Saxon – Denim and Leather (Review)

815K+mBspyL._SL1300_
Saxon – Denim and Leather (1981)

They might have released two stone-cold classics in 1980 but Saxon weren’t about to put their feet up. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal was now in full flow and Saxon were clearly unwilling to relinquish their position as the commercial hot property of the movement. Released in 1981, hot off the back of their considerable success the year before, Saxon’s fourth album Denim and Leather was a celebration. Not just of the band’s success but of their fans and the resurgent metal scene as a whole.

2015-01-05 20.08.20

Produced by Nigel Thomas, Denim and Leather is less abrasive than the previous albums but still sonic meat and potatoes. It’s topped and tailed with two of the greatest songs Saxon would ever produce. Continuing their penchant for offbeat lyrical subjects and songs about forms of transport, opening track Princess of the Night tells the tale of a steam train delivering mail through ice and snow. (You’ll have to suspend your disbelief at a British train actually running during such inclement weather). It’s a darting, precision rocker with a riff you can’t believe no-one thought of before and a joyously bluesy guitar solo from Paul Quinn. Closing track Denim and Leather is a genuine and charming tribute to the metal fans that put Saxon on the map, highlighting the band’s down-to-earth attitude. It’s a stomping anthem with a huge and irresistible chorus and one of the most memorable opening lines in metal history: “Where were you in ’79 when the dam began to burst?”

2015-01-05 20.17.43

After the superb opening the first side is a mixed-bag. Never Surrender is vintage Saxon and follows Princess of the Night in bruising style but the quality starts to trail off. Rough and Ready is a stodgily unconvincing hard-man boast and Play it Loud is a flat stab at a party anthem. Side 2 immediately gets the album back on track with And the Bands Played On, another of the album’s outstanding victories. Despite its musical similarity to 747 (Strangers in the Night) it has its own unique identity and appeal: a feel-good ode to the inaugural Monsters of Rock festival at Castle Donington. As with the title track, Saxon’s everyman charm works wonders: rather than singing about how amazing their own performance was, they celebrate the festival itself, the attending horde and name-check other bands on the bill. It’s got simple, memorable guitar riffs and Biff Byford’s breathless delivery is a joy “Will it rain, will it snow, will it shine? We don’t know” and it’s one of those classics you never tire of hearing. Midnight Rider continues the musical lap of honour, recounting the band’s early tours of the States with the rolling tempo and gear-changing chords perfectly capturing the excitement of the road trip. The album’s most ripping number, the apocalyptic Fire in the Sky, and the triumphant title-track finish the album on a high.

Along with Wheels of Steel and Strong Arm of the Law, Denim and Leather is often thought of as the third in Saxon’s “classic trilogy”. As is often the case with trilogies, the final part is the weakest of the three but it’s still a must-hear with some of the band’s most accomplished songwriting and the guitar duo of Graham Oliver/Paul Quinn at a lively peak. The highlights are magnificent metal classics and far outweighs any filler to elevate the album to star status. It was their second highest charting album in the UK so Saxon’s position at the head of the NWOBHM pack remained secure and just two years on from their debut release they already had a discography and a following worthy of celebration. The dam was well and truly burst.

HMO Rating: 4.5 out of 5

The HMO Top 10 Reissues & Compilations of 2014

2014

I’ve already agonised over my favourite new music of the past year but regular readers will know I’m a big fan of reissues and archive releases. And, as usual (or increasingly?) 2014 found plenty of old music being repackaged and resold with the usual bells, whistles and (hopefully) some unheard or rare tracks added.

So I would like to present my Top 10 archive/reissue/compilation releases of 2014. Naturally my personal listening moods and enjoyment played a huge part in my choices but I’ve also weighed up some other crucial factors in deciding these:

  • Bonus tracks – A big factor, especially if I’m re-purchasing albums I’ve bought in the past, so reasonably worthwhile reissues like Hear No Evil’s reissues of Motorhead’s 1916 and Deep Purple’s Slaves and Masters didn’t quite make the cut.
  • Curation and selection – I can forgive a lack of bonus material if the reissued material is relatively rare or interesting in the first place. So, despite me absolutely adoring it, Mayhem’s Grand Declaration of War reissue missed the cut as it was already readily available and not in particular need of a reissue.
  • Sound quality – This is always arguable and I’m no hi-fi purist but extra points are awarded if I feel reissues are sonic improvements on previous versions. Although they narrowly failed the cut its worth mentioning Earache’s “Full Dynamic Range” releases here. They sound excellent and I hope other labels will follow their example.
  • Value for money and packaging – Generally I tend to shy away from expensive “super-deluxe” affairs but I do appreciate it when a particularly plush or expansive release manages to avoid breaking the bank. Bon Jovi’s New Jersey box and the Super Duper Alice Cooper set are good examples of expansive and luxurious, but still affordable, sets that didn’t quite make the cut.

