Reviewed: August, 2020
Published: 2020, PowerChord Press
Most Iron Maiden observers will recognize the bands career has had roughly four distinct phases. These are the Di’ Anno years, the classic ‘height of power’ era, the dark Blaze years and the reformation. We can argue about deeper sub-phases another day.
Post-2000 Maiden have been in the longest, most stable and most comfortable and accordingly, least productive phase of the career and it is easy to see why. IRON MAIDEN is in a good place right now. Their heritage/legendary status is fully intact. The classic (+1) line-up is working smoothly. They are financially secure. They are, for the most part, all married, and have kids and live in nice places like Hawaii and Florida. They all have numerous fulfilling hobbies and businesses and/or projects outside the band. They work when they want to work which means we are getting new albums about every four or five years now, bolstered by many, fairly frequent, wholly unnecessary but fully enjoyable Double Live albums. They have had the same team, (producers, managers etc) in place for ages now, everything is running flawlessly.
The band are in their semi-retirement phase and have fully and completely embraced the fact that they are making the 70’s English Prog-Heavy Rock albums that Steve Harris grew up listening to and always wanted to make for his whole career. We get dense albums with lyrical themes and tales of myth, mythology, ancient societies, kings and queens, high school history, and epic soundscapes. We get long songs, long intro’s, long outros and songs that sound a lot like what UK Prog/Metal act, Magnum is doing. We get songs where three guitarists are way too many, when probably half a guitar would suffice. There has not been a whiff of danger, speed, excitement or modern social themes or lyrics, (thank goodness!) since 2000. I don’t mind at all but let’s face it, since 2000 the band has made pretty safe and complacent albums.
This book is the story of those albums.
EMPIRE OF THE CLOUDS is the third in Popoff’s epic Maiden trilogy following ACES HIGH which covers the 80’s, and HOLY SMOKE which covers the 90’s and a healthy analysis of Bruce solo albums. My OCD is quite content with a book that looks good and fits perfectly in terms of layout, design and execution, nicely matching the others in the series. PowerChord Press always does it right!
Since 2000 Popoff has personally interviewed members of the band or members of the camp over 20 times, giving this book a really contemporary feel. In the past, I’ve expressed some mild reservations that Martin really only focuses on his favourite bands and era’s (ie, anything before 1990 roughly) but by default EMPIRE OF THE CLOUDS sees him writing about contemporary (post-2000) records, even though these records do not sound contemporary at all.
The book follows his conventional, chapter-by-chapter, album-by-album, song-by-song, tour plus recap style. We even get a chapter about the Bruce solo albums tying up some loose ends and the sometimes forgotten TYRANNY OF SOULS record. Many books of this style I have read suffer from the same flaw, where the author does not give equal representation to the more recent releases. Popoff does not make this mistake, every album gets a full and detailed analysis. Popoff is practically friends with these guys now, and he gets many great stories, quotes and anecdotes that bring it all to life.
In his introduction he said that this book was a bit more fun to write than HOLY SMOKE and I think in fact it was a bit more fun to read too. A while back, well…20 years ago, I stopped following Maiden religiously and didn’t read every interview, every article etc, so much of this was new, fresh and exciting to me. It is not as if I stopped enjoying Maiden, it is just that you can’t follow it all. Post 2000, If I had to choose between a deep dive into the newest, latest ‘reliable old Maiden’ record (that I already know I’ll enjoy to some degree) or give my time to an exciting new, young band…. often the new band would win out.
EMPIRE OF THE CLOUDS helped me rekindle some of that passion for Iron Maiden across those albums that at times tended to blur together. For example, if someone asked me, “Which album is the song ‘Paschendale’ on, DANCE OF DEATH or A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH?” I dunno, I’d have to go look it up. It is not like I don’t enjoy those post-2000 songs or albums but they are not permanently fused to my cerebral cortex like the first seven or eight Iron Maiden albums are. If someone asked me “Which album is the song ‘Aces High’ is on?” it is instant recall. That’s why I liked EMPIRE so much, it is like having a long visit with an old friend you lost touch with years ago and you pick up right where you left off. This completes the Maiden trilogy in fine fashion and now Popoff can get to work on finishing his Saxon trilogy. and UFO trilogy.