The bold Sir Knight on the excellent cover of 1984’s Crusader looks like he’s expecting some sort of bother. And, by reviewing the album that he adorns, I’m expecting a bit of it too. This is the kind of album you could easily get into a fight about. You could scrap about metal genres and styles: epic metal or hard rock; British or American; 70s glam rock or 80s glam metal; rockers vs ballads. They’re all here. There could be pistols at dawn over notions of integrity about Saxon’s leap to major label status with EMI and their search for a big break in the States. But, as a fan of all kinds of rock and metal I could just focus on the only thing that really matters: is Crusader any good?
As bugles and horses’ hooves herald the arrival of the title-track, the answer is yes. Better than good. It’s astounding. The epic Crusader tells of 12th Century warriors riding into battle. Biff Byford is on exceptional form lyrically and vocally. The grandeur of the song harkens back to tracks like Frozen Rainbow and Militia Guard from their overlooked debut. The climatic guitar solo and impassioned final choruses are Saxon at their most spine-chilling.
The rest of Crusader continues the polishing of Saxon’s sound that began with their previous album, the chrome-plated barnstormer Power & the Glory. Recorded in LA with REO Speedwagon producer Kevin Beamish, Crusader introduces a much more easy-going sun-kissed sound with the guitars quieter and the vocals the main focus. There are some attempts at commercial appeal. Do It All for You is Saxon’s first straight-up love ballad. Similar in mood to Journey’s Lights it’s got a nice sensuous feel and a regal intro but it’s let down by the lyrics as Saxon climb the highest mountains and search the deepest seas in search of clichés. Sailing to America is also in firm AOR territory and is an album highlight, a carefree cruiser with some expressive and colourful guitar.
The remaining tracks are predominantly straight-up rock. Just Let Me Rock, released as a single, is instantly memorable and has cool moody verses but it doesn’t dig in enough to fully engage. A Little Bit of What You Fancy and Rock City push more air but their choruses are a bit too naff for comfort. Run for Your Lives is better with its rousing football-chant coda while Bad Boys (Like to Rock N’ Roll) and the cover of Sweet’s Set Me Free are both tough enough to recall the street-fighting Brit grit of old.
The Yorkshiremen were still fighting the good fight but, with Crusader, Saxon’s standard dropped. It’s an enjoyable album overall but it needed more sonic heft (some songs fared better at the demo stage) and more consistent song-writing to match the quality and vitality of their past efforts. Only the album’s title-track truly belongs in the same rarefied air as past glories like 747 (Strangers in the Night). Crusader remains one of Saxon’s most beloved songs and the rest of the album basks in the goodwill generated by it.
In the UK Crusader turned out to be Saxon’s lowest charting album since their debut and a big US breakthrough continued to elude them. But their US sales were still improving and the album was a hit throughout mainland Europe. It eventually sold 2 million copies, making it Saxon’s bestselling album to date. But as Biff Byford said “we have had albums that have been more popular [than others]. That doesn’t necessarily mean I like them more.” And I think we should keep that in mind with Crusader. It’s a solid, successful and important album in Saxon’s career but better albums came before and after it.