So now that I’ve got all that off my chest…

THE HMO TOP REISSUES AND COMPILATIONS OF 2014

71Gkks5PFPL._SL1181_NUMBER TEN: KISS – Love Gun (Deluxe Edition)

Classic album bolstered with nice packaging, liner notes and an extra disc of bonus tracks. I’ve always banged on about how KISS should be doing more archive releases so I had to include this solid reissue here. If they had pushed the bonus track boat out a bit more it might have placed higher but I still hope there’s more where this came from and if their other albums get this treatment I’ll be a happy bunny.

HT RLOLLAIHNUMBER NINE: Ronnie Lane and Slim Chance – Ooh La La: an Island Harvest

Quality 2CD anthology from the ex-Small Faces/The Faces legend. Many of his solo albums are hard to come by now so this was a welcome release for me. And the inclusion of a BBC session makes it a worthwhile buy for fans of longer standing. This was my first exposure to his post-Faces output and it is charming and heart-warming stuff.

2014-04-06 14.58.15-1NUMBER EIGHT: Pantera – Far Beyond Driven (20th Anniversary Edition)

I’ve been enjoying the previous Pantera reissues and looked forward to this immensely. It’s missing B-Sides from the album’s era which is a shame but it’s still a great sounding reissue with a fantastic live show as a bonus disc. This caught me in the right mood and got heavy rotation.

2014-05-11 14.06.50-1NUMBER SEVEN: Coroner – Death Cult

I’m very excited that this Swiss band’s incredible demo has been given an official band-approved release by the No Remorse label. A couple of bonus tracks sweeten the deal but it’s fantastic to have such a great sounding copy of this that plays at the right speed! Not enough people know how incredible Coroner are and on this demo they are also fronted by no less than Hellhammer/Celtic Frost/Triptykon legend Tom G. Warrior himself.

A1SiG3X7H8L._SL1500_NUMBER SIX: The Allman Brothers Band – The 1971 Fillmore East Recordings (6CD Box Set)

I wavered about this but I’m glad I bought it. It’s absolutely fascinating to hear the many shows and alternate takes that were whittled down to the perfect At Fillmore East album. I wouldn’t replace the original but this is well worth hearing if you’re a fan of it. It’s a very thorough and plush package for the agreeable price. A great follow-up to 2013’s excellent Brothers and Sisters reissue.

2014-05-11 13.55.16-1NUMBER FIVE: Various Artists – Wayfaring Strangers: The Darkscorch Canticles (2LP Set)

This superbly curated labour of love from The Numero Group is the only vinyl release to make my list. It’s a charming and fun set of underground US Zep and Sabbath worship from the 70s. It’s very rare stuff and a must-have for fans of Stoner Rock and proto-Metal. The appeal of the music is further enhanced by the Dungeons and Dragons-inspired greatness of the packaging which you can see and read more about it here… with added Lego!

51P6CB1WE7LNUMBER FOUR: Demilich – 20th Adversary of Emptiness (2CD Deluxe)

Demilich’s only studio album Nespithe is a stunning Death Metal masterpiece and receives a well-deserved reissue here. It comes with a brilliantly designed and entertaining booklet and absolutely tons of bonus tracks. It’s a truly thorough and well-researched release but special mention has to made of the stunning sound quality too. Congratulations to Svart Records for this: it should be the benchmark for all future Metal reissues.

Christ noooo!
Christ noooo!

NUMBER THREE: Various Artists – One and All, Together for Home (2CD Deluxe)

A fascinating compilation with an interesting theme: Metal bands playing their native country’s Folk music. A lot of thought and attention went into this one and it’s a mix of old and new. Some new offerings from the likes of Winterfylleth and Primordial made this a must-buy but it also introduced me to some great bands like Ava Inferi and Haive that I may not have discovered otherwise.

