Iron Maiden are just about to release their 16th album, The Book Of Souls; Harry Sword thinks it might be their best yet. He gets the inside story from guitarists Adrian Smith and Janick Gers.
Idiosyncratic, unashamedly epic and pleasingly deranged, the discography of late period Iron Maiden (i.e Brave New World onwards) offer the most nuanced, exciting and deeply satisfying records in the band's history. Because although they’ve long been a band who steadfastly refuse to either get stuck in a lucrative time warp or go through the motions, over the past fifteen years they have - quite aside from their superb live show - pushed themselves to quite extraordinary lengths in the studio.
From the cleaving rallying cry of Brave New World to the frolicking jaunt of Dance Of Death; the rough bombast of 2006’s extraordinary concept album A Matter Of Life And Death (the concept? WAR!) - a record that was (until now) the most progressive and compelling the band had ever made - through to 2010’s similarly energetic The Final Frontier, late period Maiden is characterised by a propensity for soaring, unashamed, musical ambition.
Passionate, borderline maniacal performances (particularly from Bruce Dickinson, whose singing gets stronger - his range wider - with age; perhaps a larynx hewed of golden oak sits in his attic, Dorian Grey style) and an idiosyncratic production from Kevin Shirley - who has produced every Maiden album since Brave New World - tie these records together as a distinct body of work.
This September, however, sees the long awaited release of The Book Of Souls. A double album, the LP comes after the news that Dickinson has now happily received the all clear from cancer (he was receiving treatment for a small tumour on his tongue; the record itself was recorded late last year in Paris, before diagnosis).
Having been privy to an advance listen, tQ is happy to report that The Book Of Souls is a mighty cleaving stave of a record; an epic that - despite the 92 minute timeframe - positively rages along, never feeling remotely bloated. It is also, very possibly, the finest album that Maiden have ever made. From the raw gallop of ‘Speed Of Light’ and ‘Death Or Glory’ to the 18 minute vaudeville odyssey of ‘Empire Of The Clouds’ The Book Of Souls is a titanic romp through Maidenisms of every vivid hue; it is also an album that - as we shall see - has benefited from perhaps the most organic and immediate recording process in the bands history.
Can you tell us about the writing process behind The Book Of Souls?
Adrian Smith: We didn’t actually rehearse anything at all - which is a very different way of working for Maiden. We just brought our ideas to the studio. I think Bruce and I had one session which produced ‘Speed Of Light’ and ‘Death Or Glory’. Steve and I got together in the studio and I played him a load of stuff I had and got busy writing lyrics for that. I actually did a lot of writing on my own. We hadn’t actually played together as a band before we went into the studio in Paris. I did a lot of writing on my own and everyone just brought ideas in.
Janick Gers: I’m really proud of it, I think it’s a fantastic album. Bands have to grow, travel different avenues, push the boundaries and we always do. People say, ‘Oh, Maiden always sound the same’, but we don’t; we travel different pathways and this one is no exception. I’ve got to say that the writing process was really different this time. Normally, we go into rehearsal and spend three or four weeks rehearsing. We’ll go off writing with different people in the band and get all the ideas up to speed - almost so that we can play them all live as a set - but this was different. We went into the studio with only outlines and finished writing the songs in the studio - so we were actually learning them, rehearsing them, and putting them down all at once. It gives it an immediacy because we were learning them as we went; it all has a very live feel. We all brought different things, a really broad spectrum of musical ideas - I don’t want us to become a parody of what we were; you get bands that come out and only do one song off the new album - and I know people love that and some people want that - but thats not what we do at all.
How much pressure was there, writing that way?
AS: There is pressure but it’s a good pressure because it snaps you into action. Before we go in, a month before we go in the studio, I like to go in my home studio and put down a load of rough demos and ideas - it’s a good pressure, it fires you up. I like it.
Adrian, the tracks that you and Bruce wrote together for the record- ‘Speed Of Light’ and ‘Death Or Glory’ -are the shortest and punchiest. Was that a conscious decision, to focus on a more straight up sound?
AS: Well, Bruce and I hadn’t actually written anything - just the two of us - for some years. So I had it in my mind to do some shorter songs. We used to do stuff like ‘Two Minutes To Midnight’ back in the day. If I’ve got something a bit more involved, I usually bring Steve in and say, ‘What do you think of it?’ because these days he’s focussed on lyrics and melodies as much as anything. Whereas before he’d bring in four or five complete songs - from beginning to end - it’s a much more collaborative process these days. He’ll provide a steer lyrically and melodically.
Can you tell me about working with Kevin Shirley? At this stage he is very much the Martin Birch of late period Maiden, he’s done every record since Brave New World and he captures a very raw, live sound.
