Not counting the abominable Geoff Tate fronted “Queensrÿche” album Frequency Unknown (because surely, who counts it?), Condition Hüman is the band’s thirteenth album of original material, and most importantly, their second album without the thankfully departed Tate. I was encouraged by their first outing without him at the helm, where they demonstrated that they still had a rather good songwriting core to build upon and a talented vocalist to pick up where they left off as a band unit (take your pick what album or year that was, mine is 1994’s Promised Land). By all rights, album number two was where the newly renewed Queensrÿche should take shape and deliver something truly remarkable. The verdict? I’m having a hard time coming to terms with what that might be… there are instances when I listen to this album all the way through and am impressed and mentally locked into these songs, and other times when I’ll find myself disengaging. I first thought that it was just me, that the ADD inducing amount of music I’ve had to listen to has effectively destroyed my ability to concentrate (might be some truth to that), but I won’t really know for sure until I dissect this thing.
Let’s make it easy on ourselves and get the good stuff out of the way first: I actually think “Arrow of Time” and “Guardian” might be the best one-two opening punch combo that the band has delivered on an album since “Best I Can”/”The Thin Line” off Empire (hey I love “Best I Can”, the “backstreet hoops star he’s got it good” lyric is perfectly accented). When I first heard “Arrow of Time” all those months ago when it was issued as an early single, I felt it sounded good but it just didn’t resonate with me… I suspect I wanted to hear something a little more “epic” for lack of a better term. Fast forward to playing it context with the rest of the album, and it makes perfect sense, that alarm blaring opening guitar figure, the accelerating verse sections propelled by some unabashedly furious percussion from Scott Rockenfield —- its briefly slowed down mid-section bridge displaying a hint of Porcupine Tree-esque shifting dynamics with an undulating rhythm section and airily adrift notes from guitarist Michael Wilton. The better single however might be “Guardian”, with a staggered call and response vocal in its chorus that is ear-wormy and serves the “revolution calling” lyrical throwback to that one album we’ve all collectively fawned over I’m sure. The third song “Hellfire” is a winner too, with its moody acoustic intro, stormy surges of angry guitar playing point-counterpoint to a simply amazing vocal by Todd La Torre (who is on fine form throughout the album).
He displays that talent on what might be the album’s best song in “Bulletproof”, the spiritual cousin to “In This Light” from their 2013 self-titled album, a song I loved but criticized for its short length. Both are shimmering power ballads not built upon delicate acoustic pluckings ala “Silent Lucidity” or “Bridge” (to cite two Chris DeGarmo penned ballady classics), but on full on, plugged in wailing guitar screams. I actually get an Amaranthe-vibe from “Bulletproof”, likely due to something in the way the guitars seem to pulse in and out behind La Torre’s soaring vocals during the chorus (the vocal layering might also have something to do with it). Its a song that largely succeeds in being compelling listening simply because it does sound so insistent. That’s the keyword, insistent, a trait I hear in those relatively reigned in verse sections where Rockenfield slices the spacey vocal and guitar dreamscape with assured single hits and tension escalating patterns on the hi-hat (of which he’s a master of). I realize this concept of something sounding “insistent” is ambiguous in definition, but I hear it in all the songs I enjoy on this album, its the sound of the band’s fundamental DNA, the audible traits that made their first six albums so compelling regardless of their particular stylistic differences. Its present on the Eddie Jackson solo penned (kinda surprising that) “Eye9”, with its rather complex rhythmic structures shifting and sliding all over the place, giving the song an unsettling feeling that brilliantly contrasted with a gorgeously vocal layered chorus.
So now there’s the problem children: First up is “Just Us”, a song that I actually like with its pastoral open chord sequences reminding me of something that could’ve fit in on Hear In the Now Frontier (an album maligned by many, quietly enjoyed by myself simply on the sheer strength of DeGarmo’s songwriting ability alone… that being said it lacked the “insistent” urgency that we talked about earlier). It has a gorgeous chorus, there’s simply no other word to describe it, with Jackson’s layered backing vocals bringing me back to the days when he and DeGarmo were one of the best harmony backing vocal teams in all of rock and metal. The song even sounds DeGarmo-ian, and perhaps that will only make sense to Queensryche fans, and maybe that was Wilton’s way of paying tribute to his former bandmate (he cowrote the song with La Torre, whose lyrics even read a little close to the theme of “Silent Lucidity”… these are just casual observations though, I’m not suggesting they actually wrote a DeGarmo tribute). The problem is that its impact is diminished in a full album play through by being sandwiched between two uneventful, at times even boring tracks in “Hourglass” and “All There Was”, songs that not only come across as directionless, but seem unfinished, half-baked in their actual songwriting. Didn’t they whittle down this tracklisting from a larger pool of twenty something songs? I don’t understand their inclusion, and while the epic closing title track and its fifty-six second lead in “The Aftermath” aim to hit upon a touchstone of the band’s past (that is, long form pieces with thoughtful tones ala “Anybody Listening” or “Promised Land”), they both lack actual memorable melodic motifs that you’re supposed to utilize to keep a listener’s attention. You need melodies here guys, not hodgepodges of metallic riffs —- I couldn’t find a vocal melody worth remembering.