712mqCedbLL._SL1500_NUMBER TWO: Queen – Live at the Rainbow ’74 (2CD Deluxe)

Not one, but two powerful live recordings from Queen’s early years. I love Queen so any live release of theirs is going to be up my street but it’s especially inspiring to hear them at this early stage playing the heavy, epic tracks like Father to Son and Ogre Battle. I love it when the classic bands I love release archive live material and this release enjoyed repeated listens and kicked off a period of full-on Queen worship.

71-rKQCjI3L._SL1500_NUMBER ONE: Ulver – Trolsk Sortmetall 1993-97 (5CD Box Set)

Ulver’s first three studios are classics of provocative and adventurous Black Metal and they have been done full justice with this stunning box set by Century Media. The three albums alone are must-haves and personal favourites but there are also some tantalising rarities here too and it’s all wrapped up in a stunning box set with a fantastic hardback book with essays, photos and translated lyrics. One of my more expensive standalone purchases of the year but still great value for five superb discs and a seriously luxurious package. It’s a release that effortlessly satisfies all my criteria for a top-drawer reissue. Buy it while you can.

The HMO Top Albums of 2014

2014

Welcome to the inaugural HMO best albums of 2014 list! At the beginning of the year I read a great article by Keith Kahn-Harris on the challenges of musical abundance in the world of Metal. It proved prophetic as 2014 seemed to be absolutely overflowing with highly-rated Metal releases. Even with my attempts to limit my music-buying I found it difficult to whittle my favourites down to a Top 10. There were many albums I enjoyed that narrowly failed to make the cut (particular apologies to Dead Congregation, Winterfylleth, Vallenfyre, Judas Priest and Space Ace).

I concede that it was a good and plentiful year for music but I did feel that in comparison to the stellar 2013, much of what I was hearing was a little disappointing. But, as with 2013, I found the latter stages of the year produced the best releases and I’m now feeling much more positive about the year and its musical output. And, despite the tough decisions, I had a brilliant time figuring out my list: it was a really enjoyable way to review and re-evaluate my purchases. I found myself enjoying albums I’d written off and also finding I now had no time for some that I previously enjoyed. But, in either case, the process made it feel like none of my musical purchases had been a waste.

So without further ado, let the run-down commence! And, as always, please chime in with your thoughts in the comments section.

THE HMO TOP 10 ALBUMS OF 2014

51mvaU5Hb+L

NUMBER TEN: Bloodbath – Grand Morbid Funeral

Teaser photos of a red telephone box and a beard signified the unexpected return of Paradise Lost’s Nick Holmes – sorry, Old Nick – to guttural Death Metal vocals when he joined Bloodbath this year. It’s deeply satisfying to hear him pulling off this type of vocal performance after all these years and Bloodbath responded with a celebratory blast of an album. Following this and PL’s Gregor MacKintosh’s excellent DM forays with Vallenfyre, it’ll be very interesting to see where Paradise Lost go from here.

[Bloodbath – Church of Vastitas]

61aTrwJbc2L

NUMBER NINE: The Scintilla Project – The Hybrid

A sci-fi concept album and collaborative project involving Saxon’s Biff Byford, Hell’s Andy Sneap and some guys from Balance of Power (who, I have to admit, I’ve never heard). It has a Progressive Metal vibe but based around catchy, melodic songs and riffs. This is a great set of moody Heavy Rock with spacey sounds and lively lead guitar. It’s especially great to hear Biff singing over a different musical approach to Saxon and I have even more respect for him after hearing his charismatic and dynamic performance here.

[The Scintilla Project – Beware the Children]

MEW

NUMBER EIGHT: Mayhem – Esoteric Warfare

Even as a relative newcomer to the band’s post-Mysteriis career I have learned to expect the unexpected with these guys. And on their fifth full-length release the last thing I was expecting was a lesson in straight-up Extreme Metal. While this approach could have proved disappointing I found it refreshing and the strength of Esoteric Warfare is in the delivery, an abhorrent maelstrom topped with Atilla Csihar’s remarkable vocal weirdness. But basically I love any album where the word “conquer” is pronounced “conkwer.”

