Unleash The Beast, Saxon’s thirteenth studio album and the first to feature the band’s current line-up, finds the band dialling up the kind of heaviness previously hinted at on older tracks like Altar Of The Gods, Battle Cry and Dogs Of War.
As usual for Saxon, this 1997 album’s big classic is the title-track: a brilliant thrasher with a chorus hewn from pure gold. But the harder edge comes at the expense of the band’s usual chemistry and charisma. The serious mood fits songs like the dark, grooving Cut Out The Disease and the moody, slow-burner The Preacher. But songs like Ministry Of Fools and The Thin Red Line fall strangely flat when they should be uplifting. The driving Terminal Velocity, uncannily catchy Circle Of Light and vigorously rowdy All Hell’s Breaking Loose inject much-needed sparks of excitement but can’t quite lift the album into the classic zone.
Its po-faced proficiency makes it one to appreciate rather than love but Saxon’s consistency and focus impresses and this was a crucial album for them. As well as unleashing the beast, they ushered in a new era, finding a style and purpose that would restore their credibility and serve them well for years to come. The story of modern Saxon starts here.
With original member Graham Oliver ousted from the band, Saxon had to quickly recruit a new guitarist in time for their tour to support the excellent Dogs Of War album. In stepped Doug Scarratt, ex-David Hasselhoff guitarist(!) and a friend of Saxon drummer Nigel Glockler. Coincidentally, Glockler had made his Saxon album debut on the 1982 live release The Eagle Has Landed and now his pal Doug made his on the sequel The Eagle Has Landed – Part 2. The use of the title evoked the band’s NWOBHM glory days, presumably in an attempt to signify to lapsed fans that the band had returned to metal. But it also bravely invited comparison between the 1996 lineup and the classic Saxon of yore.
But The Eagle Has Landed – Part 2 ducks the comparison by weighing heavily towards the band’s more recent material. In fact, with the exception of five songs, all of the material here is drawn from the band’s early-90s output. It sounds great and the band performs well. Doug Scarratt fits in seamlessly (showing off his chops on a tastefully shredded solo spot) and Biff Byford puts in a powerful, committed vocal performance despite sounding like he’s got a frog in his throat. In fact, he makes it work for him. The sound of him straining and pushing to hit the notes adds a real edge of excitement to tracks like Forever Free.
Although the new lineup acquits itself well, the focus on new tracks drags the album down, especially in the middle section. Ain’t Gonna Take It, Crash Dive and Can’t Stop Rockin’ are decent enough on their respective studio albums but they don’t cut it in a Saxon live set. But the second disc recovers well with Solid Ball Of Rock and Great White Buffalo proving effective live before some oldies-but-goodies see the album out on a high. The only blip in the older tracks is a version of Denim & Leather that’s marred by an overbearing guest spot from Yngwie J. Malmsteen who solos over everything that can possibly be soloed over.
Diehard fans/collectors will find the rare performances and historical value of The Eagle Has Landed – Part 2 make for a worthwhile release. But collectability aside, most listeners will find it a bit uninspiring and, while it certainly has its moments, it’s the least exciting of the Saxon live albums to this point: a solid but unspectacular start to the band’s post-Oliver career. The new lineup would have to impress mightily when they unleashed their next album.
Saxon tried to learn their lesson from the rushed and patchy Forever Free album. They took a bit more time over the follow-up and headed back to Germany’s Karo Studio and the production team that proved so successful with Solid Ball Of Rock back in 1991. That album was a return to hard rocking form for the band but still found them moving forward, albeit in a fan-friendly fashion. While Solid Ball Of Rock was mostly full of good time AC/DC-style stompers, 1995’s Dogs Of War was an edgier affair and much more redolent of the band’s older style. But, for one member of the band, this album would be the last.
Fans of Saxon’s warrior epics like Power And The Glory and Battle Cry will delight in the opening title-track. It’s a total belter with a chunky, ballsy sound and an explosively thrilling chorus. It’s the albums best track and the only enduring classic here but the rest of the album is far from disappointing. If you know anything about Saxon you’ll know that when they start singing about vehicles it’s game on! And Burning Wheels and Big Twin Rolling (Coming Home) are loud and dirty transport rockers that take you right back to classic albums like Wheels Of Steel. And as well as recalling the classic days, Saxon also keep things fresh with some tastefully incorporated contemporary elements too: The Great White Buffalo is a moody, swampy epic and Don’t Worry has a rootsy, almost-grungy feel but climaxes with mesmerising guitar work that is pure, classic Saxon.
