SAXON – Battering Ram

Saxon - Battering RamSome people just don’t know when to quit. Many of those people plays in heavy metal and hard rock bands and have done so since Jesus was a schoolboy. At least sometimes it feels that way. But many of them don’t quit because play music is what they do, have always done and will probably do until they bite the famous dust – and many of them are still damn good at what they do. There are of course exceptions, but surprisingly many of the elderly gentlemen of metal feels and sound exceptional fresh and vital even though they – at least many of them – have passed their 60’s by a few years. Who said that hard rock and metal is music for the young only? The truth is that this kind of music has grown beyond being music for rebellious youngsters with a “fuck you” attitude a good decade ago or more, metal and hard rock are now music for young people to middle-aged rockers to even your granddad and grandmother, which is both good and bad. Saxon are a band that paved way for the NWOBHM and were once – we’re talking early to mid 80’s here – a very big band, back then just as big as Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. I remember them coming to Sweden and selling out two venues, both holding somewhere around 9000 people. But things changed quite quickly for them. Their 1979 self-titled debut album did them no good, but the follow-ups, Wheels Of Steel and Strong Arm Of The Law, both from 1980 are today hailed as metal classics and put them on the metal map, much because of their hit song “747 (Strangers In The Night)” from Wheels Of Steel and when they put out their now classic masterpiece Denim And Leather (1981), the band became one of the biggest metal bands in the world. The follow-up, 1983’s Power And The Glory wasn’t as strong but it consolidated the band as a mighty force of metal. The way down started in 1984 when Saxon had had enough of just being a big band in Europe, but still nobodies across the ocean. To make sure they had a career over there, they decided to soften the sound and make it more accessible for the Americans who had gone on a big Def Leppard trip the previous year. The album had the title track as the only song that reminded us of the glory days while most of the rest of the album were clearly nods to the more poppier sound the Americans preferred better. Needless to say, the album bombed but unfortunately, Saxon didn’t learn from that mistake and the following records Innocence Is No Excuse (1985), Rock The Nations (1986), Destiny (1988) and Solid Ball Of Rock (1991) were even more American sounding and on many of the songs there were traces of the new American glam and sleaze that Ratt, Mötley Crüe and Quiet Riot played. Their look had also gone from denim and leather and ammunition belts to dyed hair and colorful clothes, very much a Californian approach. By that, the US still didn’t give rat about Saxon and the European audience had disappeared, making Saxon going from arenas to small clubs. When they put the pop and glam in the trash bin and went back to metal with Forever Free (1992), I had stopped listening to Saxon ages ago and I didn’t give one iota about them going metal again. I still haven’t heard their 90’s records and the first Saxon record I picked up was The Inner Sanctum in 2007, an album I found uneven, but interesting enough to start following Saxon again, albeit from a distance. But the fact is, since then, Saxon’s records has been better and better and even though I will never feel for them they way I did in the 80’s, they are now a loyal metal band that won’t back down an inch when it comes to their music and I respect them a lot for that.

Their two previous albums Call To Arms (2011, reviewed here) and Sacrifice (2013, reviewed here) were both so good that I almost felt like the fan who bought Denim And Leather back in 1982, the songs, the approach, the whole sound of those albums told me that Saxon were the real deal for real now, so when the release date for the new record was around the corner, I felt excited to see what the band had come up with this time. The title itself – Battering Ram just sounds so damn hard! – gave me much hope that this album could be a real killer. Yes, for the first time in many years I actually had some big expectations on a new Saxon release. The opening title track sets the standard for the record right away. Hard, aggressive, heavy, but still very memorable and metal catchy – this is classic Saxon all the way and one of the best songs I have heard from them in ages. The same can be said of “The Devil’s Footprint” – an old British folk tale about the Devil walking among us put to music, a classic sounding Saxon tune with some brilliant melodies and a keyboard arrangement that together with the somewhat spooky spoken word intro brings character to the song – brilliant! “Queen Of Hearts” is a slower and darker song, heavy and atmospheric with some really catchy riffing. I find myself thinking that this could actually be modern Stryper song with Biff Byford singing. I’m not joking, listen carefully and see if you don’t agree. It’s a great song anyhow. “Destroyer” is another killer, classic heavy metal, but in all honesty, this sounds more like a Judas Priest song than a Saxon one. The title “Hard And Fast” kind of gives away how this songs sounds, it’s an ok song, but something of a throwaway. It sounds like mid 80’s Saxon, but they have written tons of tracks like this, only better. “Eye Of The Storm” is very much an in-your-face and direct heavy metal track – hard, yet melodic. A good song, no more, no less. “Stand Your Ground” is a standard heavy metal track. It’s a good song but it really don’t go anywhere. I find myself thinking about other stuff while listening to it – not a good sign. “Top Of The world” is a bit of a mold breaker, it’s a metal song, of course, but a bit different. The chorus has a very catchy pop feel, which contrast to the heavy metal foundation makes the song stand out a bit – a great song and the type of song I’d like to see more of. “To The End” is as close to a metal ballad that Saxon will ever come to write, but it is a heavy one. I get the sense of a Ozzy and Black Sabbath influence here, but the main riff – Hell, every riff – has a bit of Zakk Wylde to it. There is also a blues influenced jam in the middle, very cool. A killer tune, this one. “Kingdom Of The Cross” is really majestic – it holds spoken word verses over a rhythm of drums, bass and keyboards in a slower pace while the chorus turns into a 1960’s sounding ballad with lots of acoustic guitars. The song will be under discussion among Saxon fans, I’m sure, but I think the tune is bloody brilliant. The closing track “Three Sheets To The wind (The Drinking Song)” is, as the title suggests, a straight out party rocker. There’s no heavy metal at all over the song and I put this one right beside “Party Til U Puke” from Rock The Nations. Now, I like that song so I don’t have any issues with the fact that this song sounds as it could have been written by any American melodic hard rock band, but as it doesn’t sound like Saxon at all, apart from Biff’s voice, I have a feeling this one might also be dissected by hard-core Saxon fans.

Even though this album weakens some in the middle, it’s still the best Saxon record I have heard in many a year. Producer Andy Sneap has shown them the route down Saxon road. Just like he has done on the last three Accept records, he have guided an old band on their right path to their classic sound and made the band better for it, clearly it’s a good thing to use a hard-core fan as the producer. Andy is a musician as well, he plays guitar in the metal band Hell and has a past with British metal band Sabbat, so he knows how to work that road as well. He is also the one who helped Testament with their latest album, the magnificent Dark Roots Of The Earth. Not only is the whole sound – except maybe for maybe the odd track or two – very much classic Saxon, but Sneap has also made sure that the right songs have been put on the record. Old heroes die hard, no doubt!

8/10

Tracklist:

1. Battering Ram
2. The Devil’s Footprint
3. Queen Of Hearts
4. Destroyer
5. Hard And Fast
6. Eye Of The Storm
7. Stand Your Ground
8. Top Of The World
9. To The End
10. Kingdom Of The Cross
11. Three Sheets To The Wind (The Drinking Song)

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