[Mayhem – Psywar]

5195F+hiXDL

NUMBER SEVEN: The Wounded Kings – Consolamentum

Another big year for Doom Metal, especially if it’s retro, occult-themed and female fronted. Kudos to Devonshire’s retro, occult-themed and female-fronted doomsters The Wounded Kings for coming out ahead of the pack with this confident and impressive release. Cathedral-grade heaviness, adventurous song-structures, expert pacing and Sharie Neyland’s moreish wailing make this my Doom pick of the year and a band to watch.

[The Wounded Kings – Lost Bride]

717eC-jfUsL._SL1237_

NUMBER SIX: Triptykon – Melana Chasmata

Tom G. Warrior returns with yet another “fierce boulder of abhorrence” improving and sharpening the style already established with their excellent debut Eparistera Daimones. Melana Chasmata proves that Tom is still a unique musical personality at the top of his monumentally heavy game. Sadly, the renowned artist H.R. Giger passed away not long after its release. Triptykon’s dark, musical art and the stylish use of Giger’s “Mordor VII” as the album’s artwork is a fitting tribute.

[Triptykon – Tree of Suffocating Souls]

51qMWc8LzJL

NUMBER FIVE: Sólstafir – Ótta

These Icelandic rockers were one of my most exciting discoveries this year. This dense, lush album hit the spots that Anathema’s disappointing Distant Satellites failed to. It’s all in Icelandic but I’m told that it’s a concept album about the different parts of the day which puts it in the same wheelhouse as the awesome Days of Future Passed by The Moody Blues. As elegant, stormy and elemental as the excellent album cover suggests.

[Sólstafir – Lágnætti]

61PnOImjiOL

NUMBER FOUR: Grand Magus – Triumph and Power

An album that crept up in my appreciation as the year progressed! I was initially a bit underwhelmed by its mild-mannered delivery but as the year wore on it proved remarkably resilient: charming warrior Metal that proved to be right up my Manowar-loving street. Strong songwriting, JB’s confident and personable vocals and the earnest sword and sorcery vibe make this the best traditional Heavy Metal album of the year. But if they want to raid the ultimate top prize in future they’re going to have to get a bit more bloodthirsty.

[Grand Magus – Steel Versus Steel]

41wz2top+tL

NUMBER THREE: Behemoth – The Satanist

Despite being one of the first major Metal releases of the year Behemoth’s The Satanist is still enjoying a high profile and appearing on many end-of-year lists. And its reception has been well-deserved: it’s a startling statement of intent by a band coming back strong from life-threatening illness and enough controversy to scare off Blackie Lawless. A deeply personal and fully realized vision, performed with heart and conviction and enhanced with fantastic production and artwork, The Satanist is an unholy monument to blasphemy and defiance.

[Behemoth – Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel]

81TSWIv1hiL._SL1423_

NUMBER TWO: Primordial – Where Greater Men Have Fallen

With their eighth album I wondered if Ireland’s Primordial might begin to sink into a comfortable groove of diminishing returns. But full credit to the band for still having the will to excel, Where Greater Men Have Fallen is a stunning release. In addition to the rolling and beefy Pagan riffs there is a welcome Freezing Moon-style Black Metal atmosphere in Babel’s Tower and the band unleash some primitive savagery on The Seed of Tyrants. A. A. Nemtheanga also continues to be one of Metal’s most compelling and intelligent vocalists and lyricists, expressing a wide range of emotions and enigmatic material bound up in the weight and struggles of history.

[Primordial – Babel’s Tower]

61Ki6hPFLGL._SL1000_

NUMBER ONE: Voices – London

The only band on my list to have also released an album last year (the excellently-titled From the Human Forest Create a Fugue of Imaginary Rain) Voices return with their even-better sophomore album London. A rich and harrowing concept album set in the titular city it chronicles a character’s descent into madness, jealousy and sexual obsession. Whereas much Black Metal seems to aim for the ancient and/or the rural, the music here is an entirely urban modern hell: claustrophobic and crowded. Pulverising, mechanistic assaults jolt into tranquil, proggy sections and intriguing narrative passages. It’s a genuinely unhinged masterpiece and a magical, cinematic album that has enthralled me with each listen.

[Voices – The Fuck Trance]

The podium!
The podium!

