It’s a pretty big deal for a band to land a hit album and an even bigger deal for a hairy-arsed heavy metal band to land some hit singles. But heavy metal was a big deal in 1980 and that’s exactly what Saxon did with Wheels of Steel, their second studio album. Keen to capitalise on their success and to keep the band in the public eye while they (and heavy metal) were “hot”, the band’s managers rushed Saxon back into the studio to write and record the follow-up Strong Arm of the Law. It was released in the UK only four months after its predecessor.
What could have been a rush-job recipe for disaster turned out to be a masterstroke. The enforced haste of the album’s creation meant Strong Arm of the Law would be a no-frills affair, crackling with street-level energy and vitality: exactly what the metal-loving public of 1980 wanted to hear. The opening peal of thunder is one of the few production flourishes on an album that is as bare-boned as it gets. Heavy Metal Thunder is a blazing opener, the atmosphere of a metal gig expressed in song. “Pull your heads back, hold your hands high, shake your body”. Most of the album follows in this pedal-to-the-metal vein: 20,000ft is relentlessly kinetic (even if the feet to miles conversion is a bit suspect), To Hell and Back Again alternates melodic verses with a fierce, charging chorus, Taking No Chances has a big Dick Dale open string chug, irresistible blocky chords and a snotty vocal from Biff Byford. It was recorded in a hurry and the band sound like they are wasting no time. This album does not hang about.
Most of the songs charge by in breathless chunky rhythms or, like the title-track and Hungry Years, rely on shuffling blues riffs. There are very few Wheels of Steel-style money riffs and there’s little of the compositional sophistication evident in past tracks like 747(Strangers in the Night). And while the ideas and songwriting could be considered spartan in comparison to Wheels of Steel, the steamrollering performance and Biff Byford’s vocal hooks obliterate any such doubts and sell the album in remarkable fashion.
The album’s most triumphant compositions are saved for the end. Sixth Form Girls is a working-class vignette with a fat, bouncy riff and more intelligent lyrics than the title would suggest and Dallas 1PM ends the album with its true classic: the tale of JFK’s assassination begins with a tense, Faith Healer-esque intro before opening out with ringing AC/DC chords and climaxing with another of the album’s rare production touches as the haunting clean notes and radio reports build into a scorching guitar solo from Graham Oliver. A breathless conclusion to a blast of an album.
With their third album Saxon continued their run of success, performing an incredible feat by releasing two albums this good in the space of a year. It’s hard to separate them. Wheels of Steel has the hits and the flair but Strong Arm of the Law hangs together as a more consistent, more visceral album: Saxon at the top of their game and brimming with confidence. The label decided to name the album after its lead single but, before that, it was going to be called Heavy Metal Thunder. It’s such a shame they went with the other title as Heavy Metal Thunder would have been perfect for this. It’s exactly what you get here. Heavy metal thunder. And if that doesn’t make you want to run out and buy it right now then this is not the blog for you.
HMO Rating: 10 out of 5