The release of Iron Maiden’s 16th album “The Book of Souls” has inspired me to look back over the past decades of the bands 40 year career. Formed in 1975 by Steve Harris the only ongoing member throughout Maiden’s history it took five years before their first studio album in 1980.
Iron Maiden – 1980
Paul Di’Anno on lead vocals, Dave Murray, Denis Stratton on guitar and Clive Burr on the drums Maiden broke onto the music scene with their fast and ferocious sound. Produced in only 13 days the album has a raw, punk like sound which often splits fans of their later releases. The opening blast of “Prowler” sets the pace and introduces listeners to the typical Maiden intensity, which doesn’t let up throughout the album. “Sanctuary” added in the 1998 remastered release of the album builds on the same ferocity with its unique opening rift and helps create a great contrast to the slower more atmospheric “Remember Tomorrow” which really kicks into gear with Di’Anno’s drawn out wail 2-minutes in before building to the solo. Freeing itself from the guitar dominance of the opening tracts “Running Free” has a strong drum beat that carries you in a rush through the track. Undeniably the highlight is the 7 – minute epic “Phantom of the Opera” which incorporates elements of prog rock and several time changes that still make it one of my all time favourites. While the end of the album lacks the same intensity with the title track probably the weakest on the album the instrumental “Transylvania” remains up there with the best.
Killers – 1981
Unfortunately Maiden’s second album is possibly a little disappointing due in part to the short turn around time and the fact that most of the tracks were written before they recorded Iron Maiden as a result Killers lacks the development of a follow-up Album. However, this does not mean that it isn’t worth your time as the fast past “Wrathchild” is like a shoot of adrenaline and is still regularly played live while “Murders in the Rue Morgue” based on the short story by Edgar Allen Poe has a distinctive rift and some catchy speed changes. The surprise of the album for me, “Prodigal Son” incorporates acoustic guitar effectively to create an engaging and different sound that shows the bands depth of musical talent and diversity. The most notable change with Killers is the departure of Denis Stratton and the inclusion of long-term member Adrian Smith who would make an important contribution to song writing on future Albums.
The Number of the Beast – 1982
Maiden’s third studio album for many is when Maiden become Maiden as Bruce Dickson joins the band taking over lead vocals with his distinctive style and range. The album immediately shot to prominence for the controversy over the name and cover art which inspiring claims of Satanism however the free publicity wasn’t necessary as the album speaks for it self. The first drum roll of “Invaders” acts to introduce something special and immediately sets a quick pace. One that is suddenly forgotten with the more melodic “Children of the damned” that allows fans to fully appreciate Dickinson’s more operatic vocals for the first time. The third track “Prisoners” seems to find the balance as the heavy drums keeps a steady rhythm while the guitars race into a familiar gallop until the chorus where Dickinson’s voice takes control and Harris’ underlying base line becomes more obvious. Even with this strong opening three songs really lift the album , starting with the title track. “The number of the beast” opens with the now familiar introduction that quickly establishes the atmosphere before the steady rhythmic guitar kicks in and Dickinson’s lyrics begin to weave their story telling magic climaxing in the solo. The song sets out the format for many future hits but as the drum beat and opening riff of “Run to the Hills” proves Maiden is far from a one trick pony. Moving away from atmospheric style this fast paced gem is all aggression and is one of the perfect examples of the band at full gallop with Harris’ bass driving the track. Just when you may think that the album has reached its height and starts to fade the final bell tolls. “Hallowed be thy name” returns to the story telling of the title track but brings in more curiosity through mirroring the lyrics with distinct changes in pace to represent the mood of Dickson’s protagonist who is quickly running out of time. While any Maiden fan keeps these songs up their with their best, a couple of the songs go missing and lack any of the same power.