Saxon – Strong Arm of the Law (Review)

Saxon - Strong Arm of the Law (1980)
Saxon – Strong Arm of the Law (1980)

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.

2014-11-23 12.04.23-1

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

My personal copy!
My personal copy!

Saxon – Wheels of Steel (Review)

Saxon - Wheels of Steel (1980)
Saxon – Wheels of Steel (1980)

Back in the 70s and 80s a lot seemed to happen in a short time. Following their 1979 debut album, Saxon were forced to find new management, bagged a high-profile (if slightly scary) support slot on Motörhead’s Bomber tour and managed to record one of the all-time classic metal albums; all in the space of a year. See what can happen when you don’t have the internet distracting you? In 1980 the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was picking up serious momentum with bands like Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Angel Witch and Diamond Head all releasing their debut albums. In addition to, and inspired by, the NWOBHM scene older Metal acts like Judas Priest and Black Sabbath were upping their game and releasing classic albums of their own.

2014-11-09 10.30.26-1

Saxon entered the competitive climate of the year as a more seasoned unit than most of their NWOBHM competition: already on their second album with a strong, settled and experienced line-up that was now gelling as a unified songwriting team. The musical indecision of their debut was gone, the proggy, glammy elements removed in favour of straight-up, raw and abrasive metal. Their second album Wheels of Steel was a near-flawless set of gritty metal anthems performed with pride and conviction. Much of the album follows the direction set by the debut’s classic Stallions of the Highway: up-tempo, racing tunes like Motorcycle Man, Machine Gun and Freeway Mad have driving Motör-rhythm, hollering vocals and hooligan riffing expertly spiced up with ringing chords and hot soloing from guitarists Graham Oliver and Paul Quinn. The title track is simple, headbanging swagger with a great singalong chorus. Elsewhere, Stand Up and be Counted engagingly sets out the group’s working-class stall, See the Light Shining has a clever change in direction half-way through and it is hard to imagine any of Saxon’s contemporaries even attempting the yearning quality of Suzie Hold On.

The undoubted highlight of the album, however, is the classic 747 (Strangers in the Night). It’s one of Saxon’s greatest and most enduring songs: combining unforgettable melodic riffs and leads with a taut, expressive Biff Byford vocal and dramatic lyrics depicting Scandinavian 101’s perilous flight. One of those great moments of creativity that makes you wonder where it came from and why no-one came up with it before.

Wheels of Steel is a class-act from start to finish. It deservedly shot Saxon to the front of the NWOBHM pack and posed a serious challenge to the established metal acts of the day as Saxon enjoyed hit singles, a Top of the Pops appearance and a spot on the first Monsters of Rock festival bill at Castle Donington. In a fertile and competitive era in metal, Saxon had what it took to stand up and be counted, releasing not just a classic NWOBHM album but a classic and timeless metal album full-stop. It remains their most well-known release, many of its tracks still featuring in the band’s sets today. Keeping in mind that this was the early 80s, their fans wouldn’t have to wait long to find out how Saxon would, or if they could, follow it. In just four months, Saxon would be back. Many bands released classic albums in 1980. Saxon released two.

HMO Rating: 5 out of 5

Carnivore – Carnivore (Review)

Carnivore - Carnivore (1985)
Carnivore – Carnivore (1985)

Greetings and felicitations, children of technology. Welcome to the post-apocalyptic world of Carnivore. Few bands are hardy enough to survive thermonuclear destruction but, led by the imposing Petrus T. Steele, this trio of New Yorkers had what it takes to survive World War III (and IV.)

They're meat eaters, they'd like to meet ya
They’re meat eaters, they’d like to meet ya

Along with Keith Alexander on guitar and Louis Beateaux on drums, Petrus and Carnivore unleashed their S/T debut album in 1985. It’s a raunchy and primitive mix of Punk and Metal with a hefty dose of Doom and Steele’s beefy vocals. Although the style is crude the performance is tight with live energy and just enough production effects to sound suitably futuristic. Predator kicks the proceedings off and sets the scene of life beneath the rrrrruined city. Male Supremacy has a dirty Crüe-style opening riff and unforgettable chorus. Armageddon has rampaging Crossover Thrash velocity and another golden chorus hook. There are also playful, musical detours: God is Dead’s chorus is mellow bongo-driven weirdness and Male Supremacy culminates in romantic balladry as Petrus returns home to his woman after a hard day’s war.

