Sunday, 6 December 2009

SAXON - Saxon


In the late 1970s, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal created a musical storm. Fusing the heavy edges of the 70s rock giants with the energy of punk (although as a sub-genre it owed little else to punk), a new musical scene was born. You couldn't go a week without Sounds featuring someone NWOBHM related (okay, so I'm a bit young to know that first hand, but that's information I've gleaned from reliable sources). Obviously, Iron Maiden remain the best loved of all the bands associated with the scene (save for perhaps Def Leppard; though, due to the Americanisms of much of Leppard's material, Iron Maiden have remained the most true to the roots of the NWOBHM), but this debut by Saxon is a key album in the scene's breakthrough; it's regarded by many as the first album released by one of the big NWOBHM bands.

As I write this, Saxon's debut album is thirty years old...and one of the first things you notice are the rough edges. It was clearly recorded on a small budget and in a hurry. In fact, you could be left wondering what producer John Verity did at the sessions, since the whole thing sounds like a demo. Things are often a little muddy and occasionally Biff Byford's vocals feel a little lost.
That aside though, there are some decent songs here. The opener 'Rainbow Theme' is a short instrumental which leads into 'Frozen Rainbow' which reprises the theme at the end. Beginning with an open stringed bass riff (something bassist Steve 'Dobby' Dawson would make his trademark at live shows, leaving him with a free hand to point with - allegedly the main influence for Spinal Tap's Derek Smalls), the piece leads into the main guitar riff before settling into the song. It could be seen as an odd choice for an opener as it's an epic, slow piece, rather than a stomping track to get things underway. The high point here is the guitar solo -something which could be said for many of the tracks featured here. Biff's voice is fine, suiting the slow delivery, but as mentioned the low-key production values don't really bring out the best in his performance.

Elsewhere, there are plenty of no nonsense rockers - 'Backs To The Wall' is based around a simple but effective guitar riff, coupled with 'don't let them get you' themed lyrics; 'Still Fit To Boogie' is simple, but not as good as the lyrics are a little embarrassing now. Of the rockers, 'Stallions of the Highway' fares best, with it's motorbike theme (which would recur throughout the band's work over the next few years). If it's complexity you're after, the album's rockers mightn't do much for you. For those of you whom want something to get your teeth into, the album features a couple more brooding, epic style songs to keep 'Rainbow Theme/Frozen Rainbow' in good company. 'Judgement Day' (hands down, the best track on the album) thunders from the speakers and captures the band at full power. There's a mid section where things get a bit gentle, but that's just a build up to a climax, with twin lead guitar harmonies. For best results, check out the live b-side version of this track from Saxon's 3CD Anthology. Closing the album, 'Militia Guard' is the first of Saxon's many war themed songs, and while the songwriting shows promise, it's still the twin guitars which prove the high point.

At just under half an hour, the original album and it's eight songs fly by, with no messing. For those who want more, the 2009 reissue features 14 bonus tracks - including demos, BBC Session tracks and part of the band's 1980 Donington Monsters of Rock appearance (the rest of which is featured on other Saxon 2009 reissues). It's great to have the live tracks, as in most cases they're superior to the studio versions. As for the demos, they're presented here in a form which is almost identical to the finished album cuts, just a little rougher. The best of the bunch is 'Big Teaser', which features a guitar riff which gives a nod to Status Quo, absent from the finished recording. The song is still one of the weaker offerings though. The real gem among the bonus tracks is the BBC Session, where the band premier 'Motorcyle Man' and '747 (Strangers In The Night)' - the latter being one of the band's greatest achievements.

Recommended for fans, though new listeners would be better picking up the superior 'Strong Arm Of The Law' or 'Wheels Of Steel' first - also both available with bonus tracks.


December 2009



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