The story behind Iron Maiden's The Book Of Souls: their most ambitious album ever

Bruce Dickinson wins the fight of his life as, 40 years after crawling out of London’s East End, Iron Maiden go Mayan on their epic double-album – The Book Of Souls

The story behind Iron Maiden's The Book Of Souls: their most ambitious album ever
Paul Travers

As had now become almost the norm, Iron Maiden followed The Final Frontier’s cycle with another set-piece tour, with the Maiden England World Tour harking back to the 1988 live video of the same name. This included a record-breaking fifth headlining appearance at Donington, another headlining slot at Sonisphere, and the biggest ever show by a British band in Chile, to a reported 60,000 fans.

And if they weren’t already spectacular enough, they started the Download show with a Spitfire flyover, while for Sonisphere, Bruce joined the Great War Display Team for an aerial World War I dogfight display over Knebworth.

It was the singer who revealed that the band were planning a 16th album. The Book Of Souls was recorded towards the end of 2014 but its launch was delayed to allow Bruce time to recover from the removal of a cancerous tumour.

When Steve Harris sat down with Kerrang! prior to the The Book Of Souls’ release in September 2015, he revealed that the album had been recorded before Bruce had been diagnosed.

“There was no inkling of any of it. He’d finished all his vocal bits completely anyway, and then there were some other bits and pieces we were doing. Really, we didn’t know anything – he didn’t show any signs at all. I mean his singing, when you hear it… He’s singing better than ever.”

The singer himself told us that he’d sensed that he might have cancer “but I put it to the back of my mind until we’d finished the album”. Which takes dedication to the cause way beyond the next level.

As soon as they’d finished, Bruce contacted a GP and was sent for a round of tests. When he got the diagnosis, with two tumours found on his tongue, one of his first thoughts was how it might affect his voice.

Asked by K! if he feared that he might lose his ability to sing, he revealed, “Yeah, or I thought, ‘What if this changes your voice to such an extent you can’t sing like you used to?’ But you know, I thought, ‘If The Book Of Souls is the last thing I ever did that has that voice, I’d be a very happy bunny.’ I would be happy with this album being my voice’s last statement.”

Even without the news of Bruce’s illness, The Book Of Souls would have been a remarkable album. As the years have gone by – and particularly in the 21st century – Iron Maiden’s recorded output has grown ever more progressive and ambitious. Their most recent album is also their longest, clocking in at just over 92 minutes, although they hadn’t planned to make a double album initially.

“In a way it was purely accidental because we didn’t have any idea about the album order until we finished it,” chuckled Bruce. “So we got to about track six and I went downstairs [in the studio] to Steve and went, ‘We either stop now or it’s a double album.’”

The singer was also responsible for writing the band’s longest-ever song in the shape of an 18-minute monster titled Empire Of The Clouds. The Steve Harris-penned Rime Of The Ancient Mariner had hitherto held that honour since 1984, but the bassist didn’t begrudge handing over the ‘most epic Maiden song’ crown.

“We kind of had to shut [Bruce] off because he was going off on one with it,” Steve recalled. “I think it’s a masterpiece – I think I can say that because I didn’t write it! It sounds like Maiden but it’s totally different from what we’ve done before. It’s certainly not boring, let’s put it that way! And there are still other long songs also.”

Indeed there were. If you played Empire Of The Clouds, The Red And The Black and The Book Of Souls back to back you’d have a running time longer than the whole of The Number Of The Beast album. Empire Of The Clouds didn’t make the live set but the other two epics did and, as with their other modern-era album tours, the band were not afraid to weight the set heavily in favour of the new material.

The tour itself was something that Bruce wasn’t quite sure would happen – or how it might go if it did.

“I was pinching myself for the first few shows back, because none of us knew how it was going to sound, my voice,” he said. Having been through gruelling radiation treatment and chemotherapy he was still left with an agonising wait. “I’d left it for 10 months or so, to let it rest and try to heal itself up. Unquestionably there were some things that had changed and it was difficult. You want to know what the deal is… you just had to open your gob and see what came out. If a bag of spanners fell out you’d think, ‘Oh shit.’”

As anyone who caught them on The Book Of Souls World Tour could testify, Bruce remains one of the finest live vocalists in the world.

In the years that followed, Maiden embarked on a multi-year global trek for another themed tour, The Legacy Of The Beast. And what a legacy it is. Over four decades they’ve sold more than 100 million copies of their 16 studio albums. They’ve revelled in the glory days and fought through leaner years to stand today as one of the most successful, influential and downright magnificent bands in metal ever.

And the best thing? It doesn’t look like it’s over just yet. We recently asked Steve Harris, the man who began this whole crazy adventure, if he ever thought about retirement.

“Yeah, and I don’t like the idea of it at all!” he laughed. “We’re not getting any younger, and you’ve got to think in reality it’s got to end at some point, but hopefully that’s a way off yet.”

We’ll raise a glass of Trooper to that.

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