’ve always been into the physical objects, the packaging and artwork that feels as much a part of an album as the music to me. The Powerslave artwork is absolutely fantastic, recasting the Maiden mascot, ol’ demon-faced Eddie, as a Sphinx-like statue in front of a tomb in ancient Egypt. In its full form, adorning the front of the vinyl record, it’s an incredible piece of work – there are so many little details in it that you could stare at it for hours and not pick them all up.

I remember gazing at it pretty intently, imagining the music etched into the grooves of the record, and wondering if it could be as grand as the painting. If you’ve heard Powerslave, you know it contains “Aces High” and “Two Minutes to Midnight” and the title track and the 13-plus-minute epic “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” So the answer, obviously, was yes. But as I was 10 when Powerslave came out, I don’t think I heard it for several more years. I also remember staring at the fantastic, futuristic artwork for Somewhere in Time, which came out when I was 12. But again, I didn’t hear that one right away either.

No, the first Maiden album I heard was 1988’s amazing Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. It was the perfect first Maiden record for me at 14 years old. Not only was its theme vaguely occult, which thrilled the rebellious Christian boy I used to be, but its music was sweeping and full of keyboards, which were important to me then, for some reason. This was unlike anything I had ever heard. (Well, that’s not entirely true – I was also taken with Barren Cross, the Christian Iron Maiden, at roughly the same time.) I wanted every Iron Maiden album then, but especially the two I’d spent so much time staring at.

I haven’t really looked back since. I bought No Prayer for the Dying and Fear of the Dark when they came out (on cassette!). I picked up The X Factor even though I knew Bruce Dickinson, owner of perhaps the best voice in metal, had been replaced by some imitator named Blaze Bayley. I bought Dickinson’s solo albums and enjoyed them immensely. Sometime in the late ‘90s, while I was working at Face Magazine, I convinced EMI Records to send me a complete set of the remastered Maiden albums on CD – from the self-titled debut to Live at Donnington, with spines that form the face of Eddie when all lined up.

And I freaked out, in a good way, when the band reunited with Dickinson in 2000 for the incredible Brave New World. That album – expansive and progressive, sweeping and ethereal – sparked a surprise third act in the Iron Maiden story that is still going strong today. I’m struggling to think of any band enjoying a late-career renaissance as consistent as Maiden’s. The four (now five) lengthy albums the band has produced since reuniting not only stand proudly with their best work, they often surpass it, reaching new heights. Their most recent, 2010’s The Final Frontier, contains a couple tracks, most notably the 11-minute “Where the Wild Wind Blows,” that I would rank among their finest.

Their latest, The Book of Souls, is their 16th overall, and – amazingly – their first double album. It clocks in at 92 minutes, with 42 of those minutes taken up by three epic songs. It’s their most ambitious effort, and best of all, at no point does it sound like the median age of its authors is 58. It’s an intense, purely Iron Maiden experience – there is no other band on the planet who would make an album like this one.

I definitely mean that as a compliment, but it’s also indicative of the style the band works in, and how far that sound has fallen out of favor. Symphonic metal bands are still around – Dream Theater is another old workhorse that takes a lot from Maiden, and bands like Symphony X and Vanden Plas that certainly claim an influence. But it’s a sound that has dropped out of the public consciousness to a vast degree, and I absolutely understand why. Maiden works in a particular form of straightforward theatricality – it’s not sincere, but it never winks. That worked well in the ‘80s, but I’m not sure modern audiences know quite what to do with it, and if you’re not used to it, it can come off as a little silly.

I still love it, though. The Book of Souls is prime Iron Maiden, intricate and cinematic and a little cheesy, but totally awesome. If you can handle the eight-minute opener, “If Eternity Should Fail,” you’ll understand what you’re in for – it starts with a synthesizer soundscape that feels like incidental music to a made-for-TV movie about ancient Egypt, before Dickinson unveils his still-stunning voice, proclaiming, “Here is the soul of a man.” It then opens up into a classic Maiden rhythm, with intertwined harmony guitars, and flows into a strong chorus (sung magnificently by Dickinson), a double-time instrumental section giving space for all of the band’s three (!) guitar players, and finally a goofy/creepy spoken word coda: “Good day, my name is Necropolis, I am formed of the dead, I am the harvester of the soul meat…”

If you make it through that without giggling, you’re gonna love the rest. The most striking thing about The Book of Souls is how raw it sounds – quite a lot of the record sounds like they set up six microphones and just played. First single “Speed of Light” is the kind of simple five-minute rocker Maiden likes to work up to balance off their proggier tendencies, and it charges forward like a horse on fire. The 13-minute “The Red and the Black” slightly overdramatizes its tale of gambling for one’s soul, but around the halfway point it erupts into an extended instrumental workout, as intricately composed as it is loose and energetic. The title track is similarly fantastic, Steve Harris’ synthesizers adding depth and drama.

The second disc is a bit more finely considered, except for its opener, the raging “Death or Glory.” It turns out to be the record’s last powerhouse stomper – three mid-tempo winners, including the Robin Williams eulogy “Tears of a Clown,” provide a solid pathway to the album’s biggest and best surprise. That’s the closing song, “Empire of the Clouds” – it’s 18 minutes long, making it the band’s longest ever, and it’s based around Dickinson’s fragile piano playing. Don’t worry, it definitely gets huge, but hearing a Maiden song where the primary instrument is piano is a striking experience.

“Empire of the Clouds” tells the tale of the R101, a British airship that crashed in France in 1929 on its maiden voyage, killing nearly everyone aboard. As you can imagine, this is a perfect Iron Maiden subject, falling right in line with other historical epics like “Alexander the Great” and “Paschendale,” and they knock it out of the park. The song takes its time, reveling in the majesty of the great ship and describing its fall in agonizing detail. This is a song that no other band would do, and if this ends up being the final Iron Maiden album, it’s a hell of a great way to go out.

I mention finality because it’s always a possibility with bands that have been around as long as Maiden has, but also because The Book of Souls comes with its own scary story – it was completed almost a year ago, and its release delayed when Dickinson was diagnosed with tongue cancer. He’s undergoing treatment, but will tour this record next year. As with any great renaissance, you never know how long it’s going to last, and if the Maiden men decide to hang it up after this, I wouldn’t blame them.

And yet, there really is no other band like them, so it would be an unspeakable shame to see them go. The Book of Souls clearly demonstrates that Maiden is at the peak of their powers right now, still finding new avenues to take this sound they created. It’s still a big, goofy, powerful, dramatic, overtly theatrical sound, and I still love it as much as I did when I was that 14-year-old kid staring at their album covers. They’ve been a band for 40 years now – nearly as long as I have been alive – and they just keep getting more awesome. Long live Iron Maiden. Long may they reign.

Next week, orchestral efforts from Ben Folds and the Dear Hunter. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook here.

See you in line Tuesday morning.