Then there’s something else entirely —- what is up with the awful artwork? I’m asking seriously. This isn’t a band that’s been known for consistently choosing quality artwork throughout their career but this is an eyesore. I couldn’t find many other examples of the listed artist Joe Helm’s work, and I don’t mean to be spiteful or disparaging of his talent in general, but this specific piece… wow, why is the font so bland (and for that matter, so prominently sized?). It doesn’t get much better inside the booklet, where the decision to print the lyrics in an illegible font with dark color against a black background somehow passed inspection. I’m not a graphic artist, but even I know dark text against a dark background is a serious no-no. And why the “edgy” looking font? This is a metal band made up of mostly older guys, making music for an equally older audience who likely will need to don their reading glasses and Ibuprofen to make it through any attempt at reading the booklet. Are we trying to impress the Hot Topic set? Even more questionable is the choice of font for the credits which looks like the kind of thing you’d expect a local metal band with zero budget to pull off on their home printer for their 3$ demo they end up passing out for free at local shows. Why does all this tick me off so much? Because it actually can distract from the music itself. Because I went out and paid for a physical copy of this thing! I could’ve easily just bought the download and spared my eyes and fuel tank. Because in an era of rapidly declining physical music sales, you need to pay attention to every detail of the physical product to make it worth anyone’s money… there are so many bands in prog and metal trying harder at this (see everything Steven Wilson puts his name to), so why aren’t Queensrÿche?
So I decided to leave this until last, because I’ve stumbled upon the reason why I’m sometimes disengaged from this album. Its the production. The producer was the eyebrow raising choice of Chris “Zeuss” Harris, most known for his work with Shadows Fall and a ton of metalcore bands. There was criticism of the previous self-titled album having production issues as well, being pumped up too loud and resulting in DRM issues, but it was mixed by Jimbo Barton, a guy who had experience in understanding how the band was supposed to sound —- and he succeeded in that regard, it managed to recapture that classic aural essence. I’ve never been a fan of Zeuss’ productions, he made a band like Shadows Fall sound paper thin on album, choosing to favor a clinical approach for a band that should’ve sounded gritty and a little dirty. His style was apparently great for metalcore bands, who wanted their accessible melodies and clean choruses to pop (not a criticism, just observation). But when he brings that reliance on flattening rhythm guitars, muted bass (damn near heresy considering Jackson’s abilities), and worst of all the application of samples on Rockenfield’s drum sound, he squanders everything that is most sacred about the fundamental sound of the band. These songs are betrayed by this hollow production, and the band is robbed of what could arguably be deemed a near great album. Its tempered to merely good, and that’s not good enough at this point.
I’d love to one day read an insider’s perspective on why and how Scandinavian metal bands simply seem to flourish longer and better than their non-Scandinavian counterparts. I’m sure the answer lies in a nexus somewhere between the role of music education in their primary schools, the ability to provide a collegiate/university level education for free, and the support of the government for arts programs that help subsidize musicians. Now of course, that’s all possible because of the relatively low population of those countries in question, but still, there’s something else elusive here that I’m unable to articulate. Is it simply those countries’ beautiful natural landscapes that provide a sustaining current of motivation and inspiration? I think all of those aspects could help to explain why Scandinavian musicians flourish longer, but what makes them flourish better is a mystery that there might not be a tangible explanation for.
See here we have Finland’s Amorphis, a band that shot out of the gate releasing a bonafide masterpiece in 1994’s Tales from the Thousand Lakes, just their second album. It was as influential as a death metal album could be, helping to forge the melodic death metal genre and even pioneering the usage of folk melody in metal. Then there was 2009’s Skyforger, their almost-a-masterpiece of the Tomi Joutsen era that I personally felt was a few more strong melodies and hooks away from really nailing it. Still, bands rarely deliver two truly excellent albums, let alone those separated by more than a decade, and it was proof that the band’s talent was enduring. But the albums before, in between, and after those have always been a little hit and miss. Take 2013’s Circle, a fairly good album, but one that eluded my year end best of list —- its flawless gem of a single however, one “Hopeless Days”, was one of the most addictive, sublime songs of that year. You could go back through all their albums and find a song or two that really stands out, those diamonds in the rough as it were. I suspect this is a band whose minimum talent level in songwriting and performing is pretty much a bulwark against their releasing something that’s awful from start to finish.
So its simultaneously surprising and not all that surprising that their twelfth and latest album, Under the Red Cloud, is their second truly flawless masterwork —- an album so beautiful, so full of rich melodies and thoughtful harmonies that flow under and over poetic, elegiac lyrics —- that it is threatening as a serious contender for the top spot on my album of the year list. What rational explanation is there for a band to release arguably its flat out best album more than twenty years into its career? Let’s see, its football season, baseball postseason, and the start of the NBA, so we’ll use a sports metaphor: Its extremely difficult to win a championship, for any team, no matter how good they usually are. Just ask the New England Patriots, who won three Super Bowls from 2001-2004, only to have to wait until this past February to earn their fourth title. The only logical thing a team can do is to build what they refer to as a “post-season contender”, that is a team that does well enough in the regular season to ensure a playoff berth. Again I’ll refer to the Patriots, who since installing the seemingly infallible Tom Brady at quarterback on 9/23/01 have only missed out on reaching the playoffs two seasons out of the past fourteen. That’s insane. Its also a rather unusually dead-on analogy for the success of this album.