AS: We adopted Kevin [LAUGHS]. Once you get a relationship with someone you tend to get to a way of working that is comfortable. Sometimes, we’ll be rehearsing songs in the studio and he’ll be secretly recording it. He loves the first take: the spontaneity. It’s very organic, the way he works.
I find it fascinating that he gets such a raw sound - because very often bands as big as Maiden have a far more polished production. I mean, A Matter Of Life And Death wasn’t even fully mastered.
AS: [SIGHS] Some of the albums we’ve done in the past were a little bit under polished for me, to be honest. I like power and heaviness but I also like a little bit of delay on the vocals, stuff like that. But I don’t get involved in mixing them. Kevin and Steve like to do that on their own but I have to say I was really happy with the way that this one sounds.
I actually have trouble getting Kevin to put any effects on my guitar! He doesn’t like that. He likes everything very straight up. I have to twist his arm and sometimes we bump heads a little bit, but I’m really happy with the way that this album sounds. It’s the right blend of the rawness of the performance but with a bit of polish…and that was probably because I was bending his ear about it every five minutes [LAUGHS].
JG: A lot of this album was done live, we did this album in the same studio as Brave New World. He gets where we’re coming from; he manages to get the live sound down, absolutely. A real sound - not a compressed American guitar sound. I want a brash guitar sound, no distortion peddles, just straight into the amp - he gets the sound that I like. He’s very much like Martin Birch in that he captures the sound of how we are in the studio. That might sound simple. You’d think, ‘You put a band in the studio; you put a tape in; and it sounds like them.' Well, nine times out of ten it doesn’t [LAUGHS]. You need someone very special to get that sound down. Martin Birch did it - he did it with Wishbone Ash, he did it with Deep Purple, he did it with Fleetwood Mac in the early days. But then you have other producers like ‘Mutt’ Lange - a fantastic producer - but they create the sound; they make the ‘Mutt Lange sound’. And that would never work for us. Kevin is the polar opposite of that approach.
Can you tell us about recording ‘Empire Of The Clouds’? Of all the Maiden epics, this is the longest. It even pips 'Rime Of The Ancient Mariner’ by a couple of minutes.
AS: Bruce was working on it for ages, all the way through the session. We’d be working on the other songs and he’d be sitting in this soundproof glass box with his piano like Beethoven, his ear on the piano; working on his masterpiece [LAUGHS]. He was consumed by it. It was difficult to record. Bruce laid down the piano on his own, we played it in sections and Bruce and Kevin would be conducting and making suggestions as we went along.
JG: It’s almost like music hall in a way [LAUGHS]. It’s like broadway; there is a story in there. We didn’t do it all in one - to learn it and do it all in one would have been impossible - so we jammed sections of it and that was how it came to be. We’d add bits later. We’ll try anything; there are no restrictions.
I want to ask about your guitar set up - I can’t think of many other bands with three guitarists - how does this work logistically? Janick, you were playing with Dave Murray for a decade before Adrian rejoined the band. Was it difficult to adjust to the new set up?
JG: It was very natural, actually. You have to remember that before playing in Maiden I’d never even played with one other guitar player, let alone two. I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to play with another guitar player but then when Dave and I got together it was so natural; I didn’t have to change anything; Dave didn’t have to change anything; we just got together and it seemed to gel. But then there was always room for other things.
If I’d gone when Adrian came back in, then it would have been taking the band backwards to what it was like at Seventh Son; and if I’d stayed and he’d not come back, then it would have been like going back to Fear Of The Dark, so when he came back it completely changed it - we felt we could do anything; I could play the melody with the vocal - like on ‘The Red And The Black’ on this album - and then Davey could be crashing the chords; there could be clean chords; all sorts. And of course I was always used to that on the albums but - in the past, before Adrian rejoined - we’d always have to pick and choose in the live setting. You couldn’t crash the chords and have a running rhythm and play the melody. But now we have all these options when we’re playing live; high notes, low notes, full chords, the whole lot. Suddenly we have the options of three things. What we were adamant about was that we didn’t want to create a ‘guitar mayhem’ - we wanted to have clear sounds; heavy sounds.
AS: If I write a song I’ll usually play the solo in it and then Davey or Jan will do the other solo - usually Davey - and then again if Jan writes a song Davey will play the solo - so Davey gets to play everything [LAUGHS]. But Dave has the signature guitar sound; you hear Dave play and you know it’s Maiden straight away, don’t you? It’s a very distinctive tone - but we’re great friends so we just work it out. There is nothing above healthy competition. I know if Dave goes in and does a solo in two takes then I’ll be trying to do the same thing; it pushes you to do your best.