4.5 / 5 Eddies
Piece of Mind – 1983
Considered by many fans to be Maiden’s best album Piece of Mind capitalizes on the bands popularity after Number of the Beast. The opening track “Where Eagles Dare” grabs your attention with the opening drum roll before the guitar riff races away. New drummer Nicko McBrian makes a strong first impression as his cymbal work carries the song throughout while the guitars give it a real aggressive feel fitting of the classic WW2 film. One of Dickerson greatest song writing contributions “Revelations” slows the pace down and focuses on building atmosphere with its more meta-physical content and literary quotations. The first single from the album “Flight of Icarus” is one of Maiden’s simpler and easier tracks to listen to as it has a distinctive rhythm where the guitars and drums combine to give a sense of the mythical Icarus rising to sun and doesn’t require any deeper thought. The second single however has always captured my attention with its historical links, literary references and film clip. My all time favourite track “The Trooper” just delivers everything I expect in spades combining this rich content with Maiden’s galloping style to give a real sense of the horses charging with the steady rhythm of Harris’ bass underneath the repeating guitar riff and Nicko’s military drums. Finished with Dickinson’s rushed lyrics that creates the desperation of the soldiers racing to their deaths, it’s simply perfect. Unfortunately the second part of the Album drops away a little, but Nicko’s backwards message at the start of “Still life” is a quick stab at the satanic critics while “Sun and Steel” continues the military theme carrying through the album with a catchy chorus. Ultimately the grand finale is no “Hallowed be thy Name” but “To Tame a Land” still uses some good changes in pace where the music can build with Dickinson’s lyrics towards the galloping instrumental bridge and the climax. The now stable line up delivers a very cohesive album and while not every song is an absolute hit there are no real weaknesses unlike the previous releases.
Stay tuned for part 2 of my retrospective look at Iron Maiden’s back catalogue when I finish off the glorious 80s, till then up the Irons.
In stark contrast to the atmospheric “If eternity should fail”, disc 2 begins with the intense and galloping “Death or Glory” which follows in the footsteps of “Aces High” as it tells the story of WWI tri-planes. The guitar really complements this concept as the riff seems to climb before falling back down to earth and rushes Dickinson’s well composed lyrics to give the impression of dog fighting. Through all this is Harris’ customary bass line which really gives the song a truly Maiden feel.
Reprising the opening from 1986’s “Wasted Years” is “Shadow of the Valley” a reasonably safe song which struggles to stick in my mind Beyond the first 30 seconds. In many ways it reminds me of 2010’s “Isle of Avalon” but fails to reach any of the same heights and doesn’t really distinguish itself from the rest of the album.
Dedicated to the memory of Robin Williams, “Tears of a Clown” is a powerful and well written reminder about the dangers of depression. To start the guitar seems to halt mind riff as the energy wants to build it stops and is concluded by Nicko’s drums which remain noticeable throughout the song. It is however Dickinson’s vocals carried by the rhythmic bass that makes the track. Not only are they clear and easy to follow but from personal experience they made me reject on aspects of my own minor struggles with depression. It is a fitting tribute to actor who gave everyone years of laughter and whose personal struggles went unnoticed through the public façade, perhaps giving us a final lesson to look beyond the surface.
“The Man of Sorrows” has a bit more of a stripped back and raw sound reminiscent of the bands earlier work but at a noticeably slower pace. Dickinson’s operatic vocal style is in full effect with different length notes dominating the song before the guitar solo adds a little more intensity. Like, ” Shadows of the Valley” this track fails to really distinguish itself however it is reasonable entertaining if not memorable and provides a moment to take a breath before the grand finally.
The album’s triumph and possibly the bands magnum opus “Empire of the clouds” doesn’t sound anything like an Iron Maiden song. Opening with Dickinson on Piano and building a layered orchestral melody the song foreshadows the tragic events of the history it is about to tell while also symbolising the beauty of the havens. As the song develops the music begins to tell the story alongside the lyrics as Nicko’s military drums softly allude to the idea of Empire and the Airships own roots while the melody of the piano is gradually taken over by the mimicking guitar as it builds towards its final flight. The well composed lyrics with their multiple meanings like the obvious reference to the our father, in the ‘kingdom yet to come’ while alluding to the notion of an Empire united by Air travel symbolised by the title, to the imagery of the ‘silver ghost’ make this one of Maiden’s most finely crafted tracks. This well constructed build up changes with the approaching storm as guitar’s quicken their pace begin to drive the Airship towards France this instrumental movement forms the basis for the songs outstanding solos before giving way to the turbulent description of the tragedy. This raising torrent resolves itself with the crash and the piano returns with its sombre tones and bury the ‘Empire of the Clouds’ along with the 48 victims of the tragedy.