There are arguably no bad Amorphis albums. This isn’t a band that does anything less than solid, good, or above average. They could be seen as the New England Patriots of Finnish metal (then again, there are a lot of consistently excellent Finnish metal bands out there, so we might need to utilize more team names if this analogy really gets going), a band that consistently delivers new albums that are worth our time and attention, even if they don’t always go the distance. Just like the Patriots and their amazing run of playoff berths in the past fourteen years, Amorphis have been a prolific entity as well, twelve albums in twenty odd years is a respectable clip for a modest metal band. They’ve also been through quite a few lineup changes throughout the years, just like the Patriots, who have only retained Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick all throughout their 2001-present day reign of terror. Fans of the Patriots know that as long as their team is good enough to earn a playoff berth, they might be able to “get hot” during the playoffs and “make a run” at getting to the Superbowl and winning the championship (for you non NFL followers, they made it back to the Super Bowl in 2007 and 2011, losing both times to the New York Giants). Similarly, Amorphis’ consistent stabs at unleashing another masterpiece to their name have yielded a stunning number of almost-there releases, all until this one —- this time, the band didn’t bow out of the playoffs, they got hot and made a run towards immortality. Consider Under the Red Cloud their Vince Lombardi trophy.
Where to begin… jeez, alright let’s just start at the very beginning. I’m in love with the charming, almost playful skip of the intro piano lines that like a conductor usher in warm bass notes, moody guitar figures, soft and hard cymbal crashes, and finally a skeleton of the melodic motif that anchors the album’s title track (also one of the first instances I can remember that a title track starts off an album). Its worth noting straight away just how much of a yin/yang thing guitarist Esa Holopainen and keyboardist Santeri Kallio have going as the band’s primary songwriters. They’ve been essentially splitting the songwriting duties since 2006’s Eclipse (perhaps before then too, but they only started noting individual member contributions on that album onwards), and they’ve collectively done a fine job, albeit with my tastes traditionally leaning more towards Holopainen’s mainline to that Finnish melancholy that I love so much. On the new album however, their differences in songwriting palettes work in perfect synergy, Kallio’s songs are uptempo, expansive, bright even, with accessible thru lines very apparently structured around keyboard forged melodies. Meanwhile, Holopainen’s songs are a little darker, the riffs more melo-death tight, with barreling forward rhythmic assaults that at certain moments blur the lines between melo-death and black metal. Their combined efforts have never before produced such a multifaceted, diverse body of work —- every song here has its own personality, its purpose and place.
Kallio’s opening title track is certainly gorgeous, but its his gem “Bad Blood” where he really hits a new apex in his songwriting. First there’s the inventiveness of the primary melody at work, itself a constantly shifting, cascading succession of notes that acts more as a motif (that word again!) rather than a hook line. It pops up for example in the intro to the song, then as a post-chorus coda, only to wind up as an understated guitar solo, finally to wind its way out as the song’s outro… a lot to ask of a simple, snake-like melody but it holds up to the all the duress. Underneath rhythm guitars slam down slabs of heaviness in punishing riffs to complement Joutsen’s intensely gritty doom-death vocals during the verses. Of course Joutsen being the gifted clean vocalist that he is treats us to one of his trademarked soaring deliveries during the chorus, an addictive ear-wormy vocal hook that has not left my mind since first hearing it. This might be one of the most compulsively headbanging songs of 2015, one that sees Amorphis reflecting the influence of last year’s Thousand Lakes 20th anniversary tour —- they simply haven’t sounded this brutal since the mid-nineties. Its also nice that Kallio’s more stridently melodic songs can still deliver the wood, that he and Holopainen haven’t simply settled into “I’ll write the poppier stuff and you write the more metal stuff” type of dynamic. A song like “Bad Blood” is proof that you can have crushing heaviness and pop accessibility merge together, it just takes skillful songwriting.
