Saxon concluded their 90s catalogue in robust fashion with the aptly-titled Metalhead. It continued the dark, heavy vein of 1997’s Unleash The Beast but with a vigour and confidence bolstered by a traditional metal renaissance in Europe.
The crushing metal chugs and ominous tones of tracks like Metalhead and Are We Travellers In Time have a contemporary edge but also a technicality to the riffage that bulldozers away the boozier, spritlier charm of the band’s early days. But Saxon’s spirit and songcraft remains. Even at its heaviest, the album sports durable melodies and there’s a welcome lighter touch and variety on songs like the bouncy Prisoner, grooving What Goes Around and the proggy Sea Of Life. It’s not all gleaming and modern: the Saxon traditions of headbanging and tales of olde are upheld in the thrilling All Guns Blazing and the rousing Conquistador.
Some inevitable clunkers (Piss Off and the forgettable Watching You) and a sense of solid proficiency prevent it ranking alongside inspired classics like Power & The Glory. But with Metalhead Saxon made their stongest, timeliest statement of the decade and this is where the modern lineup* really clicks, finding a new reason to be. I’ll bang my head to that.
HMO Rating: 4 Out Of 5
*Worth pointing out that Nigel Glockler had left (again) due to injury, replaced by Fritz Randow. But you won’t notice the difference.
More reliably excellent stuff from the Norwegian black thrash icons. Aura Noir cast back to the early days of black metal’s “first wave”: the gnarly thrash of old Venom, Celtic Frost, Sodom and the like delivered with the cold intensity of “second wave” bands like Darkthrone and Mayhem. And on 2018’s Aura Noire the band grinds their sound down to the bare power-trio minerals. It feels significantly less face-flaying than their older stuff but the band’s supply of killer, twisted riffs and mischevious lyrics (“truly fictitious!”) is inexhaustible and the stripped-down sound allows their music to breathe with a natural, live energy. Aura Noire doesn’t strive to impress, so it’s tempting to write it off as merely solid. That would be a mistake. Dark Lungs Of The Storm, Grave Dweller and Mordant Wind are all charnel delights and the album’s old-school brio and confidence mark it out as a future favourite.
Following several poorly-received albums and the acrimonious ousting of frontman Geoff Tate, the rebooted Queensrÿche returned to the fan-pleasing style of their classic era with this eponymous 2013 album. The twin guitars, hefty bass, percussive drumming and the uncanny Tate-alike vocals of new member Todd La Torre all sound the part, bringing to mind albums like Rage For Order and Empire. But this is progressive metal in sound rather than form: straightforward verse/chorus songcraft with little of the state-of-the-art sophistication of old. No thought-provoking lyrics here either, unless “take a look around in the lost and found” strikes you as high-concept. But, as modern mainstream metal goes, it’s tight and focused with great hooks. The up-tempo Don’t Look Back and Fallout are especially potent and songs like A World Without and Open Road have plenty of heart. Queensrÿche played it too safe to count as a true return-to-form but it was good enough to return much needed credibility to the beleaguered band.
A Burnt Offering For The Bone Idol is a grand medieval banquet full of succulent folk, juicy classic metal and meaty thrash. Skyclad’s 1992 album was a truly original and pioneering work that built on their debut album’s idiosyncratic promise. The addition of a full-time violinist Fritha Jenkins adds class and colour to a rich and varied set of pagan metal all graced by the gifted lyrics and charismatic vocals of Martin Walkyier. The lusty jig Spinning Jenny and the fist-pumping The Declaration Of Indifference are the enduring set-list faves but every track here is special. The mix of traditional metal mastery à la Maiden and Manowar coupled with the rage and darkness of the underground made this the album to beat in a year when proper epic metal seemed to be in short-supply. From the dystopian anger of Broken Promised Land to the historical tragedy of R’Vannith and the mellow moon-lit ley lines of Ring Stone Round, A Burnt Offering… is a treasure from start to finish.
Samson’s 1979 debut was one of the first albums to come from the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. But the hasty Londoners weren’t quite studio ready yet and Survivors was a half-decent effort at best. Bassist Chris Aylmer and vocalist Bruce Bruce are pictured on the cover but weren’t actually in the band when Survivors was recorded so guitarist Paul Samson handled vocals and Gillan’s John McCoy added some heavy help: playing bass as well as co-writing and producing. And the album is at its strongest when it picks up some of that gonzo Gillan-esque edge. It’s Not As Easy As It Seems, Big Brother, Koz and Six Foot Under are all boisterous highlights. But the rest of the album is dated and forgettable and Samson and McCoy both fall short in their vocal and production roles. Still, for all its faults, it has an ordinary Joe charm that captures the spirit of the emerging movement. Later, with Aylmer and Bruce onboard, Samson would power up and hit the NWOBHM head on. With biceps of steel.
HMO Rating: 3 Out Of 5
(Buyer note: Most reissues add alternative versions with improved sound and Bruce Bruce on vocals. Essential!)
Backed by a band of skilful Swedes (including Mic Michaeli and John Leven of Europe fame) the rehab-ed and rejuvenated “Voice Of Rock” delivered an engaging set of hard and groovy AOR with 1994’s From Now On… The album wasted no time getting Purple fans onboard with the rousing, Hammond-led opener Pickin’ Up The Pieces and the superb blues metal of Lay Your Body Down. But it also pointed the way forward with the moody funk of Walking On The Water, soulful rocker The Liar and the trippy Into The Void. It gets too middle-of-the-road for comfort at points and there’s some dated bloat in the album’s later stages but the closing title-track and a couple of ace Purple covers are worth holding out for. Stronger and more confident from here on in, Glenn would get more adventurous and exciting with subsequent releases. But this album was a strong building block for his comeback and also a great place for new fans to discover his talents.
The punishingly bleak death metal on Paradise Lost’s 1990 debut Lost Paradise makes it the odd-one-out in a discography more renowned for gothic melody. But the five teenagers had only been together about a year before being faced with the challenge of recording their first record and, despite not having found their voice yet, they make a pretty decent fist of it. A lack of songcraft means it all kind of mushes together but they already have their doleful mix of riff and lead guitar down, there’s the occasional decent hook (“where is your God now?”), and the whole thing has a entrancingly subterranean atmosphere. And Lost Paradise has proven pretty influential in its own right as one of the earliest albums to slow death metal down to a miserable crawl. The Yorkshiremen would do much better with subsequent releases but fans of meat and potatoes death/doom could do a lot worse than check this out.