Saxon are truly one of the great heavy metal bands of all time – and arguably the best traditional metal act operating in Britain today – but when it comes to the heavy-hitters of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, Saxon are often mentioned third behind Iron Maiden and Def Leppard….a situation that demands to be rectified.
Def Leppard may have cornered the American market but they haven’t released a great album since Hysteria while Iron Maiden seem to get bigger with each album whilst simultaneously becoming more ponderous, overblown and boring. Like Maiden and Leppard, Saxon are extremely proud of their working class roots but one fundamental difference remains; Saxon are still releasing music that easily stands shoulder to shoulder with their early to mid 80’s glories!
October saw the release of the bands 21st studio(!) album Battering Ram and it proved to be yet another humdinger; a modern metal masterclass from a band untouched by the passing of time!
With the success of Battering Ram and Thunderbolt still fresh in our minds, the time seemed right to cast a critical eye over Saxon’s entire back catalogue, whittling their vast body of work down to their 10 greatest albums….and here’s the results:
10. Call To Arms (2011)
2011 saw the release of Saxons 19th studio album and Call To Arms hits the ground running with the rip-roaring “Hammer Of The Gods” – a lyrical companion piece to “Warrior” from Power & The Glory – with its tale of Viking marauders matched by vibrant riffing and a pulsing bassline from Nibbs Carter and a hoarse throated vocal courtesy of Biff Byford.
Produced by ex-Little Angels frontman Toby Jepson, Call To Arms is given an earthy, old-school sound with all the instruments given room to breathe. A throwback to the bands humble beginnings, this is reflected with “Back in 79”, with its lyric harking back to the birth of the NWOBHM.
In another nod to their roots, “Surviving Against the Odds” settles on a slower pace which sees some tasteful, almost bluesy, soloing from Doug Scarratt and Paul Quinn while “Afterburner” – one of the few full-on blasts of molten metal find on Call To Arms – nicely increases the tempo and confirms Saxon’s ability to ‘out-heavy’ their peers when the need takes them.
Call To Arms is a quality release that saw Saxon veer away from the full on metal assault that had seen them win back their audience and adopt a heavy rock vibe instead. A change that worked incredibly well and rewarded long-term fans with an original sounding Saxon album in the process.
9. Metalhead (1999)
Metalhead may not have registered on the radar of the casual Saxon fan but this often overlooked album continued the bands reversal of fortune after a few lacklustre years – although they still couldn’t get arrested in Britain at this point – and things were starting to change for the better.
There is plenty to enjoy with this album; be it the stacato riffing of “Metalhead” itself or the flamenco influenced intro to melodic thrash fest “Conquistador” to the heavier and angrier likes of the stomping “Song Of Evil” and the deliciously sardonic “Piss Off” (great title).
This album was the first of two to feature Fitz Randow on drums and he does an admirable job, with imaginative fills and blasts of double bass throughout anchoring a particularly ferocious performance all round.
While Saxon did lose their way at the tail end of the 80’s and the dawn of the 90’s, there still are some mid period gems hidden away in their catalogue and Metalhead is one of them. If you don’t have it, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy….you’re hardly a Metalhead without it!
8. Power & The Glory (1983)
Dodgy artwork aside, Power & The Glory was the first Saxon album to feature the percussive talents of Nigel Glockler and while there are some sound issues with the original release, album number 5 is still a damn fine album.
Bookended by two fine tracks, opener “Power and the Glory” is Saxon at their head-banging-est best, full of taut heavy riffing from Paul Quinn and Graham Oliver while “The Eagle Has Landed” is a mini epic, the band channeling a number of almost bluesy leads before drum rolls bring forth some thunderously heavy riffs.
Power & The Glory is atmospheric and tense and clearly shows a band unafraid to experiment, proving categorically that there was more to them than their blue collar reputation would suggest. Live favourite “This Town Rocks” still rocks hard and the brooding “Redline” and the pummelling “Warrior” retain their power (and glory).
A lot of press would have you believe that this is where Saxon began to lose their way. However, listening to it again with fresh ears reveals more than a few gems and proves that this is a strong album amongst their enviable body of work.
