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 immediately evident from the Chuck Berry double-stops that kick off Holocaust’s 1981 debut album that this isn’t going to be as totally dark and metallic as the spooky cover and jagged band logo suggests. Only four songs on The Nightcomers fully live up to the nefarious promise of the front sleeve. Second track Death Or Glory has a chunky, stomping riff of evil, gurning magnificence. The title-track and Mavrock are excellent sludgy, doomy affairs with creepy, reverb-laden vocals and guitar lines. And the fourth is the album’s standout track, the metal-worshipping anthem Heavy Metal Mania. If you like metal at all then this song is simply impossible to resist.
Excluding those songs and the lively Nuge/UFO-style heavy boogie of opener Smokin’ Valves, what you’re left with isn’t quite as good… but it doesn’t matter. The riffs and solos are excellent throughout and the Edinburgh band has a knack with a catchy chorus so potentially uneventful tracks like Cryin’ Shame and Push It Around just manage to avoid being total filler (even if they are strangely feel-good next to the album’s heavier tracks). Even the often wobbly vocals of Gary Lettice have a naive charm and intriguingly pre-Hetfield tone and phrasing.
If you’re new to these guys you’re in luck as Metal Nation have just reissued the album on CD with the songs from three 12″ singles as bonus tracks. It’s a great package and superb example of the promising talent, youthful energy and total lack of contrivance that keeps people going back to the NWOBHM bands. Even if it’s not quite a top-tier entry from the genre, it’s not far off. An enjoyable and memorable hard rocker with a batch of tracks that are nothing less than stone-cold metal classics.
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.
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.
I wish I’d heard HEart of the Ages when it was released. Mixing extreme metal with prog and folk hardly seems all that audacious now but when In the Woods…’ debut album came out in 1995 this was a leap forward for black metal. There were similar attempts from Ulver and Primordial in the same year but, even compared to those great albums, HEart of the Ages sounds more forward-thinking and groundbreaking. 21 years later their style might not seem as startling but the music still has a fresh zing of originality and there’s plenty to love in its combination of Burzumic shrieking, melancholic doom, heathen folk and Floyd/Crimson soundscapes. Latecomers should buy the recent Heart of the Woods box set for a particularly plush version of the album. The Norwegians are also due to return later in 2016 with their reunion album Pure. If like me, you’ve missed out on In the Woods…, now is a great time to get involved.
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.
Saxon had aimed for the big time with the slick, streamlined Innocence Is No Excuse but fell short. The band put on a positive face, pointing to their improved US chart placings and successful tour but the album was basically an expensive flop. So for their follow-up, 1986’s Rock the Nations, Saxon went back to basics and recorded quickly and cheaply with producer Gary Lyons. Minus departed bassist Steve Dawson, vocalist Biff Byford took on the bass-playing duties for the recording of the album.* It would be the first and only Saxon album recorded by a four-piece.
Well, except the songs that have got Elton John playing on them.
I’ll give you a little moment here to let that sink in.
Rock the Nations sees the band return to a harder, grittier sound but there’s still a bit of radio-friendly finesse. It has a strong, muscular production much in the same vein as their classic Power & The Glory album. The opening title-track gets things off to a great start with its bold, blocky riffing and gruff vocals and the next track Battle Cry is even better, a strident true metal belter. Byford’s vocals are astonishingly passionate and gutsy, the arena-ready main riff is absolutely inspired simplicity and the rhythm section is flawless and propulsive. It’s a bloody triumph. But any hopes for a return to the band’s “classic trilogy” heyday are dashed as the band fail to maintain this fighting form for much longer.
Waiting For The Night is a catchy, personable AOR track. It’s one of those coulda-shoulda-been hits but it’s poorly positioned and fares badly coming hot on the heels of the bulging, anthemic Battle Cry. Elsewhere, tracks like Running Hot and You Ain’t No Angel are well-performed but forgettable Sunset Strip rockers (and the spoken word part on the latter is a low point). We Came Here to Rock overcomes its clichéd chorus with lively verses and Empty Promises is a pleasingly sultry slow-burner that gets lost on the album due to being sandwiched between “those” two songs. You know… the ones with him on them.
Yep, in the oddest pairing since Billy Joel guested on Exodus’ Bonded By Blood album**, Elton John was recording nearby and ended up tinkling the ivories on two of Saxon’s new tracks. You can probably guess from the titles that neither of these songs are particularly sophisticated. Party Til You Puke is a loose, fun Rock n’ Roll jam but the jokey lyrics and vocals are painfully unfunny and sink the song. And Northern Lady is uninspired, lazy balladry. If you’re going to write a passionate ode to your great love, you’d like to think you could think of a better way to describe her than just “Northern” surely? Just me?