I’m not suggesting however that Holopainen himself isn’t capable of writing something anthemic or catchy (this is the guy who wrote “House of Sleep” and “Hopeless Days” after all), as he proves on the album’s second single “Sacrifice”. As a brief aside from discussing the album, if you haven’t seen the music video for this one, scroll all the way down this review and check it out immediately (placed on this page so you won’t go to YouTube and get baited by the suggested videos bar to the right, particularly the Halloween Whopper review, that’s a detour from which you’ll never come back). Its a rare example of a metal band getting a music video right, with inspired cinematography, an interesting concept divorced from the band’s performance footage —- which itself is tastefully done and not reliant on cheap gimmicks such as flamboyant pyrotechnics and assorted light show ephemera (all of which sadly enough, marred their video for “Death of A King”). Maybe having easy access to the Finnish countryside helps considerably too. As for the song itself, “Sacrifice” is built upon jets of Sentenced-ish major-minor key alternations, with a cinematic chorus that is built upon Joustsen’s strident vocal melody. Its classic Joutsen era Amorphis, and a vivid example of why their decision to continue outsourcing their lyrics to Finnish poet/artist Pekka Kainulainen is a smart one. Consider the chorus lyric: “Come when the sun has gone away / When the warmth has gone / Take what I will give you / Accept my sacrifice”. Credit to Joutsen for keeping his translation of Kainulainen as simple and elegant as possible.
Yes, that’s right, Kainulainen writes his lyrics for Amorphis in Finnish, as poems built around a concept the band has discussed with him or perhaps something of his own inspiration. Joutsen then takes the final finished versions and has to translate them into English, essentially deconstructing a poem and then reassembling it, all while working out vocal melodies at the same time. Joutsen introduced Kainulainen to the rest of the band for 2007’s Silent Waters, where he wrote the lyrics based upon a character from the Kalevala, and continued the Kalevala based theme through Skyforger and The Beginning of Times. For the Circle album, he offered up lyrics based on an original story concerning an outsider beset by doom from birth who relies on his internal spiritual strength to persevere and survive. This shift away from the Kalevala continues on Under the Red Cloud, this time without a concept at all, making this a rare collection of standalone songs —- the only loose connection being the album title, that all these songs reflect some ominous portent of the troubled state of the world today, of living under a red cloud. Regardless of the thematic nature of the lyrics or lack thereof, Kainulainen’s lyrics are full of concrete imagery, often placing the narrator or unnamed character in some kind of physical place, rarely relying on purely metaphysical ideas. He often references nature in its most clear and absolute terms by invoking natural objects or phenomena. Its a facet of his lyricism that informs everything, a sense of a sturdy hand, that you’re listening to words that could be recited by someone sitting around a flickering campfire telling you long remembered stories.
Its stunning then to realize that Amorphis write their music first, long before the completion of Kainulainen’s lyrics —- this means that when Joutsen receives them, he has to translate them to English all while keeping an ear open for vocal melody development. On one hand I suppose it could be relatively easier than it sounds, given that he has fleshed out songs and melodies to work with already, but what if the translation isn’t allowing for a string of consonants that will work with the established rhythm or piano or guitar melody? That would mean both he and the band go back to the drawing board, reconfigure parts of the music in order to make everything fit and sound as smooth and intuitive as we hear on the finished album. The thing is, if you’re using translations of lyrics, there’s only so far you can alter words or phrases before the ideas that Kainulainen posited in Finnish get lost in translation. I imagine Joutsen has some leeway but still has to ensure that the original spirit and intent is still intact, that when we hear such a visceral lyric such as “From a distance the crack of thunder / And the red cloud swallowed the sky”, it is as close to what the author intended as possible. Realizing the difficulty of that makes me appreciate all the scattered isolated moments where the music seems to shift in anticipation of a narrative or tonal shift in the lyrics, such as at the 2:16 mark on “The Four Wise Ones”, where a furious battery of melo-death riffs and often near black metal vocals from Joutsen give pause for breathy, soothing female vocals by Aleah Stanbridge. That’s her again on “White Night”, where her co-lead vocal is mesmerizing in its own right.
If “Bad Blood” and “Sacrifice” are my two ultimate favorites from an album full of wonderful songs, then “Tree of Life” is a very close third. Its the closest they’ve leaned towards pure folk-metal in a long time, and some may think that its flute melodies owe more to latter day bands of that style (which is not totally off base, Eluveitie’s Chrigel Glanzmann is all over the album providing flute and tin whistle, particularly on this song), but it sounds completely like Amorphis to me, with that rush of keyboards and guitars working in tandem in the small instrumental bridge that builds up to that explosive chorus —- what a beautiful melody. Joutsen’s melo-death vocals during the verses here are crisp and enunciated, almost like jagged peaks of a mountain, rising and falling with sharpness and precise angles. Holopainen’s lead guitars here are elegant, confident and full of emotion, and Tomi Koivursaari lays down awesome riff after awesome riff, and that’s not just on this song, but the whole album. These two shine like few guitar tandems in metal ever get to, check out their high water mark on “Death of a King” where they utilize sitar-like effects in sparse patterns as an accent to their conventional guitar tones, all arranged together in glorious open chord sequences that shimmer and pop. They sometimes selflessly pattern their runs to reinforce Kallio’s keyboards, such as on his dramatic, tension raising crescendos on “Enemy At the Gates”, an effect that practically amounts to a orchestra style wave of sound. And perhaps Jan Rechberger could tutor Nicko McBrain a bit in how to get creative with percussion patterns, fills and accents —- his work all across the album is mesmerizing.
