|Saxon - 'Sacrifice' (UDR Records)|
|Written by Matt Phelps|
|Monday, 25 February 2013 03:00|
Saxon have always been a band close to my metal heart. After my initial induction to metal came via Maiden's 'Number Of The Beast' it was Saxon's 'Strong Arm Of The Law' that was the second injection I took as an inquisitive 11 year old getting hooked on rock 'n' roll during the summer of '86. Saxon were also the first band I ever saw "standing", my baptism of fire taking place at the old Cornwall Coliseum at Carlyon Bay, St Austell. There was also something of a mixed feelings gig at the Plymouth Pavilions some years later on the Forever Free tour where I saw my heroes play to a cavernous 4000 capacity arena where barely 10 percent of the tickets had been sold. Times they were a changing but I stuck fast with the metal I loved and the way Saxon delivered that night to the few hundred that had kept the faith convinced me that I had made the right choice in keeping both my Hi-tops planted firmly on the metal side of the tracks. Thankfully since those dark days in the mid nineties Saxon have been steadily rebuilding their following within the UK and each new album is always something to celebrate, but this time with 'Sacrifice' they really have gone the extra mile.
'Sacrifice' is album number 20 for Saxon and what a way to mark such a milestone. An introductory 'Procession' sets an ambient mood before the opening cut throat 'Sacrifice'. A quick cast barbed guitar hook pulls your attention from the off. Biff's vocals sound as engaging as ever. A true frontman who delivers with a style that is both captivating and commanding. The hard pounding steel of 'Made In Belfast' follows in the wake of the opening assault with a paean to Northern Ireland's ship building heyday. Alluring, it unfolds like a living page from the history books. Painting pictures with well placed words, each hammered home like another hot rivet. 'Guardians Of The Tomb' is another that takes a story telling approach to the lyrics and paints with vivid terracotta washes bringing a slice of oriental history marching out of the speakers.
With their 2011 album 'Call To Arms' Saxon seemed to have fine tuned all of the elements they'd been closing in on along an impressive run of successively improving albums since 2004's 'Lionheart'. But the leap from 'Call To Arms' to 'Sacrifice' almost beggars belief. On so many levels 'Sacrifice' just blows 'Call...' out of the water. 'Sacrifice' is bigger, faster, louder. The production on the guitars for instance on a track like 'Warriors Of The Road' gives the tune such deadly breakneck pace that should it break free from the stereo it's blasting from and head out on the highway it would leave Mad Max limping along like Miss Daisy.
Tracks from 'Call...' like 'Chasing The Bullet' and 'Surviving Against The Odds' seem to have been taken as the main platform for projecting Saxon towards this bunch of 10 choice cuts that all stomp at the heavier end of the spectrum. The guitars from Paul Quinn and Doug Scarratt are thrashy sounding, channeled and direct. Ex Sabbat man Andy Sneap who mixed 'Sacrifice' has helped hone a sound distinct, infectious, alive and clear. I can't help but crank the volume up with each successive track. The straight out hard rocking melodic metal of the defiant 'Stand Up And Fight' bangs its head respectfully towards eighties high points like 'Never Surrender'.
The phoenix from the ashes 'Walking The Steel' stands as a towering tribute to the construction workers of New York in the wake of 9-11. While the howling 'Night Of The Wolf' and the bone crushing 'Wheels Of Terror' push the needle past the red line deep into even heavier territory. Easily my favourite album of the year so far and I'm confident it will still be riding high with me at the end of December such is the strength and quality of the songs. And saving one of the best to last 'Standing In A Queue' is the type of song that not only puts some bang in your head but a massive smile on your face. Tongue in cheek and quintessentially English it's a fine and refreshing way to wrap an album and unwind after some of the more heavyweight numbers.
As usual these days there's an iTunes exclusive track, 'Luck Of The Draw', but much better value for your money is the double disc edition of the physical CD which comes with a mouth watering bonus disc of re-recorded classics. Five cuts from the Saxon archives get given unique twists that redefine them completely. 'Crusader (Orchestrated Version)' is simply one of the greatest things I have ever heard. There's no other way to say it. Always a firm favourite the added orchestral grandeur just takes the game to a different league. It really must be heard so do try and get hold of the two disc set rather than click on the lazy iTunes option. 'Requiem' gets a slow down and re-work into an acoustic arrangement as does 'Frozen Rainbow'. Both equally delicate '...Rainbow' just takes the edge with Biff's voice almost standing alone as the guitars float gently in the background just returning to the fore around the chorus. Finally it's down to a couple of rockers to flesh out the rest of the disc with 'Just Let Me Rock' and my aforementioned 'Forever Free' riding hard and riff heavy and for one last time driving home just what an all round killer band Saxon still are.