The Swiss power trio Coroner has often been called the “Rush of Thrash” for their progressive bent and formidable performances. And their albums don’t get much more progressive and formidable than their fourth, 1991’s Mental Vortex. Here’s one of my favourite tracks from it, Son of Lilith. It’s still got enough crunch and neck-snapping intensity to please thrashers but this song is more about precision and groove. It’s got an earworm of a chorus and a guitar solo to die for. Total class.
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. The story of modern Saxon starts here.
*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.
In 1989 the bad news was that Ian Gillan* had been given the heave-ho from the (formerly) reunited Deep Purple. He wasted no time getting his career back on track, releasing the smooth AOR-styled Naked Thunder in 1990 just before Deep Purple returned with their own Slaves and Masters (with Joe Lynn Turner in place of the ousted Ian). Perhaps their return brought out Gillan’s competitive spirit because with his next release, 1991’s Toolbox, he got hard and dirty, dirty, dirty, dirty, dirty…
The lush keyboards of Naked Thunder were gone. Gillan’s new band was a guitar-driven power trio with a sturdy American rhythm section of Brett Bloomfield on bass and Y&T’s Leonard Haze on the drums. Producer Chris Tsangarides did an excellent job with the crisp and warm reverb-heavy sound. Only guitarist Steve Morris remained from Naked Thunder but in a more starring role with his Van Halen riffs and colourful solos all over the new album. While the musical backing is generic it’s also vibrant and lively, inspiring a fantastic Gillan vocal performance full of personality, echoing octave-defying screams, lusty exhortations and witty, playful lyrics. Mostly about shagging. Deep Purple never got this party-hearty but there is still some familiar Purple-esque heft in the bluesy Hang Me Out to Dry and Dirty Dog. The two-part Dancing Nylon Shirt saga is more oddball with its groovy, churning riff although the second part edges a bit on the silly side. And although Toolbox is a light-hearted album overall, there are serious moments like the up-tempo Candy Horizon and Pictures of Hell which are topped with catchy Maiden-esque guitar melodies and maniacal singing. Even the ballad Don’t Hold Me Back has a sense of macho defiance, an album highlight with its lush, surf mood and building chorus. But the album is absolutely priceless when it’s just straight up rock n’ rolling fun: the title-track, Bed of Nails and Everything I Need invoke giddy, breathless joy, blasting your worries away.
A car shaped fanny
A Dong Shaped Bell
A Power Shaped Nap
When it was released, Rock journalist Chris Welch said that if Toolbox wasn’t ‘a huge hit then maybe Rock really is dead’. Alas, Toolbox wasn’t a hit and Gillan was soon back in Purple, the battle raging on. Despite Welch’s dire prognostications Rock managed to live on and so did Toolbox. I always had it down as competent but entertaining but, over the years, I’ve enjoyed it more and more. It’s aged well. It’s the sound of a band that are loving what they do, and one of Rock’s greatest singers on brilliant form. It’s become one of my reset buttons any time my music listening feels uninspired, the kind of life-affirming fun that never dies.
*Worth pointing out that, although the ‘Gillan’ band logo is used on the cover, this release is considered and billed as an Ian Gillan solo album.