I wanted to ask about Bruce’s voice. I can’t think of another singer who gets better and better with age - most voices degenerate with age to some degree - but his vocal performances on this record are absolutely astonishing.
AS: It’s just his attitude really. He’ll never lower the fence, he’ll always just keep running until he can jump over it. He’ll keep battering it and battering it. I’ve suggested changing keys to songs on occasion but he’d rather just keep it up and go for the notes and he can still absolutely do it. It’s amazing, really.
Your going to be out on the road next year…do you think you’ll play the whole record live? It worked well with A Matter Of Life And Death.
AS: I don’t thing we’ll play the whole thing. I think it’ll be too much for people. Having said that, we can turn up at rehearsal and Steve will say, ‘We’re gonna play the whole thing at this rehearsal’ - he’s done that before. But I think we’ll pick the ones that work live; we’re not sure yet. We’re really looking forward to going out with it next year.
Do you ever feel daunted by the complexity of the newer material and how that will translate live?
JG: We’re musicians first and foremost; I’m never daunted by anything. The problem can sometimes come when your playing those big arena shows and there is a delay with the sound. That can be disconcerting: sometimes I’ll be thirty or forty feet away from Dave and I can’t hear him or there might be a delay on the drums because of the size of the place - those are the stressful moments.
Your tour schedule used to be pretty brutal - I’m thinking particularly of the Powerslavedays. What are your recollections of those days Adrian?
AS: We never tour now for more than three months continuously at a time; that’s enough now. If I look back at old itineraries from the 80s, we’d be doing six gigs - have a day off, if we were lucky - sometimes literally seven gigs a week. It nearly killed us at the time - and that was when we were young - so it would be impossible now. You see, we don’t ever want to drop the standard of the show, we try to put the same energy into it as we always have done.
It was a grind to be honest with you - after six months we’d sit there and think to ourselves, well, shit, we’ve still got six months to go! It was a grind, all those American tours back to back, then you fly home and you go to tour Europe - but that’s why we’ve got such a strong following now. Because we always took our music to the people, we never relied on radio play to get our message across; we always took it out there. People remember that.
The Maiden crowd - in England at least - seems to be getting younger. I’ve seen you a number of times over the past decade, the last time being at the 02 on the Final Frontiertour in 2010. I was amazed by how young the crowd was - is this something you see across the board?
AS: America is different for some reason, we tend to get an older crowd there… but in the rest of the world, South America, Europe, they do seem to be getting younger; certainly the ones at the front anyway. I mean, the energy you get is amazing. We did a tour just before recording this album, which I don’t think we’d done for a while - come off the road and then started immediately. I think the energy of the tour helped with the record.
JG: I’ve always enjoyed touring, always enjoyed the process. The reason we sit in the studio is so that we can go out on the road; I love touring. For this album, we were recording in Paris but as soon as we were done recording I was off around Paris, just wandering about. That is it for me; I love the process of touring. I want every gig to be the best it can possibly, but I also love seeing the architecture and seeing the art; that’s what it’s about for me. I’ll tie my hair back, put a hat on, put an apple and a bottle of water in a backpack and I’m happy for the rest of the day. I want to experience life.
Maiden fans are generally very receptive to new material… but I remember seeing a YouTube video with some American guy holding up a sign that said ‘Play Classics!’ - which Bruce then ripped up. Do you see much of that sort of thing these days? People expecting ‘Number of the Beast’ ad infinitum?
AS: I’ve never seen much of that to be honest with you. I’ve never felt that the audience has ever been anything other than on our side - and because the band are a straight up, honest kind of a band I think that the audience give us a bit of leeway; at least I hope they do. Like you say, we went out and did the whole album a few years ago.
What we do is the opposite to the corporate rock thing; the whole mainstream music scene now, the media, the celebrities, it’s so bloody awful. It's nice to have something that is genuine and I think the fans know that if we go off on one, and get a bit self indulgent, they let us get away with that. I think it's important for us, keeps us on our toes. We’re not a cabaret band; that is the important thing for us.
JG: I’m quite happy to come out and play the older stuff but at the end of the day you’ve got to be valid. There is no point of us wandering around like we’re living in the 80s. I’m proud of this album; every record is a stand point of where the band is at any particular moment in time; and this was such an inventive process.
And how long do you see the road rolling for Maiden?
AS: I don’t know, I mean the Stones are still doing it aren’t they [LAUGHS]? Certainly for the foreseeable future, all being well. Touch wood and all that. We still absolutely love it.
The Book Of Souls Is Out On September 4 via Parlophone