Maiden’s longest ever track at 18 minutes carries ever second better than other songs of similar length like In – The – Gadda – Da- Vida and is their purest example of storytelling. After multiple listens I can recognise why Steve Harris labelled the song a masterpiece as it has distinct movements, multiple layers and elements of a classical overture as the music itself inspires listeners to imagine scenes and moods. Personally, I can’t help but put “Empire of the Clouds” up their with “Rime of the Ancient Marnier” as the best epics produced by the band over their 40 year history.
Maiden have their own ‘Empire of the Clouds’ as they take the new Ed Force One across the continents in 2016
The album as a whole is simply brilliant with variations in pace and melody Maiden is able to combine their established sound with new elements. At 92 minutes it might be an exercise in endurance for some but as someone who has easily spent hours in the last few weeks listening to their back catalogue non-stop this isn’t a problem. Even so the divide between discs makes “The book of souls” work as two separate albums of more manageable length. While not every song reaches the same heights the album delivers two clear standouts that sit amongst the bands best work, “The Red and the Black” and “Empire of the Clouds” makes it arguebly their most complete effort since “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” in 1988 but for me it is a toss up with “The Final Frontier”.
Up the Irons!!
Check out the first half of my review here.
It has been 5 years since the release of “The Final Frontier” but Iron Maiden’s 16th album is now available around the world. Even after 40 years the band has still been able to break new ground and it has had me revisiting their entire back catalogue in anticipation. Not one to wait I was keen to get my hands on a CD for my car straight after work on September 4 and spent the rest of my afternoon rocking out to “The Book of Souls”. If your like me and have scanned the web for any reviews you’ll have seen the usual official music commentary which has been largely very positive and a more mixed reception by some fans so I thought I’d take the time to do a detailed review.
The first track “If Eternity should fail” creates a real atmosphere for the album with the South American inspired introduction and Dickinson’s echoing lyrics before it kicks into gear with the usual Maiden gallop. The heavy guitar riff drives the track and noticeable slows for the chorus where Nicko’s cymbal work becomes more noticeable. It’s a catchy track and easy for fans to pick up the lyrics so I wouldn’t be surprised if it appears in the set list for the 2016 tour. My only criticism is the addition of Dickinson’s distorted soliloquy at the conclusion which I fell detracts from the song as an individual track but it works as part of the album to introduce the recurring themes present in the album.
“Speed of Light” is a much simpler song with a faster pace and a traditional Dickinson wail it immediately feels more familiar. Yet, even this seemingly straight forward track introduces a cowbell to demonstrate Maiden’s willingness to experiment with new elements. The first single of the album has grown on me after a few listens as the rush is starts the adrenaline pumping and Dickinson’s vocals are easy to belt out while I’m driving. The energy is quickly shifted by the soft distinctive guitar introduction of “The Great Unknown” which I found really draw me into the track after the intensity of the previous song before the customary change of pace assured in with Nicko’s drums. Unlike some of the other tracks on the album the continuation of the riff through the song instantly made this one of my favourites.
However, it is quickly overshadowed by the bass at the start of the epic, “The Red and The Black” which quickly explodes into a galloping riff that gives the song a militant feel as it mirrors the rhythm of the drums. The psychological themes of the song are somewhat reminiscent of Stendhal’s book of the same name where the main character is often battling contrasting ideas and presenting a façade to those around him. This literary link had already got my attention before I listened to the track but the changes of pace, Dickinson’s lyrics, the melody and the inclusion of some ripping solos during the instrumental bridge instantly made this my favourite song off the album. Even before I was finished with the first listen I was busy humming the rhythm, always a good sign.
The faster pace of “When the river runs deep” caught me by surprise after the deliberate pace of the previous track. The guitars seem to race Dickson to the chorus before slowing and allowing Harris’ rhythm to come through behind the vocals to capture your attention. After this intensive burst of speed comes the title track, “The Book of Souls” which has a real sense of theatre, starting with an acoustic guitar and an almost tribal riff. The song is reminiscent of 1984’s “Powerslave” as the lyrics deal with the religious practices and beliefs of an ancient civilization. Like the earlier epic it starts with a very deliberate pace before it gives way to a strong guitar solo and starts racing towards the finish with a fast gallop reminiscent of classic Maiden.
This 92 minute album is best appreciated in two halves as this provides time to reflect and re-listen to some of the more demanding tracks with that in mind stay tuned for part 2 and my closing thoughts.
Up the Irons!!
Continue reading part 2 here.