Normally in reviews I tend to group together my discussion of the good stuff separate from my discussion of the not so good stuff, but its all good stuff here (to use the least colorful adjective imaginable). I was discussing this album with my MSRcast co-host Cary during our recording of a soon to be released episode and we both agreed that it seemed like Amorphis finally struck upon the perfect balance of utilizing Joutsen’s brusque, near-obsidian melo-death growls and his soaring, almost quasi-baritone like clean vocals. We also seemed of the same mindset in thinking that it just sounds like the melodies are flowing easier this time around, nothing on this album seems forced… perhaps another hint of influence from the Thousand Lakes anniversary tour, recalling those easy melodies of that distant classic and that era of the band in general. I think there’s some honest truth to that but to solely pin it on a nostalgic visitation of a prior era is misguided and inaccurate —- Under the Red Cloud is built upon its immediate predecessors, seemingly a distillation of only the purest elements that they’ve been brewing since Eclipse: gorgeous, Finnish-style melancholy in the form of crystalline melodies, a reinvigorated take on aggressive, extreme metal after a few albums of what was largely rock, and the daring to expand elements of their sound when needed. I’ll say it again, that front to finish, this might be the most fully realized and best album Amorphis has ever written and recorded, and I know I’m risking sacrilege at the very idea, but seriously, take a listen, a good long listen.
To say that I am at once overwhelmed, apprehensive, and more than a little doubtful of my capability to write eloquently about Iron Maiden’s new album, The Book of Souls, is to say the very least. Perhaps I haven’t said it enough in the past, but among all the bands I honestly deem my favorites only Iron Maiden stands well above the rest —- unquestionably my most loved band of all time, heedless of genre. They’re my most loved for a litany of reasons; for not only their vast array of stunning albums and enthralling songs, but for the astonishing story of their actual band history, the individual personalities involved, their often demonstrated sense of humor, and their steadfast, unwavering commitment to their distinctive stamp on metal —- never chasing trends, never compromising their vision. You could call me a fanboy and I’d likely nod in agreement, but there’s a unique trait among Maiden’s diehards (even the fanboys/girls) not often seen in fans of other bands, namely, the willingness to admit that not everything the band touches is gold, that there have been shaky albums, that there exist some songs that can rightfully be deemed clunkers.
Yet that attention to detail and willingness to admit the fallibility of our heroes is set against a backdrop of the sense of their impending mortality as a functioning band. Its not clear whether or not The Book of Souls will be the final Iron Maiden studio album, but its getting late in the game, the band knows it, we know it, and consider that by the time the as expected world touring for this album is finished, another 2-3 years will have passed (at least). The five year gap between this and 2010’s The Final Frontier was the longest period of time in between any two Iron Maiden albums, and it was devastating in terms of the band’s future longevity. To the band’s credit, they’ve made respectable use of their post reunion time: three years separated Brave New World to Dance of Death to A Matter of Life and Death, four separating the latter to The Final Frontier… a well paced clip for a veteran metal band whose tours have become gargantuan, media-stirring events in themselves, certainly leaps better than Metallica’s two studio albums in the past fifteen years. But at some point in the future, sooner or later, we’ll read an announcement that the mightiest of them all will be calling it a day, and when that occurs thousands upon thousands of Maiden fans across the world will feel a somber gravity deep in their guts, the opening of a yearning chasm that won’t ever close. No, I don’t think I’m exaggerating.
There will only ever be one Iron Maiden, a band so uniquely singular that they’ve inspired entire subgenres in their wake, and whose remaining years as a functioning unit —- for me anyway, are to be cherished and savored. Its impossible to be all things to all people all the time, and not everyone has been as thrilled with the post-Bruce/Adrian reunion as legions of others and I have. For those people, some of whom I know and respect greatly, there are still the tours to be enjoyed, but I feel a touch of sympathy for them in that they haven’t found something to love in the handful of post-reunion albums. For me, Maiden’s post-2000 studio albums have been about a veteran band that seemed strained and tired in the mid-90s finding renewed purpose, vigor, and creative vitality. They began to stretch their wings creatively, incorporating more of their oft-cited Jethro Tull influences into their songwriting and even instrumentation, as well as continuing to tell vivid and imaginative stories through their lyrics. A couple years back there was the release of a new Maiden compilation album, this one titled From Fear to Eternity: The Best of 1990 – 2010 —- and not only did I believe it to be an entirely justifiable release, but I felt that they missed a handful of gems that could’ve made the final tracklisting.
So when yet another new post-reunion Maiden album has taken up residence in our eardrums, there’s a few ways that it will typically be interpreted depending on the particularity of the audience. I’ll get specific: Maiden die-hards, faithful, lifers, etc (or use your own adjective!) will rejoice and give the album the benefit of many repeat listens, understanding that the band has largely transitioned into a more progressive rock influenced direction; a sound that is light years away from say the Dianno-era revivalism of 1990’s No Prayer for the Dying. Some of these die hard fans will love every iota of the new album and defend it quite passionately, while the bulk of the others will find much to enjoy about it while conceding that it may have weak spots here and there. A handful might even lament that it doesn’t do much for them, but that they’ll keep coming back to it over time, a fair enough response. But what they will all share is an appreciation for the mere fact that a band that started producing classics before many of us were born is still around in the year 2015, delivering an interesting new album written internally among long tenured band members (no outside songwriters here), and performed and recorded with eyes and ears towards both tradition and adventure. They can relish that the band is perhaps even more popular now than they were in the 80s, allowing them to be a part of a flourishing era in Maiden history.
