Release Date: 16th October 2015
British Steel battalions Saxon release their 21st album and continue riding the very large wave, as they have been since the mid 2000s.
Uncompromising, honest, lyrically diverse, and typically classic twin guitar British Metal. And since that resurgence in popularity at the turn on the millennium the band have explored their progressive Metal roots and since moved to the punk tinged quick-fire Metal of their early records, and a bit of rock n' roll; a fluctuation that now sees the band find a sure fire footing, heavier, brilliant and blistering.
On repeated listening it's fair to say this is heavy, and about as heavy as Saxon get (and as heavy as I want them to get, because the more prog, blues and rock n' roll stuff they do well and need to do too).
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The current line-up of singer Biff Byford, guitarists Paul Quinn and Doug Scarratt, bassist Nibbs Carter and drummer Nigel Glockler has been stable for a long time now (bar a couple of short lived drum stool replacements), and it shows. In fact it's good to hear Glocker sounding so on form after his break from the band due to ill health last year.
Formed in the late 70s and signing to disco label Carrere, the band rose to fame as part of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (their eponymous debut is widely considered to be the first of the genre), with hits including '747, Strangers In The Night', 'Wheels Of Steel' and 'Princess Of The Night'.
And while many will say the band are continuing a purple patch, truth be told the band have never released a bad album ('Destiny' perhaps one of a couple below par); the quiet period (outside of Germany) in the 90s more of a marketing and press issue while all and sundry jumped on the grunge and alternative bandwagons. That press, including Kerrang!, have a lot to answer for.
The Yorkshire formed band were originally called Son Of A Bitch, an amalgamation of the Steve Dawson and Graham Oliver fronted Sob (taken from a Free album title) and the Biff Byford and Paul Quinn led Coast. The change of name to Saxon, as they signed to Carrere, was more in keeping with their more Metal nature.
Their debut album, 'Saxon', was released in 1979, and featured singer Byford, guitarists Quinn and Oliver, bassist Steve Dawson and drummer Pete Gill. The punchy punky edge drove tracks like 'Big Teaser' and 'Still Fit To Boogie'.
1980s 'Wheels Of Steel' and 'Strong Arm Of The Law', brought the band a wider acclaim and with it the sound that fronted the NWoBHM with hugely popular tracks still included in the live set today.
'Denim And Leather' was a highpoint in the band's career, with 'And The Bands Played On' written about their classic Donington performance the previous year and 'Midnight Rider' about touring. 'Princess Of The Night' and the title track are live favourites for many.
'The Eagle Has Landed', a live album, followed, then by 1983s 'Power And The Glory'. This is considered one of the weaker early albums, not helped by not so hot production. The epic and classic 'Crusader' was released in 1984 and while more polished epitomised classic mid 80s Metal and is still one of Saxon's biggest sellers.
Moving to Parlophone (EMI), 1985s 'Innocence Is No Excuse' was even more polished and was a commercial success, because of which it is now sadly overlooked (it's probably one of my favourites). It was sadly Dawson's last with the band. Equally overlooked and misunderstood was 'Rock The Nations', with Biff Byford covering the bass parts, and Elton John playing on two tracks. The album did not sell that well, and the band were pushed in an even more commercial direction.
1988s 'Destiny' (featuring drummer Nigel Durham and bassist Paul Johnson) was a nadir (by Saxon's standards), although the cover of Christopher Cross track 'Ride Like The Wind' is wonderful. It would be the last album on EMI.
With new bassist Nibbs Carer and a returning Glocker, the band settled with a couple of live albums before the rebuilding exercise began with 1990s 'Solid Ball Of Rock' (by far my favourite Saxon opus) on Virgin Germany. 'Forever Free' and 'Dogs Of War' followed, moving from melodic rock n' roll to full-on power Metal. All three received critical acclaim, if not the sales.
'Unleash The Beast' (with new guitarist Doug Scarratt replacing Graham Oliver) was another blistering affair and with 'Metalhead' and a number of official and semi official live sets, saw out the decade.
The 2000s saw the band's sound stabilise and successes built, with bigger venues played in the UK and US. 'Killing Ground' and 'Lionheart' were good, but the real resurgence began with 'The Inner Sanctum', then 'Into The Labyrinth', 'Call To Arms' and most recently 'Sacrifice'. Bonus tracks have seen the band experiment with acoustic and orchestrated versions too.
Which brings us this album. A solid stable line-up, a heavy heavy sound, and production that kills from the outset. A 21st album that is totally bombastic in every sense with Byford's lyrics taking in complex issues and myths, reality and rock n' roll.
The opening title track awakens with a smack in the face, Scarratt and Quinn shredding and riffing alike, the crunchy chorus catchy, the change of pace between is as fluid as Byford's voice. Like a Saxon concert, they start off at a pace that'll have you shaking for ages thereafter.
'The Devil's Footprint''s demonic spoken intro sets the scene perfectly, the song itself a moody number that is equally uplifting with a machine-gun rhythm and layers in the structure.
'Queen Of Hearts' is a slower but equally heavy number, a little chunkier and lyrically based on Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland. The softer segments build the atmosphere well while 'Destroyer' is a serious nod to the band's 80s work, albeit with heavier and stronger tinge to the polish.
'Hard And Fast' is another 80s throwback and is about driving thusly and out-and-out Metal fans will love this song. 'Eye Of The Storm' has a fantastic riff, and groove to match and I wouldn't be surprised if this became a live staple. Likewise 'Eye Of The Storm' which contains some intricate guitar work adding a more than decent touch.
'Top Of The World' opens with a more melodic power Metal feel, a touch more light-hearted but with that classic Saxon touch and it works tremendously. Probably my fave track of the album.
Track ten and album closer 'Kingdom Of The Cross' is a melancholic look at the horrors of WW1, a poem read by Hell's David Bower with Byford's singing, bass and keyboards. Meaningful, heartfelt atmospheric and moody, this is a fantastic end to a great album. Bonus cut 'Three Sheets To The Wind' is another uplifting track that truly rocks.
This is a solid and natural follow up to 'Sacrifice', a mixture of moving up and throwbacks to 1983 and 2000. Production from Andy Sneap (Megadeth, Testament, Exodus, Accept) helps with the heaviness and blistering work. While the twin guitar will shred your ears to smithereens, the bass and drum work with kick your backside too.
Yes this is much heavier than some of the more rock n' roll or prog Metal tinged work of the last ten years, but it's just a great album. Years ago, Saxon gave much to the power Metal scene; now they've taken back control of it and beefed it up somewhat.
Definite contender for album of the year, and for a few years either side.