Album review: SAXON – The Complete Albums 1979-1988

SAXON - The Complete Albums 1979-1988

Parlophone/Warner Music [Release date 17.03.14]

Saxon get the “complete albums” treatment with a 10-disc set, essentially the 2009/2010 remasters in facsimilie sleeves.

All of Saxon’s albums have appeared on CD before, some on different labels, including the strange 2-on-1 packages from French label Axe Killer. It clearly pays to invest a little time and money yourself and do things direct, both packaging and returns are improved.

Saxon were formed by the amalgamation of two bands SOB and Coast in the mid 70s, to become Son Of A Bitch (SOB stood for something else, but that’s another story), and changing their name to Saxon when they signed to French label Carrere, then better known as a disco music outlet. An odd choice, but the 1979 eponymous debut certainly made waves, being one of the first NWoBHM albums.

Saxon was a good album, but very rough and ready. The original line up of singer Peter ‘Biff’ Byford, guitarists Graham Oliver and Paul Quinn, bassist Steve Dawson and drummer Pete Gill certainly had a chemistry, but it takes a few tracks into the album to come through.

 ’Rainbow Theme’ and ‘Frozen Rainbow’ lack direction, but ‘Big Teaser’ is a great metal track with a punk ethic / sound. ‘Stallions Of The Highway’ and ‘Backs To The Wall’ are great classics too, with a fresh rawness. There’s a touch of the blues in the uptempo ‘Still Fit To Boogie’ too. Between 1978 demos,  3 tracks live at Donington 1980 and a b-side, you get 9 extra tracks although missing the five BBC session tracks that appeared on the 2009 remaster.  ***½

Saxon - Wheels Of Steel

1980′s Wheels Of Steel is a metal classic if ever there was one, with opener ‘Motorcycle Man’ setting the pace well. The title track and ’747 (Strangers In The Night)’ both classic hit singles and are still live staples. Although the album is much more polished than the debut, there’s still that mix of blues and punk embedded in the rock’n'roll.  Bolstered by two 1980 demos, another single b-side and a further 5 tracks from the 1980 Donington performance make for an essential package.  ****

Many fans swear blind over this album, but it was not their strongest; better was to come, including some moments on Strong Arm Of The Law, released later the same year.

Openers ‘Heavy Metal Thunder’ and ‘To Hell And Back Again’ are fast and furious, and both continue to be played live. The more melodic yet equally powerful title track shows the band’s strengths both musically and lyrically.

From the cheesy (‘Sixth Form Girls’) to the historical (‘Dallas 1pm’), Byford’s lyrics nailed it all.  The album is bolstered by some 1982 BBC sessions and four Abbey Road 2008 mixes.  **** 

Saxon’s fourth studio album, 1981′s Denim & Leather was probably their strongest album to date. While Wheels Of Steel had a couple of hit singles, this set had that and more. Kicking off with ‘Princess Of The Night’, you get tight riffs and driving bass lines from the outset. Biff Byford’s vocals have power, range and clarity, a rare combination among NWoBHM singers.

Most here will remember ‘Never Surrender’ too, as memorable as metal gets.  And as usual the lyrics explore well researched reality (‘Fire In The Sky’) to personal experience (‘And The Bands Played On’ about their first Donington appearance, ‘Midnight Rider’ about life on the road), and then there’s the NWoBHM anthem in the title track, a track still played live now.

This is the album that introduced me to Saxon and it’s still a favourite. The aforementioned ‘Midnight Rider’ mixes a minor key riff and a solid guitar solo that doesn’t become an intangible shred mess. Nine bonus tracks mix b-sides and live tracks. *****

1983′s Power & The Glory is a little more of a mixed bag. It’s perhaps unfair to call it a weak album, but it is one of the least memorable in the band’s catalogue. By 1983 any band with the NWoBHM moniker, almost without exception, was either dying out or reinventing themselves.

While Leppard and Maiden came out rejuvenated, Saxon sounded in a quandary. The title track and ‘Nightmare’ were both singles, there are a few highlights, including ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ which explores the first manned moon landing.  Nine bonus tracks include a b-side and previously unreleased demos (three of which never made the final album).  ***

Saxon - Crusader

1984′s Crusader was not only a return to form but a step or three along, hence receiving mixed reviews at the time. The power, sound and performance were all polished, and it soon became one of the band’s biggest sellers.

The intro and title track are just sublime, all fitting the image you now associate with the band.  It also highlights the glory of battle and murder in the name of Christianity of nearly 1000 years ago.

‘A Little Bit Of What You Fancy’ sees the band return to rock’n'roll, and there’s a touch of Maiden in the intelligent metal of ‘Sailing To America’. Even the cover of The Sweet’s ‘Set Me Free’ sounds good. 1984 was a good time for British Metal, and this was no exception. Bolstered with 9 bonus demos, again some not making the final album.  ****

The next three albums saw Saxon lose their way a bit, starting with 1985′s Innocence Is No Excuse when the band aped more the AOR musical fashions rather than develop their particular brand of heavy metal thunder.   It does include the excellent ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Gypsy’ and ‘Broken Heroes’.  Six bonus tracks include a 9-minute live medley.  ***1/2

Rock The Nations (1986) was the first without Steve Dawson and vocalist Biff Byford recorded the bass parts.  It is a solid if unremarkable album that didn’t yield any memorable songs, only a memorable title ‘Party Til You Puke’.  A mix of single edits, a b-side and live tracks make up the bonuses but the 2010 remaster had three additional live tracks recorded at Reading Festival in 1986.  ***

Destiny (1988) opened with an excellent cover of ‘Ride Like The Wind’ but overall the album is again influenced by late-1980′s hair metal with the characteristic big choruses and delay drenched drums. ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’ is the only redeemer for hardcore fans.  An untypical Saxon album bolstered with 6 bonuses including three live tracks.  ***

Also included in this package is the 1982 live album ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ which was the band’s first and most successful live album and here with bonus (and different) tracks recorded during the same period is a definitive live statement of the band at this time.  ****

The following decade was again mixed in terms of the bands fortunes, there was the name battle with former members, and it wasn’t until 2007 that the band re-established themselves after appearing on a reality TV show.

As with the similar UFO boxed set, this Saxon collection is a great introduction for the inquisitive or newly converted fan, covering the band’s early key albums and their less essential 1980s output.  And, similarly, buyers should be aware of the separate 2009 remasters and subsequent compilations; notably the first seven albums reissued by EMI in 2012 as ‘The Carrere Years 1979-1984′ although these lack most of the bonus tracks.

The later period is also covered by the companion release ‘The EMI Years 1985-1988′ but this set also includes the previously unreleased Hammersmith gig from 1985.  As with the UFO set, it’s a pity the compilers didn’t include this live set as an extra disc for completism.

Review by Joe Geesin, additional material David Randall

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