Then there’s the cynics, mostly found online, who’ll loudly proclaim that the band should’ve retired after Seventh Son, or that any old bands still kicking around should give it up (as if ageism is suddenly an acceptable thing in metal, a genre built upon layers of tradition and acknowledging influences). Maybe this is just my thing, but I reserve a large amount of skepticism towards anyone who looks upon the very idea of a new Maiden album with anything resembling negativity —- because it begs the question: Where is their joy? What happened to their desire to be genuinely excited about new music by a legendary band, and more distressingly, are they still a metal fan at all? I’ve been pretty open about not being a Slayer fan, both here and on the MSRcast, but I’m aware of and interested in their new album. I wasn’t ever the biggest Ozzy with Black Sabbath fan (I know, look I prefer the Dio albums) but I was glad to listen to 13 and even enjoyed a good bit of it. I gave Metallica hell on this very blog about their constant delays in releasing a new album, but its largely motivated by my desire to see them make a great record again, for me to reconnect with a band that has long been a stranger to me. Its not uncommon that with the overwhelming presence of social media and its continuous stream of opinions that we’ll all get a bit jaded, cynical, distracted, overwhelmed, or just plain over it —- but when it is something that has roots in our upbringing as metal fans, don’t we owe it to ourselves to try to suppress those tendencies?
Why am I going on about such things? Because the album had only been out a mere day before I saw inane, dismissive takes (mostly found on comment sections of popular metal news sites and Facebook… believe it or not Twitter commenters are actually more insightful, despite only having 140 characters to work with) disparaging the album with a single adjective or snarky remark. It was as if some people believed that their sense of perception has been honed to a finely sharpened point thanks to the sheer amount of technological distractions on their phones and tablets, and that only one cursory listen of a new album is sufficient to render an opinion. Let me assure you, that for as loaded an album as The Book of Souls is in all its 92 packed minutes, it is not anywhere near enough. I’ve just hit my 32nd play through according to iTunes, and the first thing to come to mind from what I’ve learned about the album is that your best approach is to listen to disc one and two separately, as in take a generous break in between both. This was a strategy suggested by Adrien Begrand in his brilliant Popmatters review, now confirmed and absolutely endorsed by me. He’s right, 92 minutes of dense prog infused metal is too much to digest at once, even if its Maiden, because you’ll eventually lose track of what you’ve enjoyed and what you didn’t and things might start to blur together. Be patient, give yourself breaks, listen on speakers and headphones, and listen to other things to cleanse your palette.
This is not a perfect album, nor a masterpiece as I’ve seen proclaimed by many of the rabid faithful, because one thing a lot of spins in a concentrated period of time can prove is that the good stuff gets better and the not so good stuff just sticks out more. Angry Metal Guy seemed to hit the nail on the head in his recent Maiden career retrospective (recommended by the way, its terrific) when he said “I finally put my finger on the bane of Iron Maiden – an invention known as the compact disc”, pointing the finger at the band’s well-meaning yet possibly artistically detrimental attitude of giving the fans’ their money’s worth. I can’t argue with him, for as much as I’ve enjoyed the post-reunion albums I have felt that they could all benefit with a track or two left off as b-sides (if they still do that sort of thing). Also I take into account that I consider Seventh Son of a Seventh Son to be the band’s only perfect album, with its moderate LP-sized 44 minutes (also the length of No Prayer For the Dying, so LP-sized albums aren’t a perfect tonic all the time by any means). Double albums were always rare things, and now increasingly so, due largely I suspect to so many bands having the benefit of the knowledge that rarely do they ever work all that well. In interviews surrounding this release, Maiden made it clear that they didn’t care about such risks.
The Book of Souls has many high points, and they all seem to share defining traits that have characterized Maiden’s best work, that is metal that is tension fueled, high energy, and played with a sense of urgency regardless of the actual tempo, tone, and volume of the song. The best of them all is one of Maiden’s most poignant in “Tears of a Clown”, their tribute to the recently departed Robin Williams. Musically its a close cousin to The Final Frontier’s “Coming Home”, a steady mid-paced groover with Nicko’s best fills and frills showcase in ages, but its lyrically where Steve’s touching lyrics really hit home: “We saw the sadness in his eyes / It came as no surprise / And now of course we’ll never know”. In his interview with the CBC radio show Q, Bruce revealed that it was only after he had finished recording the song that he found out about its subject matter, which is pretty incredible considering the performance he turns in here, emotion pouring out of every note. To my knowledge, Maiden might be the first band to have recorded a song specifically about Williams’ tragic passing —- its made them a lot of headlines in non-metal media outlets, so its all the more gutsy that their take on it is steeped in melancholy and even grim acceptance: “Maybe it’s all just for the best / Lay his weary head to rest / Was forever feeling drowned / Tears of a clown”. In a single succinct quatrain, Harris puts into words what many of us (certainly myself for one) had briefly considered regarding Williams.