Metal Mind/Roadrunner Ltd Edition
Metal Mind/Roadrunner Ltd Edition

The second side dips a little compared to the stronger first half but is saved by the more remarkable Doom sections (the “Crush Kill Destroy” section of Thermonuclear Warrior for example) and the rollicking, propulsive World Wars III and IV which ends the album on a high. Lyrically, Carnivore stick to what they know: the life and philosophy of post-apocalyptic, cannibal barbarians hunting for unsuspecting victims to chow down on. It’s something we can all relate to. The whole album is right up my Venom-loving street: filthy and rowdy with the hyper-masculinity of Manowar and a pre-GWAR sense of fun and mythology that wisely stops short of out-and-out comedy.

Petrus T. Steele would later change his name to Peter Steele and go on to great success in his next band Type O Negative. There is very little of Type O’s seductive, swooning October Rust style here but there are plenty of other similarities: the Hardcore elements of Type O’s debut Slow, Deep and Hard and later tracks like Kill All the White People. The shock-tactic humour, bass-heavy Doom riffs and songwriting chops are also heavily indicative of Steele’s future musical direction. Despite their talent for post-nuclear survival Carnivore only lasted for one more album before calling it a day but their music has proved more resilient. Carnivore is full of choice, prime cuts. Bon Appetit.

HMO Rating: 4 out of 5

Saxon – Saxon (Review)

Saxon - Saxon (1979)
Saxon – Saxon (1979)

You can’t go wrong picking up albums that have sword-waving maniacs on the cover (especially one that looks a wee bit like Slade’s Don Powell) and that rule holds true for Saxon’s 1979 debut. Although it’s slightly too patchy and derivative to merit the full-on game-changer status of Black Sabbath, Van Halen and Venom’s (yes, Venom’s) first albums it’s still an intriguing first attempt with strong hints of the band’s promise and ability.

Yorkshire’s Saxon formed out of two bands, Coast and S.O.B. (with former Glitter Band drummer Pete Gill thrown in for good measure) and seemingly hadn’t quite reconciled the directions of the two previous bands into a seamless whole. Saxon is bookended with excellent prog-flavoured epics (the astounding, glacial Frozen Rainbow and the bugle-call of Militia Guard) but a couple of songs veer into so-so brickie glam along the lines of The Sweet. Of these Big Teaser has an enjoyably snotty vocal performance from Biff Byford but reeks disappointingly of pubs after the fantasy splendour of the opening track. Three tracks bode best for the band’s future. Judgement Day and Backs to the Wall have raging vocals from Biff and the mix of muscle and melody is starting to sound like the real Saxon. Biker classic Stallions of the Highway is the genuine album highlight. Featuring revved-up, gear-shifting guitars from the under-rated Paul Quinn/Graham Oliver axe duo and bolstered with Steve Dawson and Pete Gill’s pumping rhythm section it lays down the template for the band’s future direction.

2014-10-09 18.40.48

Saxon would iron out their sound and identity along the lines of Stallions of the Highway. Their next two albums would have a huge impact, resulting in their first effort being largely overlooked. But despite falling short of being a truly classic debut, Saxon has a rich variety and innocent charm that rewards repeated listens. A genuine meeting point of 70s and 80s Metal styles. It isn’t the best or the most representative album Saxon put out but it’s one I return to a lot and a bold opening move in Saxon’s 35+ year campaign.

HMO Rating: 4 out of 5

SaxDon?
SaxDon?

Judas Priest – Redeemer of Souls (Review)

Here comes the Robojester, run for your lives
Here comes the Robojester, run for your lives

It’s 2014 and the Priest is back! Normally a phrase that would generate considerable excitement at HMO Mission Control but following the disappointing Nostradamus, the departure of the legendary KK Downing and a few uninspiring advance tracks I couldn’t help but feel sceptical about their return. But I was kidding myself. On the day of release I headed straight to Fopp to get my hands on it.

