Sound — 9
Bruce is still at the top of his game despite all that's happened to him. Only two songs noticeably lack his usual pitch ("Man of Sorrows," "Tears of a Clown"), but it's understandable, and I felt it wasn't necessary for "Tears of a Clown."
Can't say enough about how consistently good Steve Harris and Nicko McBrain has been throughout their careers and how that almost goes without saying. As far as "modern era" Maiden goes I thought this was Dave Murray's best performance album-wise for solos, and nothing to complain about with Smith (loved his solo on "Tears of a Clown") and Gers.
I could only count less than a handful of moments where it felt stale. Riff wise I suppose it wasn't "too" inventive, but most of the harmonies/melodies were very unique. I liked how they incorporated acoustic guitars into "The Book of Souls" and "The Red and The Black." I felt the vibe from the first bit of "If Eternity Should Fail" was unique. And "Empire of the Clouds" is amazing. Piano (by Bruce, no less) violins, and a general orchestral sound on top of the guitars provides for an absolutely epic composition.
Lyrics — 10
Like most Maiden albums, themes of religion, mythology, life and death, war/evils of mankind are the core of this album. Even if some of the topics are very specific or somewhat obscure to the average person, Bruce-as always-delivers lyrics in a top-notch, convincing manner. It's a Maiden album with a Maiden sound with Maiden lyrics, so yes, the lyrics comply.
I felt Bruce declined a little form "The Final Frontier" and that his high notes weren't as high (I won't be winning a Pulitzer) and sounded a bit raspier; however, it's senseless to knock him for it given the cancer. The only difference between "The Final Frontier" and "The Book of Souls" for Bruce is he is only a little less other-worldly, but still other-worldly.
Overall Impression — 9
I had 3 issues with the album. "Man of Sorrows" took a bit to get going, not the most inspiring vocal performance from Bruce (I don't mean just on pitch). Saved by it's harmony/solo section (when it switches to D minor). "Shadow of the Valley" was my least favorite song since it was so rhythmically static given its 7 minute length, also not a fan of the wordless vocal fills (6:15 mark; "The Red and the Black," as absolutely brilliant as the song is, does it too). I didn't feel the intro to "When The River Runs Deep" fit the rest of the album's musical style since it sounds like something from '86-'88 and overall it's a little generic, but the solos are good.
But that's all, and despite my own personal nitpicks, those aren't *bad* songs by any stretch, just not as good as the rest of the album. I personally think this is the best album since the '80s. I felt the album proficiently combines epic songs with short straightforward songs better than the previous two albums, both in amount of songs and each type and the quality of each type since very little on this album comes off as filler/autopilot to me. The long songs, except for Shadow of the Valley, don't drag since they are very dynamic.
Favorite songs were the title track, "The Red and The Black," "Empire of the Clouds," and "If Eternity Should Fail" (the best album opener from the last five). The rest of the album was solid, and there really isn't a bad song. The album truly encases old-school Maiden and the recent long epic style from the last few albums into one. It's a shame Bruce wasn't fully healthy for the recording, but that doesn't hamper the album. 9.5 in my heart, 9 for what I can click.