Bruce also triumphs on the album opener “If Eternity Should Fail”, which apparently started life as a potential song for a future Bruce solo album, and indeed it does structurally and musically owe more to his solo works than anything Maiden-related. Its recorded in drop D for one, a first for the band, and its entire aura seems like it could’ve fit at home on The Chemical Wedding or Tyranny of Souls. Its verses lack the traditional Maiden gallop or rhythmic Maiden march, instead relying on more traditional, straight ahead metal riffs that impact like a sledgehammer. The chorus is magnificent, you can hear echoes of Bruce’s solo writing style all throughout, particularly with the major keyed intonations during the lines “Waiting in line for the ending of time / If eternity should fail”. This might be one of my favorite Maiden album openers of all time, stormy and brooding, explosive and violent, its lyrics speaking vaguely of human mortality and the dawn of time. I wondered what the lyrics were about exactly and found Dickinson mentioning in an interview that the song was to be part of a concept album he was working on, about a machine that steals peoples’ souls (the awesome spoken word at the end is supposed to introduce a character named Doctor Necropolis). Harris was taken enough with the song to insist on it being adapted as a Maiden track, and to keep the conceptual narration ending despite it being unrelated to anything else on the album, and I agree with him, it was a great call. I will find myself wondering what it would’ve sounded like as part of Bruce’s future solo record though.
Where “If Eternity Should Fail” sees the band being daring and trying new things, they still know how to sound spectacularly like classic Maiden, such as on the near flawless “The Red and the Black”. Chances are it’ll be one of the first songs to really pop in the middle of the album, a prediction reinforced by the injection of plenty of galloping bass, swashbuckling vocal swings by Bruce, dueling lead guitars on beautifully melodic motifs that usher us along to familiar “Heaven Can Wait” styled “whooa ooohhhs!”. The recurrence of that golden Maiden-ism doesn’t feel forced, because if you’ve really paid attention you’ll know that they don’t utilize it all too often —- here its a treat, a lyric-less chorus that quivers with euphoria, the kind of song I’m chomping at the bit to hear live. All three guitarists erupt in a glorious soloing trade-off towards the end, while managing to maintain the intensity of the song as a whole. Similarly in the Janick Gers penned “Shadows of the Valley”, guitars take center stage with deft, quick motifs that work as tail end outro to a vocally dominated chorus, working as a punctuation mark for the song. Gers’ songwriting contributions to Maiden’s past twenty five years have been greatly undervalued, he’s been consistently knocking out quality stuff like this.
There are however a handful of cuts where either the recorded-live-in-studio approach works against the song, or where the songwriting itself needed extra work to help sculpt something better than the end result. For the former, take a minute to imagine if “The Great Unknown” were recorded with a little more in the way of clarity with regards to the guitar lines (and to a similar extent, Bruce’s vocals as well). The band has been using this quick takes / live jamming in studio recording approach since A Matter of Life and Death and while it works for the most part, there are have been moments even on that record and its followup where a little more musical definition would’ve allowed a melody to come through better. This extra definition could simply come in the form of choosing a better take (though we read reports that many of the final results were one take performances, a questionable call by producer Kevin Shirley), or by merely sitting down Adrian, Dave, or Janick to do some overdubs or track layering. For “The Great Unknown”, I’m specifically referring to the 2:23 – 3:06 mark where you can hear a trace of what this melody is supposed to be, but it sounds like its lost in the messiness of a live recording take that needed to be redone. At the 2:45 mark, the song shifts into what could be a very epic moment, but you just can’t hear it it soaring through the way it practically begs to —- its a gross miscalculation that they didn’t consider adding in a few guitar overdubs. This of course recurs throughout the song whenever this part pops up again, but if you’re interested in hearing what the actually melody does sound like, skip to the 4:10 – 4:31 mark. Its a solo I know, but hear that recording quality? Maiden’s melodies demand that kind of clarity to sound crisp and vivacious, and on studio albums they should be recorded to reflect that all the time!
As for the songs that needed some extra time in the songwriting oven, there’s the strangely empty sounding “When the River Runs Deep”, the unevenness of “The Book of Souls”, and the could’ve been amazing “The Man of Sorrows” (yet another Bruce solo career reference!). Lets tackle them in reverse order: I really wanted to love “The Man of Sorrows”, but I suspect where it all goes flat is that its nicely dramatic intro verse and exceptional bridge section doesn’t explode into an expected chorus right away, instead the song shifts to yet another expanded verse section set to a bed of plodding riffs that don’t really seem to have any melodic sequence to them. By the time the chorus rolls around, the song has lost any momentum it built up with that dramatic bridge (refer to 1:54 – 2:25 if you’re wondering what I’m talking about). The atmosphere of the song is cool, the outro mirroring the intro is a nice touch, but the song never really seems to take off in the middle. The same can’t quite be said for the title track, which at ten minutes plus has enough time for some really inspired moments in small pockets, but can’t sustain itself over its lumbering length. I love the recurring bridge part, can’t say the same for the chorus however, but quite enjoyed the shift towards rampaging Maiden-styled rocker in the final few minutes. As for “When the River Runs Deep”, its not a bad song per say (kinda reminds me of “El Dorado”, but then I liked that song) but it seems to be lacking in the guitar department —- seriously, listen to that chorus, is that just one guitar blandly riffing underneath? In a three guitar band that’s the best they came up with there?! Where are the other two guys?! It ends up sounding flat and… well, lazy.