Despite my renewed enthusiasm for their return, on my initial spin I still couldn’t shake off the feeling that I shouldn’t have bothered. Dragonaut and the title track kick off Redeemer of Souls in a fairly routine manner. Both are enjoyable enough but a touch flat. It’s not until Halford screams his way into Halls of Valhalla that the album hits its stride. From here on it’s a long set of varied and solid Metal with the boat pushed out just enough to keep things moving forward without losing the trademark Priest identity. Sword of Damocles introduces a Maidenesque rhythm and its slashing climax is one of the album’s highlights. Cold Blooded is tightly coiled, moody and intricate and Crossfire’s bluesy riff works as a nice change of pace even if it’s a bit unimaginative. The Metal God delivers the goods on every song: he’s unable to shatter the windows like he used to but he always had more strings to his bow than that and any singer of any age would be proud to sing like Rob does in his sixties.2014-07-27 14.41.15-1

The main album climaxes with Battle Cry, a charging riff-fest with rousing, soaring vocals before it finally cools down with Beginning of the End, an atmospheric and sombre ballad. And, barring the very last song Never Forget (an uncomfortably twee last-dance number), the bonus disc is impressively strong too. I can understand why the bonus tunes didn’t fit stylistically on the main album but they are great songs: tough, dynamic and catchy and pleasingly redolent of the bands early-80s output.

It’s a lot to take in and it’s not without its faults. New guitarist Richie Faulkner plays well but I don’t feel either his or Glenn Tipton’s solos push the excitement levels like they should. The length and muddy sound also make it a tough album to absorb. Many songs like March of the Damned and the title-track have stock riffs and lyrics and are too reined in for their own good, creating a worry that the album might prove to be a little disposable. But after repeated listens and dividing the album into manageable chunks I find it growing on me listen by listen.

Ultimately, Priest have delivered a strong album for this era and held their own in a competitive climate of strong releases. And, more importantly, it sounds like they have enough gas in their tank to suggest there could be more and better yet to come.

HMO Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Cheap Trick – On Top of the World: 1978 Live Broadcast (Review)

71RSjduimLL._SL1431_

I’m going to call this Cheap Trick live album “unofficial” rather than a “bootleg”. Bootlegs tend not to be stocked in Amazon, HMV etc… whereas this one is. There have been quite a lot of these radio broadcast releases lately and, while the recordings will have been floating around as bootlegs for years, they seem to have found a legal route to the shops. I’m guessing there is some loophole regarding the ownership rights to broadcast recordings and these labels are tellingly keeping themselves on the right side of the law by not using the copyrighted band logos. Bootleggers aren’t that shy about stuff like that are they? So… “unofficial” it is.

Recorded in December 1978, the band really were on top of the world: riding high between the release of their successful Heaven Tonight album and the domestic US release of the classic At Budokan. There’s a good deal of crossover between this and the Budokan release but the Passaic audience sounds way rowdier than the Japanese crowd. There are no high-pitched squeals of “Robin!” here. As a result the band performance feels more raucous and less mannered. This is Cheap Trick going for the throat and it puts a fresh, biting spin on the familiar Budokan tracks as well as offering up a couple of lesser-heard tunes too.

What a bill! WHAT. A . BILL.
What a bill! WHAT. A . BILL.

The highlights of the set-list prove to be these less familiar tracks. Stiff Competition is absolutely savage with a shredding Robin Zander vocal. I’m also especially blown away by the rendition of Heaven Tonight. It’s not a track I was ever particularly excited about but here it is thrillingly menacing. Another highlight is Big Eyes, opened with an immensely entertaining guitar solo from Rick Nielsen during which he proclaims himself “100,000 times better than Fred Nugent will ever be!” to huge roars of approval. The scamp.

In general, the sound quality is very good: rough and raw but more evocative of the live atmosphere and excitement than many official live albums. Only Tom Peterson’s bass struggles to be heard on most tracks but makes up for it during Need Your Love, the intro of which sounds like it might have caused structural damage to the venue.

All in all, a great use of £8 and a great live album to add to the collection. I find it thoroughly inspiring hearing such classic acts in the raw and in the case of this and last year’s KISS release, The Ritz on Fire, it feels like I’m discovering the bands for the first time. Again!

As Henry Rollins would say, hearing a band live is the only way to know for sure, and on this evidence you can be very sure of Cheap Trick.

