This article was originally published on Noisey UK.
I arrived at Cardiff Airport to find a whole mosh-pit worth of Iron Maiden fans, clad in band-issue garms, lining up quite patiently by the check-in desk. Holiday-bound Welsh families and their children looked on goggle-eyed, as though the four horsemen of the apocalypse might also suddenly make an appearance, any minute now.
My three hour trip from London was nothing compared to some of these guys. Most were hardcore fanclub members, from as far afield as America, Eastern Europe, and even, somewhat counter-intuitively, France, all of whom had gathered in Cardiff for an hour flight to Paris. One guy from Colorado had left with only two weeks notice, got permission from his work (and family), and ditched all his commitments to head to Britain. Why? Because we were about to get on Iron Maiden's "Flight 666," an actual jet plane, piloted by lead singer Bruce Dickinson himself, heading for the destination of Paris where we'll listen to the new Maiden album in the studio it was recorded. Pretty fucking cool right?
Despite the fact that everytime I fearfully fly I just wait patiently for the alarms to go off and death to come, when the invitation came to be flown from Cardiff to Paris by Iron Maiden frontman and part-time pilot Bruce Dickinson for a preview of the band’s upcoming double album, The Book of Souls, it felt worth dying for. I started to rethink this about halfway, when I was desperately clutching the armrests of “Flight 666,” as the plane fought its way through turbulence somewhere over the skies of Beauvais, France (where, incidentally, there is a memorial to commemorate the R101, one of the worst air disasters of the 1930s and also the subject of Maiden’s longest ever song on the new record: an 18-minute rock opera called The Empire of the Clouds).
“Scream for me Flight 666!” shouted Bruce over the tannoy, and we obliged.
Meanwhile, the cabin crew—which included a trio of hardy Welsh ladies—were utterly unfazed by their rowdy charges, handing out cans of beer and, at one point, even donning a mask of Maiden mascot Eddie while pushing the trolley down the aisle.
Dickinson is pretty much the Chuck Norris of heavy metal. He’s a pilot by day, a rock god by night, airline owner, champion fencer and, more recently, cancer survivor. He kicked the absolute shit out of cancer. So, for 60 minutes, I tried to forget that I was in a tin can 37,000 feet above the ground and instead enjoyed the in-flight entertainment (a brief kazoo performance by Bruce before take-off), the amenities (unlimited cans of Trooper, Iron Maiden’s own-brand beer), and the prospect of checking out the new album.
After landing in Paris Beauvois Airport, we were whisked off by coach to the Guillame Tell Studios on the outskirts of the city where, in exchange for our mobile phones, we were treated to more beer, a buffet, more beer, and a 90-minute album playback within the beautiful setting of the historic theatre-turned-studio. A sea of Iron Maiden shirts (the older and more obscure, the better) carefully weaved their way past the mixing desk and into the main room, where we were met with a blown-up version of the album cover hung across the stage, which features the band’s mascot Eddie in Mayan get-up, his red eyes peering out through the darkness of the studio.
The Book of Souls marks a number of milestones for Iron Maiden: their sixteenth studio record; their first double album; their longest track. In fact, many of the songs on the record are firmly on the lengthier side, including the 13-and-a-half minute long “The Red and The Black,” penned by Maiden’s founder and bassist Steve Harris, and title track “The Book of Souls,”which clocks in at a comparatively restrained 10 minutes 28 seconds. To Maiden fans, however, longer songs just mean more time spent listening to Maiden, which is the reason they eat, drink water and wake up each morning. “It’s an awful lot to take in at one sitting,” Dickinson noted after the playback. “There’s a few months of listening there.” Obviously, everyone cheered again.
Given that the band are all now in their late fifties, The Book of Souls is also one of Maiden’s darkest records, grappling with mortality and legacy in tracks such as “The Great Unknown” and “Death or Glory” (both solid headbangers). Not to mention that, as they were wrapping up the record, Dickinson was diagnosed with cancer. “It was here—on a slightly more sombre note—just downstairs, actually, that I got the guy in the studio to get me a local French doctor,” he candidly told the audience after the listening session. “I said I’ve got this little lump in my neck, and I sort of had an idea it was probably more than a little bit of a lump but I wanted to finish the album first, before I got any bad news.”
You wouldn’t know from the finished product—especially not the spinetingling vocals on opening track, "If Eternity Should Fail," or the first cry on "Speed of Light," the new single—that you’re listening to a man with an undiagnosed tumor in his throat. And, although he’s looking a little leaner now (he finished treatment a few months ago) the frontman hasn’t lost any of his frenetic energy or wry humor. “He straight away went for the goolies and was grabbing hold of my nuts and everything else,” Dickinson recalled of the French doctor who diagnosed him. “I thought, well, he’s either being over friendly or there’s a bit more to this.”
In the wake of his diagnosis a number of the songs took on a new poignancy, for both Dickinson and us the listeners, including the self-explanatory “Shadows of the Valley,” and his favorite song, “Tears of a Clown”, which has already garnered some press coverage after he let slip it’s inspired by Robin Williams. In the context of Maiden’s back catalogue—which features a number of tracks about both historical and contemporary events—it is a genuinely tender tribute to the comic.
In a similar vein, the album’s closing anthem, "The Empire of the Skies," about the aforementioned airship crash, is part orchestral symphony, part BBC Three documentary. “As I was writing it, I was chatting to Nicko [Maiden’s drummer] and he was coming up with all kinds of great ideas, especially at the end, when I was explaining what we wanted was the sound of a dying airship, crashing and all the girders going krrr,” Bruce said. “So there’s a violin bow lying around and he’s got this huge orchestral gong, and he just starts scraping the bow against the edge of the gong and it starts to resonate, like musical fingernails on the blackboard. I went yep, that’s the horrible metallic sound of girders grinding and melting, and ran onto the piano thinking ‘Great! We’ve got the final bit of the song now.’ And that was all inspired by Nicko fiddling with his gong,” he chuckled.
As we touch back down in Cardiff the following day, slightly more somber and possibly a little hungover, one of the air stewardesses remarks that Bruce and the crew are already preparing to fly onto their next destination. It kinda sums the guy up perfectly. While some men in his position might consider hanging up their guitars, especially after the year he’s just had, Bruce is already thinking about the next destination, the next album (“I really hope we do [another one]”) and the next world tour. For most musicians that would mean endless rehearsals, but for Bruce—sorry, Captain Dickinson—it also means learning to fly a 747, in which he’ll be piloting the band, their crew and equipment, across the globe. Standard.
So, apart from the (frankly, unsurprising) confirmation that Maiden fans will not be disappointed when the new album is released this week, if there’s one thing to take away from our little jaunt across the Channel, it’s that after forty years, Dickinson and co clearly have no plans to dial it back down from 11. Oh, and also, fuck you cancer!
As Bruce sings on the 1986 classic album Somewhere in Time, heaven can wait.