Album review: SAXON – Reissues (Saxon, Wheels Of Steel, Strong Arm Of The Law)

BMG [Release date 30.03.18]

Bastions of British Heavy Metal, Saxon formed in the late 70s and were at the forefront of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, alongside Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Samson and Girlschool et al. And while Samson kicked off the movement with two classic 45s in 1978, Saxon’s eponymous debut is widely considered the first album of the genre.

Fronted by the evergreen vocalist (and former bassist) Biff Byford, the band came together in the mid-70s as Son Of A Bitch. An amalgamation of two bands Coast and Sob (the latter taken from a Free album title), the band changed their name to the more marketable Saxon when they signed to French disco oriented label Carrera in 1979. The band then featured, alongside Biff, guitarists Graham Oliver and Paul Quinn, bassist Steve Dawson and drummer Pete Gill.

The reissue discography is a bit of a minefield; these albums have issued previously, both cohesively and in cohesively, and all are long since out of print. And with so much activity on the Saxon front (three Record Store Day releases, a classic new album Thunderbolt, a live box set, a forthcoming tour), what better time to relish in the band’s early years.

This campaign kicks off with their 1979 debut Saxon, and although it’s a little rough ’n’ ready, it’s a classic. Given the band’s roots (the two halves more blues and prog respectively), roots that would to alluded to in later years, odd then that they took the Zeitgeist by the horns and this has a distinct punkish tinge to the classic metal.

‘Big Teaser’ and ‘Stallions Of The Highway’ are classics in their own right, and ‘Still Fit To Boogie’ features a hint of rock ’n’ roll. From guitar harmonies to breakout solos, pounding rhythms, and what more is there to say about the attributes of frontman Biff – one of the best in the business (and still is)! A load of bonus tracks include some 1978 Son Of A Bitch demos and 1980 live material.  ***1/2

By 1980’s Wheels Of Steel, Saxon had really found their groove, and this album is widely and quite rightly considered classic of classic British metal. The songwriting is stronger, the performance is more energetic yet tighter, some of the guitar work (notably on opener ‘Motorcycle Man’) is blistering, and Byford hits every note like his life depends on it.

This is an epic and classic album beginning to end, much of which often gets lost behind two tracks; 747 and the title track. The guitar interplay on the first is wonderful and ‘Wheels Of Steel’ is perfectly epic and anthemic.

Now this is my own personal (but very experienced) view, but I know I’m not the only one to feel that these two tracks have become a victim of their own success; so classic they are (and they genuinely are) that they have been so overplayed to the point of over familiarity. Given the band’s consistency and strength of catalogue (something that’s head and shoulders above Motorhead, Iron Maiden and Def Leppard), they could be cut or at least shortened on stage without issue.

Rant over, here on record they’re fresh and guaranteed to get your head nodding. Again a plethora of bonus tracks, including demos, a live B-side and some Donington 1980 material (that inaugural Monsters Of Rock saw Saxon as the band of the day, no question).  ****1/2

As well as touring, playing festivals and BBC sessions, Saxon found time to record their third album Strong Arm Of The Law just 6 months after the release of ‘Wheels Of Steel’, and it’s another wonderful record. It’s just as good and equally classic as its predecessor, as opener ‘Heavy Metal Thunder’ shows.

It’s Biff’s vocals to the fore in ‘To Hell And Back Again’ (a track that sits very nicely side by side with the material of 2010). And the title track is another current live staple that I’m definitely not tired of. The bass line rules this one and there’s some great guitar and vocal lines over the top. Plenty of BBC session and original versions bolster the release.  ****1/2

Now this is why reissues need to be reviewed from physical – it’s not just about the sound quality (excellent) or the bonus tracks (all great but identical to the 2009 releases, nothing new), or the fact the this since deleted music is available again, but also the packaging.

The heavy duty card / book cases are wonderful, as are the booklets featuring lyrics and many rare pictures (band, live, memorabilia). The presentation, the availability, and the wonderful coloured vinyl LPs too, are all strong selling points. But they are all very light on sleevenotes. I know the band have been written aplenty and these albums are a well-documented part of rock history, but more than a paragraph or two would be nice. Even the best albums in the world lose half a point on issues like that.

Look out for the lovely vinyl editions as well as classic ‘Princess Of The Night’ reissue Record Store Day (RSD) 7”, two RSD picture disc LPs (including the current beauty Thunderbolt) and a pledge music/Amazon 5CD live let. It’s all go on the Saxon front and with Saxon still firing on all six cylinders there’s no band more deserving of your attention right now.

Review by Joe Geesin

David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 1 August 2021 and includes the Top 10 albums at for that week and an interview with “metal queen” Lee Aaron.

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