HMO Rating: 4 out of 5

(£8 – Fopp Glasgow)

[Cheap Trick – Stiff Competition]

Super Duper Alice Cooper – Deluxe Edition (Review)

Super Duper Alice Cooper Deluxe Box Set
Super Duper Alice Cooper Deluxe Box Set

Super Duper Alice Cooper (2DVD/BR/CD – £37 Love Music Glasgow)

I do love a good music documentary, which is probably just as well as they seem to be coming down the pipeline at an impressive rate these days. I blame Anvil. But few musicians warrant a film biog more than Alice Cooper. And when the film, Super Duper Alice Cooper, comes courtesy of Banger Productions (Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, VH1’s Metal Evolution and Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage) then the prospects are very promising indeed. Hot on the heels of a limited cinema run comes the release on DVD and Blu Ray. I hadn’t expected this to come out until later in 2014 so it’s a nice surprise to have a copy so soon but does it live up to its promise?

The Eyes of Alice Cooper
The Eyes of Alice Cooper

THE DOCUMENTARY

Unexpectedly, the film takes the form of an extended montage. There is no footage of the interviewees as they are now, Alice and co-stars providing only voice-overs to the stream of archive footage and images. The 87min  running time is a bit miserly for such a huge and important story so the film focuses squarely on Alice the man and performer with little discussion of the music or discography. And even then it all feels a bit breathless. The movie hurtles from anecdote to anecdote faster than you can say “Michael Bruce”. Which no-one here does. Not even once. The pace and the effect of only hearing the protagonists’ voices renders the whole thing strangely flat. And as the film progresses it is rarely as exciting or as moving as it should be.

He's no well
He’s no’ well

On the plus side, the film is a veritable treasure trove of visual material and, by cutting out the modern-day talking heads, a lot of this good stuff is crammed into the brief running time. I can understand the impulse to prioritise the historical footage but the filmmakers haven’t employed it with the dramatic and powerful effect of a film like Julien Temple’s The Filth and the Fury which took a similar approach. For long-time fans there are interesting and fresh insights into Alice’s life. Without spoiling too much, Dennis Dunaway’s recollections as the original band drift apart are sad and surprising and there is fascinating new light shed on Cooper’s addictions. The portrayal of the singer’s descent is harrowing enough to set-up a satisfying feel-good ending, as a healthier, happier Alice bounces back into action in the 80s with support from guitar-gunslinger (literally!) Kane “Rambo” Roberts. Nothing is said of his later career which seems strange as I felt that the reunion of the remaining original members with producer Bob Ezrin for Welcome 2 My Nightmare would have been a satisfying way to bring the story up to date and also full circle.

THE BOX SET

The individual DVD and Blu-Ray editions come with some extra archive footage, deleted scenes and extra interviews that were filmed for the Metal Evolution series. This deluxe version has even more extras that may prove very tempting for Coop fans. The LP-sized hardcover book has some great photos and some interesting insights from the film-makers which explain why they decided, rightly or wrongly, what approach to take with the documentary. And in addition to the DVD and Blu-Ray of the movie there is two bonus discs. The first is a DVD of footage shot from the 1972 Killer tour in Montreal. Any classic Alice Cooper concert footage is like gold-dust and I can imagine many fans buying this set for this disc alone. Sadly, the footage is very incomplete and the existing visual and audio components cut and pasted together to make as much out of it as possible. As a result the sound is often out of sync with the action and portions of the songs are missing. It’s a touch disappointing that the show is so incomplete but it is still a rare treat to the see the band in action at this point in their career. A fourth disc contains an energetic live performance from 2009’s Along Came a Spider tour at Montreaux which features some great classic material and great sound. It’s only slightly marred by some audible mic problems towards the end. I think all of the tracks here have been performed on other live releases so it’s fairly inessential in that respect but it’s a lean and rocking set and a nice bonus for any completists out there.

Taken individually the disappointing movie and patchy concert footage leave you wanting slightly more. But viewed together with the book and CD for bonus reading and listening, there’s an enjoyable evening of Cooper fun to be had here. And more archive Alice than you can shake a snake at! I still feel like the ultimate Cooper visual retrospective is still out there, waiting to be made, but this is still a welcome addition to the collection alongside Prime Cuts, Good to See You Again Alice Cooper and the many other Coop DVDs out there.

HMO Rating: 3 out of 5

… and classic rock too!