Tired of crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you and all that? Why not let off some steam with Omen’s Be My Wench? This is top metal cobblers, it’s got a chorus that you’ll never get out of your head and it’s also got the kind of raunchy lyrics that most po-faced modern bands wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. But if you’re going to do Conan metal there needs to be some shagging in there. It’s the barbarian way.
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.
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.
I loved Blaze Bayley in Wolfsbane but because I didn’t enjoy his stint in Maiden I never really thought of him as a “metal” guy. To me, he was at this best when he was painting the town red and lighting up the night with a little kiss. That was the Blaze I liked. So when his first post-Maiden outing Silicon Messiah proved to be a dark, very-metal affair I just passed on it. Not his forte.
I was wrong. Sixteen years later, spurred on by reading positive reviews and the return of Wolfsbane, I have added Silicon Messiah to my collection. It’s remarkably good. A proper underdog album if ever there was one. It’s downbeat, dystopian drop-D riffing is definitely of its time (think Brutal Planet, Magica etc…) and the opening tracks raise a worry that it’s all going to be a bit samey. But the album soon lightens up. Born as a Stranger, the galloping The Brave and Man on the Edge-esque The Launch are all extremely enjoyable, anthemic power metal tracks. The album just gets better and better as it rolls on and culminates wonderfully in Stare at the Sun: a gripping, goosebump-inducing epic. And, although tracks like The Hunger are chuggier and samier, their slower pace gives Blaze room to emote. He’s massively likeable throughout, delivering a vocal performance full of character and commitment.
So double dumb-ass on me for writing the man off. Turns out he is very-metal after all. He even manages to show Iron Maiden a thing or two with this anthemic and addictive album. It’s thoughtful and well-executed, topped off with a great vocal performance of considerable charm and charisma. That’s the Blaze I like.
Much as I enjoyed it, I was frustrated by how polite Grand Magus’ last album Triumph and Power was. Their brand of strutting, Manowar-ish, mid-tempo trad metal was charming, hooky and personable but it was too nice. I wanted them to get more bloodthirsty. I’m pleased to report that their latest album Sword Songs is a definite improvement. The drumming is forceful, the riffs are more earth-shaking and the guitar solos are bolder. But the sense of urbanity remains: mainly due to the persistent mid-tempos and JB’s vocal delivery. He’s got a soulful voice full of grit and character but I really want to hear him bust his lungs for the cause. It’s more a frustration than a criticism. If they gave it up more this band would be godly. And I want that for them. Sword Songs is a decisive manoeuvre but it’s not the stuff of legend. You don’t get into Valhalla without cracking a few skulls.
Wrrrow! Look out! Eeee eeee… From the top of the mountain, yeah! Yow! Fire! Owww. Ruff. Oooh… Look out! Rowf! Yeah! Oooh yeah!
And so David DeFeis kicks off Virgin Steele’s 13th album The Black Light Bacchanalia with every vocal exclamation known to man.
He sounds excited and so he should: the opening track By the Hammer of Zeus (and the Wrecking Ball of Thor) is pure awesomeness. It delivers on the promise of its ridiculously mighty title. I’ve become obsessed with this song and have been listening to it thrice daily for many moons now. Ruff!
Unfortunately, the rest of the album isn’t as instantly appealing . Exclamations aside, DeFeis spends most of The Black Light Bacchanalia singing in an oddly soft voice. It’s an interesting experiment, making it seem like he’s whispering sweet nothings into your ear or he’s inside your head. Look out! But it doesn’t do much for the album’s dynamics, especially when many of the songs are meandering and forgettable.
But my hopeless addiction to that opening track keeps me coming back for more and moments of greatness keeping popping out with each listen. Weirdly, considering the laid-back vocals on the heavier tracks, DeFeis sings the excellent piano-ballad The Tortures of the Damned with raging passion. Fire! And the softer vocal approach works dreamily on To Crown Them With Halos (Parts 1 & 2) and Necropolis (He Answers Them With Death), bringing out all the drama and the melody. I’m finding that there’s nothing in my collection quite like this so I’m seduced into giving it another spin. It’s flawed but fascinating. And even if it doesn’t quite live up to its exclamatory opening there’s still plenty to get excited about here. Ooohh yeah!
[Virgin Steele – By the Hammer of Zeus (and the Wrecking Ball of Thor)]