And it comes as a shock and disappointment that its the two much trumpeted Bruce/Adrian co-written songs in “Death and Glory” and “Speed of Light” that first caught my attention as songs that seemed to be severely lacking. Setting aside their collaborations in the late 90s on Bruce’s solo albums Accident of Birth and The Chemical Wedding, these two haven’t actually written as a pair alone for Maiden since “Moonchild” on Seventh Son —- yes they’ve co-written on many Maiden songs since then, but always in conjunction with another band member (mostly Steve). When it was first leaked that we were going to be treated to not just one, but two Bruce/Adrian compositions, I think most of us had echoes of “Two Minutes to Midnight” ringing in our ears, a tantalizing promise of Adrian’s pop sensibilities with Bruce’s gift for lyrical storytelling. But neither of these two new songs hit upon either touchstone: “Death and Glory” seems lackadaisical, tired even, with its directionless open chord guitar blasts in the chorus making the song sound more like loose, boogie-based rock n’ roll than the soundtrack to soaring aerial combat as per the lyrics. On “Speed of Light”, the ill-advised choice for the first single, Bruce sings about space, time, and event horizons albeit in metaphysical fashion over a riff progression that recalls “Sea of Madness” from Somewhere In Time. Its does its job as a serviceable, rockin’ tune with a memorable chorus, except that its not nearly as melodic as it should be —-Bruce’s vocals straining in the chorus seem to be a pale substitute for something that’s lacking in the songwriting here. I was deaf to this song’s flaws when I first heard it premiere, so hungry for new Maiden I gobbled it up and loved every second of it —- but its in context with the rest of the album where its overall deficiency is exposed.
I figured I’d save any words for “Empire of the Clouds” for last, considering that it very well could be the final Maiden track we ever get. Its a doozy, a Bruce solo-penned eighteen minute long epic about the ill-fated 1930 maiden (no!) voyage of the Airship R101 composed on keyboard and actually recorded by Bruce himself on piano (!) in the studio. The subject matter isn’t surprising, as a tragic story about one of the worst accidents in aviation history seems fitting for Maiden and even more so considering Bruce’s piloting career. Its a spiritual cousin to “The Journeyman”, the band’s first acoustic guitar based cut from Dance of Death, but here Maiden supplements Bruce’s piano with electric guitar figures that softly echo melodies or complement them. On paper that sounds like it shouldn’t work, and to a certain extent it doesn’t —- because not even a fifteen stanza long lyric demands eighteen minutes of actual running time. There are some moments towards the end that could’ve used someone saying “we can lose this bit, and this other bit here”, but alas, this is Maiden, and this song is why The Book of Souls is a double album. That being said, I really do love this song, its first few minutes are delightful, beautiful and rich in their simplicity. Dickinson’s lyrics are inspired, he’s clearly in love with the source material. The dynamic band interjection at 8:35 is tremendous, the guitar melodies at 10:34 are flag-wavingly epic — it all just comes together really well. There’s so much to love about it, I can forgive the extra minute or two they should’ve shaved off. Its a song that deserves your time, attention, and most importantly patience.
I suppose I could say the same thing about the entire album though, because even all those extra listens and delays in my reviewing the album as a result didn’t cause me to ignore its errors. Setting aside the issue of length for a second, I think this is the album where the idea of recording live as a band in the studio and keeping the mistakes has run its course. Nicko stated in a recent interview that he loved that there were little drumming mistakes in “Speed of Light”, and other musical errors in other parts of the album, that they added to the “vibe”. I disagree entirely. Leave the live performances for the stage, and sit every individual member down in a chair with their instrument and carefully record their parts, record overdubs, simply record carefully! Let the songwriting take care of the “vibe” the next time around, it worked for twenty plus years for god sake! Put in context with its similarly recorded successors I’d have to rank this one a bit below The Final Frontier and A Matter of Life and Death, despite those albums’ both needing their own bit of overdubs and length editing. Speaking of length, Angry Metal Guy was right: Maiden’s great achilles heel in the CD era is their inability to discipline themselves and self-edit. That being said, I find myself willing to take all the extra minutes and seconds I can get… because I feel there’s a sense of finality ringing somewhere distant. I really hope this isn’t the last one, this band has so much more to say, so many great songs left unwritten. But all things come to an end, and if The Book of Souls is that end, I’ll be okay saying bon voyage.