Iron Maiden, that frothing steed of decibels and poetry, released its 16th studio album today – The Book of Souls. The fact that Maiden is still going, with every member of its classic lineup (+ third guitarist Janick Gers), releasing epic-length double albums? It’s almost enough to make me believe in something more. By which I mean, of course, Satan.
One of the things that continues to keep Maiden in my Discman in 2015 is their unpretentious approach to songwriting. Bassist/lead songwriter Steve Harris has written about demons and prophecies and the Arthurian legend, but he does it like he’s writing a love song – with clear, exuberant, universal language. A lot of his songs are inspired by literature, and the best ones are beautiful, simple echoes of the work in question. The book title is almost always the song title. It’s the opposite of pomposity.
So, to celebrate The Book of Souls, here are my 10 favorite Iron Maiden book reports:
10. “Out of the Silent Planet” (from Brave New World, 2000)
Out of the Silent Plant is the first installment of C.S. Lewis’ 1940s “Space Trilogy.” I read it in my 20s, and all I remember is there was a planet of seal people, and that I was bored. Not so for the Maiden song of the same name – singer Bruce Dickinson, back in the fold after a solo career that went nowhere, paints haunting visions of a ravaged earth. It’s the best song on the album that kicked off the band’s unlikely 21st century resurgence.
9. “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” (from Somewhere In Time, 1986)
“You reach the final stretch / Ideals are just a trace / You feel like throwing the race / It’s all so futile.” I haven’t read the Alan Sillitoe short story that inspired Harris to write these words. If it’s as simple and elegant, I’ll be impressed.
8. “The Man Who Would Be King” (from The Final Frontier, 2010)
Lifting the title of a famous Rudyard Kipling novella (I’ve only seen the movie), Maiden tells a story of a wandering man, tortured by guilt. A gripping exploration of once-moral person corrupted by power.
7. “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns” (from A Matter of Life and Death, 2006)
The older this band gets, the more sensitively they explore themes of death and devastation. The subject of nuclear winter has shown up in a few late-period Maiden songs, most prominently this stunner, inspired by Robert Jungk’s non-fiction account of The Manhattan Project: Brighter Than A Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists.
6. “Stranger in a Strange Land” (from Somewhere In Time, 1986)
Another great song inspired by a sci-fi classic I struggled to finish. Guitarist Adrian Smith’s lyric is far from a plot summary, thankfully. Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel was The Jungle Book with Martians, tedious religious allegory and free-love communes; Smith writes about an Arctic explorer, a far more digestible metaphor for the dangers of the hubris of religious belief.
5. “Isle of Avalon” (from The Final Frontier, 2010)
Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is generally considered to be the definitive telling of the Arthurian legend. Problem is, it’s also a long and bland and long and unnecessarily arduous and LONG telling. Give me Bernard Cornwell’s “Warlord Trilogy,” or The Once and Future King, or this gorgeous, ethereal song from Steve Harris – written from the vantage point of the undying land where King Arthur is going to surely return from any day now.
4. “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (from Killers, 1981)
This classic from the band’s rawer, hard-rock days is a cross between the legendary Edgar Allen Poe detective story and The Fugitive, its wrongfully accused narrator given believable grit by original Maiden singer Paul Di’Anno.
3. “The Evil That Men Do” (from Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, 1988)
The second single from the band’s last straight-up masterpiece, “The Evil That Men Do” takes a line from Julius Caesar and spins it into a poetic exploration of goodness twisted by violence.
2. “Phantom of the Opera” (from Iron Maiden, 1980)
The very first Iron Maiden epic remains one of its very best, party because of Steve Harris’s magnificent economy of words. Gone are the nuances and motivations of Victor Hugo’s famous character. He’s the devil, full stop.
1. “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (from Powerslave, 1984)
The quintessential Iron Maiden song – a 13-minute opus based on poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s English class staple. It’s all here: the chugging triplets, spine-tingling dual guitar solos, operatic vocals about dark magic and human regret. After a spoken word sequence complete with the ominous creak of a wooden ship, the galloping guitar riff returns. Whatever albatross may be around your neck at that moment, it falls away.