I can’t think of many metal instrumentals I would pick out as album highlights but here’s one: Final Gates, from Running Wild’s 1988 pirate metal classic Port Royal. Written by, and showcasing, Running Wild’s new bassist Jens Becker, Final Gates is a cut above: avoiding the usual pitfalls of skippable atmospheric scene-setting or virtuoso showboating. Instead, it’s a track that stands on its own: creative and restrained with wonderful guitar solos and Becker going all Geddy Lee on some infuriatingly catchy bass lines. It’s a wonderful, funky odd-man-out amidst a bounty of power metal swashbuckling.
Pestilence are now known as death metal masters but on their 1988 debut album the Dutchmen were still in the process of pushing the Kreator-style thrash of their demos to increasingly aggressive extremes. The crunchy riffs, violent tempos, moshing breakdowns and vocal phrasing are pure thrash but the sickening bludgeon of the delivery and the Schuldiner-esque bark of Martin Van Drunen put the band on a collision course with the emergent death metal of the era. The lyrics aren’t much of a read but obsessions with science, atrocity and surgery also push things deathward (“bifurcation of the tumour”) and provide great vocal hooks for Van Drunen’s authoritative vocals in tracks like Parricide and Chemotherapy. Although they had yet to mature stylistically, Pestilence’s formidable songwriting and precision brutality makes this a must for fans of death and thrash. It’s named after the infamous “Hammer Of The Witches” treatise, yet Malleus Maleficarum is so magical from front to back that you could well suspect this band of sorcery.
It’s been a dark and frosty week here in Glasgow. Perfect conditions for enjoying some black metal but I decided I needed some sunshine in my listening. Time for some synth-era 80s Maiden then! I opted for the excellent live album Maiden England ’88 and this song always stands out for me. The real magic happens 3mins in though, as the “take my hand…” bridge ratchets up the tension and the song’s tone shifts from jaunty to totally epic. Then the song cruises into the famous, roadie-enhanced “woah-oh-oh”s. This singalong section always seemed like it was devised for live performance so it’s no surprise that it works so much better here than on the Somewhere in Time studio version. The building urgency, shimmery guitar fills and Bruce’s added exhortations to the audience make it breathlessly exciting. It’s brilliant stuff that turns one of the potentially weaker songs of the set into an outright showstopper.
Welcome to a new feature: The HMO Song of the Week! Each Sunday I’ll be posting up the song that’s been lighting up my life the most in the past week: could be a new song or an old classic.
So let’s get this series off to the best possible start with one of the best possible songs: Virgin Steele’s Lion in Winter from their terrific album Age of Consent. It’s a fine example of their patented and thrilling barbaric romanticism. The Manowarring and galloping guitars provide the barbarism while the instrumental flourishes, melodic pomp and David DeFies’ impassioned vocals provide the romanticism. Here’s a man that can sing a line like “And I’ll rage against this wind” and sound like he really means it. Wonderful.
Rock the Nations was an encouraging but not entirely convincing return to the classic Saxon sound. With EMI breathing down their necks, Saxon made a last-ditch bid for stardom with 1988`s Destiny. But it wasn’t meant to be.
Destiny was the first (and only) Saxon studio album to feature the new rhythm section of bassist Paul Johnson and drummer Nigel Durham. Saxon were at a low ebb in their confidence and creativity, papering over the cracks with all sorts of formulaic 80s pop rock moves and an over-egged pudding of a production. Uninspiring songs like I Can’t Wait Anymore, We Are Strong and Song For Emma rely on stock pop rock moves and limp anthemry. And more promising numbers like Calm Before the Storm and S.O.S. struggle under layers of keyboards and backing vocals.
However, the band recaptures some of their classic might with For Whom the Bell Tolls and Red Alert. More dynamic, riff-heavy and fully-realised, it’s telling that these tracks rely less on the production bells and whistles. The album’s one true classic and standout track is Ride Like the Wind, a driving and charismatic power ballad reinvention of the Christopher Cross tune. It’s a brilliant cover and a should-have-been hit. It’s the only Destiny-era tune to endure in the band’s career and live repertoire. But even then, it’s no Broken Heroes, Battle Cry or Crusader.
Overall, Destiny is likely to be too syrupy for many fans of traditional Saxon and, even judged on its own merits as an AOR album (against, say, Magnum’s Wings of Heaven), it’s unconvincing. In fact, it’s one of Saxon’s worst albums. As worst albums go, it’s not a total disaster. There’s good stuff here and in the right mood even some of the ropier tunes can connect. But the patchiness, dissipating credibility and perceived commercial desperation of Saxon’s EMI years came to a head here. Before long the band were dropped from EMI, had fired their management and were taking time out to rethink and recharge. It would take years for the one-time champions of NWOBHM to fully recover.