It’s impressive stuff but the album isn’t without its wobbles. Walking Through Tokyo is a blundering low point and a couple of enjoyable but essentially forgettable closing tracks find the album running out of steam. But it’s a minor quibble when there are so many great tracks here. Even Hold On, a potential mis-step with it’s Jovi-esque feel and Tommy & Gina lyrics, ends up being feelgood fun with a killer arena-ready chorus.
In a challenging era when British metal bands were generally falling by the wayside or falling apart, Saxon had rediscovered their fighting form, releasing their strongest, grittiest, most traditionally metal album since their glory days. But, as well as taking on the world, they were also squabbling among themselves. The relationship between frontman Biff Byford and guitarist Graham Oliver was faltering and some of the guitarist’s work on Dogs Of War had reportedly been re-recorded by a session guitarist. And when an unauthorised release of the band’s first Donington set was traced back to the guitarist, he was dismissed from the band. The loss of this talented musician and charismatic performer in such acrimonious circumstances was a blow to fans but they could take heart in the fact that – with this enjoyable, overlooked metal banger – Saxon were finally sounding like their old selves again.
Saxon had enjoyed a return-to-form with 1991’s Solid Ball of Rock and moved fast to keep the momentum going, releasing the follow-up Forever Free just over one year later. As well as hurrying, the band also skimped on costs, recording in Vienna with unknown, cut-price producer Urwin Hersig. It probably comes as no surprise, then, that Forever Free sounded rushed and cheap.
For the most part, Forever Free comes across like a collection of leftovers from Solid Ball of Rock. It continues that album’s mix of Euro-metal and AC/DC raunch but many of the tracks stray too far into forgettable territory. Songs like Cloud Nine, Get Down and Dirty, Grind and the cyber-metal cover of I Just Want to Make Love to You sound like the band are jamming out ideas: working versions rather than the finished product. This isn’t helped by the sound: much of Forever Free sounds like a demo, a decent demo but a demo all the same.
On the positive side, these weaknesses give the album a sense of charm. The under-cooked tracks have a playfulness about them and the loose, jamming approach throws up some truly inspired playing from the Quinn/Oliver guitar duo (check out the hot solo on Night Hunter). And, while the bungled production wasn’t going to cut it for casual listeners and airplay, it results in the rawest, most metallic album the band had put out in years.
There are only a couple of real keepers though. The title track is the album’s enduring classic, a “wind in your hair” biker anthem that turns the clock right back to the band’s classic NWOBHM days. Iron Wheels is an enchanting folky strum and, if the lyrics sound familiar, it’s because you already heard them on Destiny’s Calm Before the Storm. The blue-collar imagery works much better here in this rustic setting and makes for one of the albums more affecting and creative tracks. The albums best, and most overlooked, deep cut is the stunning Hole in the Sky, with its spellbinding chorus and Ozzy-ish riffing.
Forever Free is a mixed bag that only committed Saxon fans will enjoy. It’s not a disaster and, unlike previous Saxon missteps, at least it sticks to the band’s core style. But it is still a misstep and did real damage to the band’s regeneration. Coming off the back of its well-received predecessor, Forever Free sold well but this rough and patchy effort ensured that many of those customers wouldn’t be back for more. Saxon had lost a crucial battle in the war to re-establish themselves but, as their next album would prove, these old dogs weren’t about to surrender any time soon.
The 90s were a challenging time for classic metal acts but, for Saxon, the decade got off to a promising start. The “10 Years of Denim & Leather” back-to-basics tour rejuvenated the band. Aiming to carry the momentum into the studio, the band signed with Virgin Records and headed to Germany to record their comeback album Solid Ball of Rock.
Released in 1991, Solid Ball of Rock finds Saxon returning to a heavier, err… ballsier style. It opens with its title-track and most enduring classic: the band taking Bram Tchaikovsky’s Jerry-Lee Lewis inspired rock n’ roller and giving it an AC/DC-grade kick up the arse (with a cool nod to The Sensational Alex Harvey Band in its Faith Healer-esque intro). It’s followed by the equally thrilling Altar of the Gods. Bolstered by the writing contribution* and forceful playing of new bassist Nibbs Carter, it’s a belter of a track with an aggressive, metallic approach that recalls the classic days of Power & the Glory while also pointing the way forward to the band’s future power metal leanings.
It’s an encouraging opening but doubt sets in with Requiem (We Will Remember). The album’s only single, it maintains the feel-good vibe but its sentimentality, U2 jangle and “whoa-ohs” don’t sit well with me. But it proves to be the album’s only real wobble: the remaining tracks alternating between straightforward, open-chord rock n’ roll like I Just Can’t Get Enough and I’m On Fire and top-notch galloping Priest-y metal like Lights in the Sky and Baptism of Fire. The rock n’ roll tracks are a bit disposable by Saxon standards but have an enjoyably bouncy vitality while the metal tracks add crucial depth and grit with the epic, enigmatic Refugee adding class to the album’s late stages. It’s a strong combination of styles and a cohesive collection.