Ultimately, Rock the Nations is Saxon putting on a brave face at a difficult time but their spirit is weak. The album starts off sublime and loses focus, direction and steam as it progresses. It’s not a bad record, it has some brilliant songs and a loose, fun quality about it, but it is a frustrating one. And, following Crusader and Innocence Is No Excuse, Saxon needed to do better than release another patchy underdog effort. Their next album would need to be much better or their days as a major-label act would be seriously numbered.
*During the recording Saxon would audition and hire Paul Johnson as their new bass player. He would be credited on the album sleeve as the bassist on Rock the Nations but he doesn’t play a note here.
“Did you listen to the radio every Friday night?” asked Saxon in their classic track Denim and Leather. If you did back in the 80s you might have heard this excellent live recording of Saxon’s show at the Hammersmith Odeon. Broadcast on Radio 1’s Friday Rock Show, BBC In Concert (18th September 1985) captures a difficult and interesting time in Saxon’s career as they toured to promote their controversial new album Innocence Is No Excuse.
Only a selection of the concert’s songs were broadcast so only four Innocence tracks appear here. Of those, Broken Heroes and Devil Rides Out fare best in the live setting, sitting comfortably alongside the band’s established repertoire. However, the moody Rockin’ Again is badly placed and struggles as the first encore tune. And while the catchy and upbeat Back on the Streets kicks off the broadcast well, its worth is put into question by the absolutely spine-tingling performance of Dallas 1PM that follows it.
On one hand the Innocence era tracks weaken the set but their lesser-heard nature adds to the interest for long-time Saxon fans. The rest of the broadcast is taken up by their radio-friendly classics which, with the possible exception of a tired-sounding Strong Arm of the Law, sound fresh and lively. Some of the performances here are exciting enough to make you feel like you’re hearing these songs for the first time. The versions of Dallas 1PM and Power and the Glory might be the best I’ve heard yet and older material like Wheels of Steel and Princess of the Night serve as strong reminders that this is the same band that recorded The Eagle Has Landed three years previously.
But they wouldn’t be for much longer. This would be the band’s last tour with bassist Steve Dawson. Disagreements with the band and management saw him fired before sessions began for their next studio album. It was a risky decision: Steve’s playing, performance and writing had played a crucial role in the band’s career and success.
But the problems behind the scenes are not evident in this live recording. It’s not an essential purchase but Saxon devotees are sure to get a good kick out of this. It’s an exciting and atmospheric time capsule of classic 80s Saxon out to prove their worth at a challenging time in their career. They certainly seem to have won over Hammersmith on 18th September 1985 but, with a key member gone and a couple of spotty studio albums behind them, the challenging times would continue.
This recording is available as part of the EMI Years [1985-1988] box set and also available separately as a download through iTunes, Amazon etc…
Innocence Is No Excuse was Saxon’s major-label debut, their first album under EMI/Parlophone. The band had left their indie label Carrere acrimoniously, suing over unpaid royalties. The case took months but meant vocalist Biff Byford and bassist Steve Dawson had plenty of time to prepare new Saxon material. Their last album Crusader had been a patchy, tired effort and, with contemporaries like Iron Maiden and Def Leppard leaving them in the dust, they would have to do better.
Produced by Simon Hanhart, 1985’s Innocence was a more cohesive and consistent album than its predecessor but it was also a controversial reinvention of the band’s style. It has a very commercial sound: smooth chorused guitars, gated drums and extra keyboards. And the band put a pop-metal spin on their material too. The opening track, the moody and windswept Rockin’ Again sets the stall out clearly: this is not going to be your typical Saxon album. With Byford and Dawson hogging the writing chores, the focus is firmly on melodies and anthems with very little guitar-riffing Heavy Metal Thunder. The more radio-friendly side of the band, demonstrated on previous songs like the power ballad Nightmare and simplistic singalong rockers like Just Let Me Rock, dominates here. The lyrics are simpler too. There are no songs about transportation: this band just wants to rock, shout, rock and shout again.
