For the most part, The Book Of Souls doesn't stray too far from the template that was used on A Matter Of Life And Death and The Final Frontier. The songwriting offers a good deal of variety but still largely matches upbeat tempos and drawn out structures under a darkly introspective umbrella. In an odd twist, Steve Harris's omniscient bass playing might be the least prominent it's ever been and Nicko McBrain's drums play more of a backing role to match. Fortunately, the triple guitar attack rolls with Kevin Shirley's muddy production job well enough and the strength of Bruce's vocal lines make up for any signs of strain.
Going along with that, there do seem to be a few more nods to the band's distant past than usual on here. "Speed Of Light" channels the hard rock grit better than anything on No Prayer For The Dying ever did and the title track is somewhere between "Seventh Son" and "Mother Russia" before hitting "Losfer Words" style speed metal at the halfway point. On the flip side, the intro to "Shadows Of The Valley" may be a little too close to "Wasted Years" for comfort and "The Red And The Black" attempts to match the tone of "Rime Of The Ancient Mariner" but doesn't have enough going on to really justify the thirteen minute running time.
Fortunately, there are still a few curveballs bookending the album that keep things interesting. The synths and spacy vocal effects on "If Eternity Should Fail" make it a slightly jarring opener but the smooth transitions work well and the writing style wouldn't make it too out of place one of Bruce's solo albums. "When The River Runs Deep" uses similarly smooth transitions while the mid-tempo riffs on "Tears Of A Clown" make it one of the band's most straightforward tracks in some time.
And it would be blasphemy to not bring up "Empire Of The Clouds," an eighteen minute epic penned solely by Dickinson. While the lyrics are on an "Alexander The Great" level of dryness and the composition could probably have had a couple minutes trimmed in the middle, the piano driving the piece works quite well and it does have a more cinematic scale compared to many of Maiden's other epics. It's stuff like this and "If Eternity Should Fail" that make me hope Bruce has at least one more solo album left in him...
Even with its more ambitious nature, The Book of Souls just ends up being another good modern day Iron Maiden album. Anyone hailing this one as their best since [insert 80s classic here] hasn't properly acquainted themselves with Brave New World or The X Factor and anyone who says that this is too bloated has probably been saying that about the band in general for nearly a decade. Cutting "The Red And The Black" probably would've made this better than their last couple but not by a drastic amount. At the end of the day, you gotta the band credit for not getting lazy and for aging more gracefully than every other band at their level.
"If Eternity Should Fail"
"Speed Of Light"
"When The River Runs Deep"
"Tears Of A Clown"
"Empire Of The Clouds"