Once more the mighty Iron Maiden has climbed atop the mountains of heavy metal with their brand new album The Book of Souls. As their first album in five years and their sixteenth in a career spanning four decades, Maiden’s Book of Souls is an impressive achievement in and of itself. First and foremost, it’s the group’s first double album. For Iron Maiden, this is a true feat. It’s anything but easy to make an album of fresh and engaging heavy metal in this day and age. It’s even more difficult for such an iconic band to somehow maintain their integrity and relevance after forty years. One could argue they’ve overcome both these challenges twice over with the new double album. But that’s not to say the album is perfect. A closer look at the album’s first single, “Speed of Light,” certainly shows that the band is aging. But all things considered, they’re doing so with grace and well deserved respect, especially since the announcement of their Book of Souls World Tour starting in the U.S in February 2016.
If any listener was unsure of the artist’s identity at the song’s start, we can be sure their uncertainties were swiftly alleviated. As the song opens in earnest, we’re treated to a classic maniacal howl from Bruce Dickinson. Along with his stellar performances during the verses and his superbly gratuitous delivery of the closing line “We’re slippin’ into the night,” Dickinson makes it apparent that his pipes are still intact. Yet this makes the nearly obnoxious repetition of the chorus all the more confusing. While Dickinson confidently nails all his other lines, every delivery of the first chorus line, “Shadows and the stars,” is obviously forced. Everyone in the metal community knows Dickinson is a legendary vocalist. But this doesn’t make him immune from getting older. Inevitably, every vocalist’s range will diminish over time. Despite this, a vocalist as talented as Dickinson ought to do just fine without a couple of those higher soaring notes. For how impressive the rest of his performance is, it’s almost a travesty that he would force the issue. Though he might technically be hitting the note, it’s totally apparent he’s straining to do so. Meanwhile, the lyrics themselves are somewhat uninspired. With the theme of traveling at light speed, there’s no question we’re hearing a Maiden track. But the narrative is fairly nebulous and lacks the epic story telling we’ve come to expect from Maiden lyrics. Then again, the “Speed of Light” is a concise rocker put next to some of the album’s lengthier explorations—the album closer “Empire of Clouds” is Maiden’s longest track to date clocking in at an astonishing eighteen minutes. Considering it’s meant to be a bit of an anthem single marking the return of the Maiden, it’s not too difficult to look past the lack of lyrical substance.
Vocals and lyrics aside, the instrumentation is actually pretty on point. Nikko McBrain’s drums are as thunderous as ever, thanks to producer Kevin Shirley’s wisdom and experience. This comes as no surprise considering Shirley was behind the mixing for Led Zeppelin’s live album How the West Was Won. Anyone who’s worked on mixing John Bonham’s drums knows a thing or two about the power of a raw and hearty drum sound. Moreover, the song features plenty of Janick Gers and Dave Murray’s guitar wizardry. What Maiden tune would be complete without dueling guitar solos? While the mix might be a bit muddy, the track is otherwise a pretty rocking endeavor. It’s possible this might be the result of their trying to obtain that raw neo-old school sound that is becoming all the rage in metal today. Though they’ve totally succeeded in this and it’s undoubtedly powerful, the production approach might have benefited from being a little subtler. The old school vibe really works for the bands going for that classic Sabbath sound. But Maiden’s technical prowess probably deservers a tad more clarity. At any rate, in this age of streaming, increasingly fewer people have the opportunity to hear the tune at a fidelity where such a criticisms are truly relevant.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about “Speed of Light” is the way Maiden has gone about promoting it. Like any single released by a major artist, “Speed of light” has its own music video. But what sets this single apart from others is that the video actually makes the song work infinitely better. Animated like a videogame, we see Maiden’s beloved zombie mascot Eddie soar through a strange digital abyss as he travels to different parallel universes. Within each self contained and uniquely animated videogame universe, we see Eddie battle a plethora of different adversaries. At one point, there’s an homage to Sega’s Mortal Kombat and near the end we even get to see Eddie blow up a Tyrannosaurus Rex with a plasma gun. Needless to say, it’s a pretty entertaining video. After only a few viewings, it becomes apparent that the video makes the song considerably better. One almost wonders if Maiden purposefully wrote the song with a videogame in mind. Upon further reflection, a lot of their tunes would do well in videogame soundtracks.
Clearly the band made this connection too when they decided to have an actual 8-bit video game made to accompany the single.
Fittingly, the gameplay is also featured as one of the videogame worlds Eddie visits in the music video. While the game isn’t anything to write home about it’s actually kind of addicting. It’s essentially the Iron Maiden version of the classic arcade Donkey Kong with a few fun metal tweaks. Playing as Eddie, the objective is to rescue the redheaded 8-bit vixen from the clutches of a burly thug who’s hurling burning televisions and barrels at you. In order to do so, you’ve got to ascend ladders without being hit by any objects. On each level new and exciting weapons appear for you to kill the thug. Naturally, the number of ladders increases with each level making it more difficult to ascend without being killed. If you’re like me you may lose interest after failing to beat the fifth level for the thirtieth time in a row. But it’s easy to see how die-hard fans could get sucked into it indefinitely. Appropriately, the game’s highest score maxes out at 66,666,666. Disturbingly, it appears several possessed souls were able to achieve this. The amount of times these individuals had to endure the game’s infectious 8-bit loop of “Speed of Light” is completely mind-boggling.
Nevertheless, it’s clear Iron Maiden have done quite well with this new single and new album. In spite of my criticisms, the album is still badass for a bunch of old dudes. They’ve still got the chops, and it’s probably their best album since the 80s. But more importantly, they’ve managed to stay current with the times. It’s not enough to have good music anymore. You need an immersive and interactive experience to connect to your fan base. In a very novel and fun way, Iron Maiden has created just that with their new single, video, and videogame. It will be exciting to see what they do in the way of promotion for their next single. Maybe they could put “Empire of the Clouds” to an HBO mini-series. I’d watch it.