The overall sense with Solid Ball of Rock is of a band rediscovering their spark and spirit. Sticking to the basics but simultaneously mapping out new directions. The album did great business for the band and, although there were still challenging times ahead, Solid Ball of Rock is a pivotal Saxon album: a joyous, rocking reboot.
*Nibbs’ remarkable dominance of the writing credits here turns out to be an exaggeration. With litigious former managers breathing down Saxon’s neck they protected their royalties by crediting most of the songs to Nibbs: the only member of the band with no links to their past contracts. Crafty buggers.
Greatest Hits Live! captures Saxon on the upswing following the doldrums of their disappointing Destiny album and tour. Frontman Biff Byford had taken over their management, securing a well-received support slot with Manowar that galvanised the group. Saxon then launched a European headlining tour in 1990 to celebrate 10 Years of Denim & Leather* and the UK leg was such a success that the band added another run of UK gigs later in the year. They played more than 40 shows in the UK alone, winning much-needed acclaim and credibility in their homeland. The Nottingham show was recorded and released as Saxon’s third live album.
Unlike its two predecessors, The Eagle Has Landed and Rock N’ Roll Gypsies, Greatest Hits Live! offers a full** Saxon live set, living up to its title. It’s bulging with classics (Wheels of Steel, (747) Strangers in the Night, Princess of the Night, And the Bands Played On), hard-hitting metal bangers from the early days (Motorcycle Man, 20,000ft and Heavy Metal Thunder) and well-chosen newer material (a bouncy Rock N’ Roll Gypsy and a tougher take on Ride Like the Wind). There are some mid-set surprises too with a captivating Frozen Rainbow and an absolutely phenomenal version of See the Light Shining. And just to put the icing on the cake: the classic tracks Denim and Leather and Crusader finally make their live album debuts.
Greatest Hits Live! is an honest and energetic live album that drives home the quality of Saxon’s material and the celebratory vibe of the tour. On the evidence here, it’s no surprise that they won over audiences up and down the country. However, through all their ups-and-downs, Saxon’s live prowess was never in doubt. If they were going to have a future they’d have to produce new material that lived up to the glorious past celebrated here. Buoyed by the enthusiastic reception from their UK fans, Saxon rushed back into the studio. The comeback was on.
*Biff announces “we’ve been together for 10 years” but their debut album was released in 1979 so in 1990 they were a year out. Instead, the liner notes proclaim that the 10 years refer to the anniversary of their 1980 breakthrough with Wheels of Steel. But then they called it “10 Years of Denim & Leather” after an album that was nine years old.
**One song is missing. The show was also released on VHS and the set included Strong Arm of the Law. I’ll let them off though.
Saxon had lost their way with the dicey Destiny album. Dropped from EMI in 1988, they took a creative break. For the next couple of years their activity was restricted to touring and the release of a couple of live albums through one-off record deals. The first of these, recorded on a tour of Eastern Europe, was 1989’s Rock N’ Roll Gypsies.
The main historical interest is the new lineup: Nigel Glockler makes a welcome return to the drum stool and bassist Timothy ‘Nibbs’ Carter makes his Saxon debut. There’s no song duplication with their previous live album, 1982’s The Eagle Has Landed, and none of that album’s sweaty, beery atmosphere. But it kicks off very promisingly indeed. The band sound driving and ballsy and thunder through Power and the Glory, And the Bands Played On, Rock the Nations and a superb Dallas 1PM, only slipping up on a sleepy version of Broken Heroes. The next side kicks off with a rousing Battle Cry before things start to go pear-shaped. The patchiness of the band’s EMI years rears its ugly head as Rock N’ Roll Gypsy, Northern Lady and I Can’t Wait Anymore progressively suck more and more life out of the album: the excitement level dropping so low that the kinetic closer This Town Rocks barely registers.
CD editions add quality and value with bonus tracks The Eagle Has Landed and Just Let Me Rock but, all in all, Rock N’ Roll Gypsies is a solid but unremarkable live stop-gap. The lack of song duplication with The Eagle… is a double-edged sword. It’s more collectable and interesting to hear different songs but the feel of a live Saxon show is hampered when there’s no Wheels of Steel or Strong Arm of the Law. And given the lack of concert classics, the omission of Crusader (one of the band’s most triumphant post-1982 songs) is unforgivable. Great performances, dodgy tracklisting. The faltering steps of a great band finding its feet again.