The focus on hooks and melodic anthems results in impressive coulda-shoulda-been-hits like Back on the Streets and Rock N Roll Gypsy but means there’s a lack of variety in style and dynamics in the album overall. Call of the Wild and Devil Rides Out stand out with some rare money riffs from guitarists Quinn and Oliver. Gonna Shout and Everybody Up are pleasingly dumb energetic crowd-participation numbers. While Saxon’s take on poppier material tended to sound limp on previous albums, here they sound bold and confident in their direction.
None of the songs are bolder or more confident than the Side 2 opener Broken Heroes. An elegiac ode to history’s war fallen, it’s the only true Saxon classic here, combining tragic sadness with fist-clenching pomp to sublime effect. It’s a triumph and, like Crusader on the album before, the best song on here by a mile. That both Crusader and Innocence… are most successful in their lone epic boy’s-own moments indicates that Saxon were losing sight of the blokey grit, depth and heart that were important parts of their charm.
With their major label behind the album, Saxon enjoyed their highest US chart placing yet and bagged some MTV exposure but found themselves falling out of favour in the UK. A narrative took hold that they were trying too hard to crack America. Ultimately, on both sides of the Atlantic, the glossy sheen and perceived lack of integrity would make Innocence Is No Excuse a forbidden fruit in the Saxon catalogue. But if you fancy some cheese with your apple, it’s worth taking a bite out of this one. It’s an underdog pleasure. Saxon were too talented to put out a total dud and their talent is still very much in evidence here, if misdirected. By the time the next record arrived, there would be one less talent in the band.
The bold Sir Knight on the excellent cover of 1984’s Crusader looks like he’s expecting some sort of bother. And, by reviewing the album that he adorns, I’m expecting a bit of it too. This is the kind of album you could easily get into a fight about. You could scrap about metal genres and styles: epic metal or hard rock; British or American; 70s glam rock or 80s glam metal; rockers vs ballads. They’re all here. There could be pistols at dawn over notions of integrity about Saxon’s leap to major label status with EMI and their search for a big break in the States. But, as a fan of all kinds of rock and metal I could just focus on the only thing that really matters: is Crusader any good?
As bugles and horses’ hooves herald the arrival of the title-track, the answer is yes. Better than good. It’s astounding. The epic Crusader tells of 12th Century warriors riding into battle. Biff Byford is on exceptional form lyrically and vocally. The grandeur of the song harkens back to tracks like Frozen Rainbow and Militia Guard from their overlooked debut. The climatic guitar solo and impassioned final choruses are Saxon at their most spine-chilling.
The rest of Crusader continues the polishing of Saxon’s sound that began with their previous album, the chrome-plated barnstormer Power & the Glory. Recorded in LA with REO Speedwagon producer Kevin Beamish, Crusader introduces a much more easy-going sun-kissed sound with the guitars quieter and the vocals the main focus. There are some attempts at commercial appeal. Do It All for You is Saxon’s first straight-up love ballad. Similar in mood to Journey’s Lights it’s got a nice sensuous feel and a regal intro but it’s let down by the lyrics as Saxon climb the highest mountains and search the deepest seas in search of clichés. Sailing to America is also in firm AOR territory and is an album highlight, a carefree cruiser with some expressive and colourful guitar.
The remaining tracks are predominantly straight-up rock. Just Let Me Rock, released as a single, is instantly memorable and has cool moody verses but it doesn’t dig in enough to fully engage. A Little Bit of What You Fancy and Rock City push more air but their choruses are a bit too naff for comfort. Run for Your Lives is better with its rousing football-chant coda while Bad Boys (Like to Rock N’ Roll) and the cover of Sweet’s Set Me Free are both tough enough to recall the street-fighting Brit grit of old.
The Yorkshiremen were still fighting the good fight but, with Crusader, Saxon’s standard dropped. It’s an enjoyable album overall but it needed more sonic heft (some songs fared better at the demo stage) and more consistent song-writing to match the quality and vitality of their past efforts. Only the album’s title-track truly belongs in the same rarefied air as past glories like 747 (Strangers in the Night). Crusader remains one of Saxon’s most beloved songs and the rest of the album basks in the goodwill generated by it.
In the UK Crusader turned out to be Saxon’s lowest charting album since their debut and a big US breakthrough continued to elude them. But their US sales were still improving and the album was a hit throughout mainland Europe. It eventually sold 2 million copies, making it Saxon’s bestselling album to date. But as Biff Byford said “we have had albums that have been more popular [than others]. That doesn’t necessarily mean I like them more.” And I think we should keep that in mind with Crusader. It’s a solid, successful and important album in Saxon’s career but better albums came before and after it.