(Here’s Wil Cifer‘s review of the new Iron Maiden album, which was released three days ago.)
The unholy trinity of Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden spawned all metal since their influence trickled down to Metallica, Slayer, Bathory, and pretty much anyone wearing a bullet belt since then. Now with album 17, Iron Maiden comes back stronger than ever after a six-year hiatus from the studio. I assumed The Book of Souls was going to be their last album, and even after hearing the single for “The Writing on the Wall“ I was not expecting a double-album worth of material.
When I press play on any Maiden album since Brave New World my immediate worry is what shape is Bruce‘s voice going to be in? Now that he’s at age 63 this is an even more legitimate concern given the fact that his leather-lunged voice is a defining staple of their sound. This is put to rest after hearing how Bruce belts it out on the title track that opens the album. Given that the producer was Kevin Shirley, who worked with Rush, Dream Theater and Journey, another surprise is how beefy the guitar tone is — though Steve Harris co-produced, so I am sure breathing over his shoulder every step of the way. “Stratego” that follows is even more of an urgent headbanger and has its boot firmly on the monitor.
The first single “The Writing on the Wall” is very blues-based and more rock ‘n’ roll than metal. This is one of the few songs that had to grow on me, but after repeat listens it is hard not to like such great guitar work. The lost art of guitar solos is finely honed here. They are done in a manner that complements the song rather than takes the spotlight for sheer masturbatory excess. “Lost in a Lost World” could have come from 1988. Bruce’s voice coasts nicely over the verse in a more subtle manner. Midway in is another mandatory headbanging riff sure to pump up arenas.
The riffs might not carry the aggression of “Moonchild” when they pick up the pace on a song like “Days of Future Past”, but they balance it out with the dynamics of songwriting. On “The Time Machine” there is more room for Bruce to open up and give a more nuanced vocal performance. The throb of the verse riff is an interesting shift from the expected heavy metal tropes they invented.
They continue to divert from this going into the second album with “Darkest Hour”, which is a moodier ballad-like piece that swells with a dynamic climax. Another song with no clear-cut DNA to be traced back to earlier work. While the same can be said for “The Writing on the Wall”, this one is more emotionally gripping.
Steve Harris proves why he is one of the greatest metal bass players, and not just when galloping, with the more melodic phrasing for “Death of the Celts” . The folkish metal haunting the song takes you back to “Piece of Mind”-era prog musings. This is a reminder of how huge an influence Maiden had on folk metal. This song embraces their classic sound, and even in the more frolicking passages they still keep you very engaged.
Things get much more proggy with “The Parchment”. At twelve minutes and thirty-nine seconds it is still shorter than “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”. The chugged riff at the two-minute mark triggers impulse headbanging. Perhaps the first song since Gers joined in 1990 when I have noticed all three guitarists playing distinct parts at the same time (something I paid more attention to during their live shows). This song is a testament to the playing of all three guitarists as each of them shine.
The album closes with the gallop prog of “Hell on Earth”. There is a calm before the more triumphant gallop they are known for kicks in. The guitar harmonies which are another signature of their sound are still present, but not confined to the ’80s formula popular from songs like “The Trooper”.
Sure these guys are one of my favorite bands, but this also means I judge them by a standard greater than what the average metal band must meet, since Maiden have such a legendary legacy to live up to. The album was not written to win over new fans, but as a thank you to those of us who have made the journey with the band. Amazing that they still have as much fire in their writing this late in the career.