When some bands come out with new albums, you'll listen to them a few dozen times, you'll find them irresistibly catchy, and then you'll put them away, out of sight and out of mind, for months or even years. That's simply the nature of the music; it's transient, a flash in the pan, a moment of brilliance that fades away, never to shine again.
With IRON MAIDEN, though, things tend to be a bit different.
A new IRON MAIDEN album might as well be the metal world's equivalent of the election of a new Pope. The greatest band of all time, containing some of the world's finest musicians and songwriters, has graced us with new material to process and digest and enjoy. That's kind of a big frackin' deal. If Beethoven were to suddenly jump off his cloud up there and release a new symphony, that would be about the closest you could get to matching the importance of a new IRON MAIDEN album.
It's always something to be experienced and savoured slowly; only repeated listens make it possible to really absorb and understand the sheer brilliance of the music. This band is made up of six of the most gifted, most dedicated, most hardworking, and most highly skilled musicians the world has ever seen, who have each spent more than 50 years perfecting their individual skills. And it is a band that is more than the sum of its parts; its signature sound is totally unique, and no one else has ever been able to replicate that unique formula to come up with anything even close.
They are, without question, the most highly respected band in heavy metal. And I mean that literally. You will find plenty of metal fans who love JUDAS PRIEST but can't see the point of BLACK SABBATH. (I am one of them.) Contrariwise, there are quite a few metal fans who think that Tony Iommi is quite simply the man who invented heavy metal, and that anything anyone else has ever done is merely a permutation or combination of something that he came up with. (Rob Zombie, for instance, has gone on the record saying this.) You will find metal fans who will get into heated arguments over which ANTHRAX singer was the best; why power metal is gay or manly, in turn; why black metal is either incomprehensible gibberish or the only true form of music known to Man; and which female singer is the greatest.
But if you ask any metal fan about the one and only IRON MAIDEN, the response is universally one of utmost respect. Even fans who don't necessarily like the music of IRON MAIDEN, respect them. Pretty much no other band can claim that status.
That didn't happen by accident. This is a band that has spent the last forty years doing what it wants to do, and to hell with what anyone else thinks. Yet they have also managed to produce material at a level of excellence and quality that virtually no other band has ever matched. They have managed their brand with superb skill. They never fail to put on a spectacular live show. They treat their fans with love and respect and never fail to give us what we want.
I, personally, have been an IRON MAIDEN fan since I was 15 years old. One of the happiest days of my life was the day I walked out of a record store clutching the first 5 IRON MAIDEN albums (and a couple of BRUCE DICKINSON solo albums). I had a bad cold at the time, but at that moment, being sick and weak didn't matter; I had the greatest albums of all time in my hands, and at that moment, I was happy.
So when I say that I've been looking forward to this new album for a LONG time, you know that I mean it.
This album has, indeed, been a long time in coming. It took IRON MAIDEN five years from 2010's The Final Frontier to come together to produce new material. And at first glance, it's easy to think that maybe the Irons have gotten a little complacent, a little lax, not quite up to their usual levels of balls-out brilliance.
I mean, look at that album cover. Sure, it's not terrible- not nearly as bad as the cover for Dance of Death, or The X Factor. But it's still not up to the level of mind-bending genius of the old Derek Riggs covers from the 1980s. Nowhere even close.
And then the first single hit. "Speed of Light" was, by MAIDEN standards, pretty damn good. But it wasn't great. It was simply a catchy, heavy song with a great chorus and great solos- which are terms that you can use to describe most of IRON MAIDEN's shorter songs from the last six albums. There was no real sense of immediacy about it, no sense of making a definitive statement like they did with "The Wicker Man" from Brave New World. That song was nothing short of a declaration of war; it said, emphatically, that IRON MAIDEN were back, bigger and badder and better than ever, with new energy and new power, willing to show the world what we already knew, deep down, but in our complacency had allowed ourselves to forget: that they are, quite simply, the greatest, EVER.
By contrast, the first single simply said, "hey, new IRON MAIDEN song, have a listen". Well, OK, but that's a pretty limp message, isn't it?
I really didn't know what to expect when I listened to the full album all the way through. Maybe I expected "more of the same"- a few punchy, heavy tracks, a few long-winded, proggy tracks, and an overall memorable and great experience that I will continue to enjoy for many years to come. That's how I feel about pretty much every MAIDEN album.
Now, about a week in, I can't stop listening to it. This is an album that grows on you over time, becoming better and more nuanced and more powerful with every listen. This album is something truly special.
The first thing I thought when I listened all the way through was, "I did NOT expect that", followed immediately by, "where the HELL did they come up with THAT?!?", and topped off with, "how in the thousand names of the Beast did they pull this album off?!!!".
So, is this new album any good?
It's the best album they've made in more than 25 years.
Yes, I'm serious. No, I'm not drunk. No, I'm not high. It is ACTUALLY that good.
Remember when you were a little kid and you watched a Jaguar or an Aston Martin drive past and you thought to yourself, "I wonder if that car is as good to drive as it looks and sounds"? And then you grow up and you actually get to drive your dream car, and you realise that it's just not as good as you'd hoped?
Compared to that, this album is like buying something that looks like a Fiat Panda, that somehow magically transforms into a Ferrari FXX K the moment you nudge the accelerator pedal with your big toe.
The album kicks off with "If Eternity Should Fail", which is one of the most experimental tracks that this band has ever attempted. One of the two tracks penned entirely by Bruce Dickinson, its intro is just plain weird, and at first I didn't know what to make of it. The song is played in drop-D tuning, which is something that the notoriously straight-laced band has never done. It starts out slow and pounds away at you, with an epic (if perhaps slightly monotonous) chorus that just grows and grows on you. And then, out of nowhere, it kicks into high gear as the time signature changes and the band enters that familiar gallop-kick that is so unique and so much a part of their sound.
Then comes "Speed of Light", which really grows on you after a while. It takes time- at first, it's just a generic upbeat rock track that's fun to mosh to and generally just has a great groove. But then you start noticing the subtle little things about it, like Nicko's pounding drum lines and Adrian's amazing solos, that really lift the song and make it more than just "the single" from the album.
"The Great Unknown" is the start of the truly progressive side of the album. Starting off slowly, as many of MAIDEN's really epic tracks do, it builds up a real head of steam with powerful and moving lyrics, and then all of a sudden morphs into a thunderous, roaring, epic chorus followed immediately by equally epic duelling guitars riding the tidal wave of the rhythm section.
But it might just be the next track, "The Red and the Black", which is the biggest surprise. As I said before, when Steve Harris decides to stop screwing around with those ridiculous three-minute intros to every damn song, he can be an absolute freakin' genius, and this track proves it beyond the palest shadow of a doubt. The signs, at first, aren't great- the track starts off slowly with 'Arry strumming full chords on an acoustic bass, and then seems to go into that slow plod that have characterised so many of the band's longer tracks for so many years.
And then, suddenly, magically, it all changes.
The band turns on a dime, cranks everything to 11, and thunders through some of the finest instrumental work that they have ever done. It's an incredible change, and you have to hear it to believe it. That chorus, and the fist-pumping chants that accompany it, will have you wanting to jump on your desk and headbang right away. And even though it is a thirteen-minute song, I have yet to feel like it's overdone or boring; it feels powerful and immediate throughout. The first time I heard it, I thought I'd been hit over the head with a hammer- which, in fairness, is probably what the band intended.
The onslaught doesn't let up with "When the River Runs Deep", where the band showcases the galloping rhythm that has been their signature for so long. Full of the kind of rousing we'll-march-to-the-war lyrics that the band has infused its songs with for so many years, this is a song that is just begging to be played live while a bunch of lunatics like me jump around like madmen and shout ourselves hoarse.
The title track, "Book of Souls", is one of the biggest surprises that the band has ever pulled off. It starts out slow and plodding, once again- and you find yourself thinking, "oh hell, here we go, this is going to be another 'Mother Russia' all over again". But then, once again, out of freakin' nowhere, the band kicks it into high gear and absolutely tears it up with some of the most aggressive, yet melodic, music that they have ever made. It's a truly EPIC track with amazing lyrics, incredible guitar harmonies, astonishing drumming, overpowering bass, and a fine display of vocal pyrotechnics.
The good stuff doesn't end there, either. "Death or Glory" is basically the band's modern-day equivalent of "Aces High" from the seminal Powerslave, and it says something about this band that they can make a track that is almost as punchy and powerful and thunderous today as the one that they made more than thirty years ago. It is simply perfect, and if they don't play this one live, then they'll have robbed us fans of something truly special. This is the song that will break people's hips and necks when we try to mosh to it. I say, bring it on.
"Shadows in the Valley" is basically IRON MAIDEN 101. It carries on in the same vein of powerful music with epic choruses and rolling, gallop-kick rhythms. Its lyrics are dark yet inspiring; it is a song of war and death, of the price paid by brave men to defend that which they love. It is, simply, awesome.
"Tears of a Clown" is one of the two really kind of odd songs on the album. This song was originally written as a tribute to Robin Williams, and the first time I heard it, I didn't much care for it. I thought it was kind of naff, actually. But it grew and grew on me, until I finally realised that actually, it's really rather good. Is it as good as the rest of the album? Probably not, but it's still a very solid, very unusual song that you wouldn't typically hear on a MAIDEN album.
The tenth song, "The Man of Sorrows", is a dark, brooding track, but is probably the least memorable one on the album. Somehow it just doesn't grab me the way the others do- though I suspect that it will probably grow on me the way that "Fortunes of War" from The X Factor did, back in the day. Back then, I couldn't see the point of that song; nowadays, it's one of my favourite songs from this band.
But it is the eleventh and final song that is truly special. The entire album thus far is an amazing ride, full of twists and turns and unexpected, brilliant pleasures. Yet this track may be perhaps the greatest song this magnificent band has ever made. And that is because it is NOTHING like their past work.
It starts off with a piano playing a soft ballad-like introduction, and builds slowly through Bruce Dickinson's mesmerising lyrics about the final, tragic flight of the zeppelin R101. Bruce uses this song to tell a story, but he does it in such brilliant fashion. He weaves together vivid images in your head, accompanied by soaring music that perfectly accompanies his tale, all while that piano adds a totally different dimension to the band's metal onslaught.
Sure, the "SOS" section in the middle is kind of stupid and jarring, I'll admit that much. And yet, by the time the song closes with those beautiful, poignant lyrics, you'll find that you've gone on a journey with the band, through space and time, to see and experience that last flight through the storm that brought down what was, at the time, the biggest airship of her kind.
This album promises much. It delivers even more. Like the band that created it, it is far greater than the sum of its parts.
Is it without flaws? Of course not. The production is as uneven as the last few MAIDEN albums have always been; the reason why the levels always sound weird on IRON MAIDEN studio albums is basically because, even though Kevin Shirley "produces" the albums, in reality, Steve Harris dictates what the albums will sound like. And the man is, at this point, half-deaf from standing next to massive amps on stage for so many decades. His ability to hear beyond the middle range is practically non-existent. That's why every MAIDEN album since The X Factor has sounded like it was recorded in a garage.
It is also fair to argue that a lot of the songs- far too many of them- from the last six albums have all sounded like basically extended jam sessions. I'm pretty sure that's actually what happened with some of the longer tracks on Brave New World, for instance.
And yeah, the band has three guitars that sound like there is half a guitar in the mix. To be fair, a weak guitar sound has always been a feature of the band's sound, ever since the beginning; it lets Steve play the bass almost like another rhythm guitar. And the mix drowns out Bruce's voice, it's true.
But this band doesn't apologise for what it is. Yes, the direction has gotten distinctly more proggy over the last fifteen years. Well, so what? This is the GREATEST BAND OF ALL TIME. They have nothing left to prove to anyone. And yet they go on proving, year in and year out, that they are the classiest, most talented, most business-savvy, and most fan-friendly band of any real note, that continues to go from strength to strength.
A word must be mentioned here about Bruce Dickinson's remarkable vocal performance here. The other day, I'd just finished listening to this album, and then I started listening to Brave New World and The Chemical Wedding. Now, these albums were recorded when Bruce was at his absolute vocal peak. His astonishing voice had benefited from extensive time off and from projects that were suited perfectly to his singing style.
And that was when I realised that his singing on this new album was every bit as good as it was fifteen years ago.
I have no idea how the hell he does it. On-stage, the man is an absolute blur. He's a ball of manic energy that somehow never misses a cue, hardly ever screws up a lyric, always hits the right notes, and never ever seems to slow down or tire out.
So when I heard that he had cancer, I prayed for him, hoping that he would recover. And boy, has he ever!
This album was worth the wait. It is, quite simply, magnificent.
Didact's Verdict: See, now this is where it gets tricky.
It's a new IRON MAIDEN album. Asking me to be objective about IRON MAIDEN, relative to other bands, is an exercise in futility. Of course I'm going to give it a 5/5. No other band comes anywhere close.
But how about when compared with other albums from their back-catalogue?
Well that's where it gets tough.
IRON MAIDEN has never, ever, made a truly bad album. They have come close with Killers, No Prayer for the Dying, and maybe parts of A Matter of Life and Death. Yet each of those albums has its redeeming features. There is always something to enjoy about a MAIDEN album, and each one can be savoured on its own.
So if we take Powerslave and Seventh Son of a Seventh Son as their absolute peak, 5/5, where does it rank?
Well, it's better than anything they've done since 1988, that's for damn sure. But it's still not, quite, as brilliant as SSOASS. It's better than the seminal Brave New World in terms of quality of the songs. It's got better production and better material than Dance of Death. It's more exciting and more interesting than The X Factor. And it's far more even, and better paced, than Fear of the Dark.
So, relative to their back-catalogue, I'd have to rate it at... 4.5/5. Better than anything else they've done other than Number of the Beast, Piece of Mind, Powerslave, and Seventh Son.
So what's my verdict?
Dude... you read through all of that and you still have to ask?