7. Unleash The Beast (1997)
1997 saw the arrival of Doug Scarratt who helped reinvigorate the bands guitar attack and yet this album rarely gets a mention in the pantheon of Saxon’s work. But take it from us, Unleash The Beast is an underrated gem of an album and helped to usher in the heavier side of Saxon that pervades to this day.
Unleash The Beast sees Biff and the boys uncharacteristically embracing the dark side and they take aim at corrupt politicians, on the headbanging delight of “Ministry of Fools”, organised religion takes a pounding on “The Preacher” and the venomous “Cut Out The Disease” is aimed squarely at an ex friend or associate and it’s venomous nature takes no prisoners. The two standout tracks though are the martial “The Thin Red Line” – which details a section of the Battle of Balaclava and has an impassioned delivery from Biff Byford – and the emotive ballad “To Absent Friends”.
While the 1990’s may have seen many of our metal heroes taking a downturn and changing their style to remain popular, Saxon decided to do the opposite and release an unfashionably heavy, heavy metal album that began their career resurrection that’s still going strong.
6. Crusader (1984)
It’s of common opinion that Crusader was where Saxon began to lose their way and while it make lack some of the spontaneity of their much lauded – and rightly so – “classic” albums, to suggest Crusader is a poor album is fucking nonsense! In all honesty, this album is the complete Saxon package; from its collection of great songs to the absolutely stunning Paul Gregory painting that adorns the front and back cover, this is Saxon gold.
The title track is one of the all time classic Saxon songs. With a clean-picked atmospheric intro launching into a lead heavy mid paced riff, it all adds up to six and a half minutes of bombastic metal excellence before launching into the full-tilt, good time rock of “A Little Bit of What You Fancy”. A cracking one-two sucker punch that perfectly showcases the sheer breadth of Saxon’s sound.
While it’s true that Saxon weren’t attempting anything new on Crusader, the old adage of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” springs to mind. There was a dip in quality just around the corner but at this point Saxon were still writing high quality albums.
5. Sacrifice (2013)
After dallying with a more melodic rock style on Call To Arms, Saxon decided to get back to what they do best….which is heavy fucking metal! And nowhere are they heavier or faster than on 2013’s Sacrifice.
This is the sound of a band completely reinvigorated and on absolute fire. Doug Scarratt and Paul Quinn unleash riff after punishing riff throughout the duration of the album while the rhythm section of Nibbs Carter and Nigel Glockler hold down a rock steady beat. Biff Byford spits out his lyrics with a bug eyed intensity virtually unheard of for a frontman of his vintage and, all in all, their performance shames bands half their age.
The title track is a snarling beast, positively dripping with vim and vigour, while “Made In Belfast” is a mid paced stomper and a ripping ode to the working man who toiled in their thousands in the Belfast ship yards; Saxon’s blue-collar roots standing proud as always. The riffs on Sacrifice are crisper and faster than ever before and while this still sounds like the Saxon we know and love, the thrashing moments of riffathon “Night Of The Wolf indicate a band unafraid to up the ante when it comes to skull-crushing riffs.
Albums like this demand you throw the horns and headbang like an absolute lunatic. That Saxon saw fit to get heavier as the years passed is testament to their inability to become passé, their passion still stoking the flames of modern metal and keeping the new breed on their toes.
If you don’t own this latter day Saxon masterpiece you need to rectify this situation immediately…..Saxon don’t get much heavier than on Sacrifice!
4. Battering Ram (2015)
October 2015 saw the release of Battering Ram, Saxon’s 21st studio album – and a Worship Metal Album Of The Week recommendation – and ably continued the incendiary run of form that Saxon have been on for the past fifteen years.
A modern day classic, (we’re certain of this status already), Battering Ram may reign in some of the thrashier moments displayed on Sacrifice but fear not, this album is still full of the kind of pure, punchy and powerful heavy metal that Saxon have always delivered so well!
The main problem facing the band with the release of this album was picking which tracks they were going to place in future set-lists. All were of the highest standard, a rare feat nowadays, although special mention must go to “Kingdom of the Cross”, a beautiful tribute to the young men who died in their thousands on the fields of Flanders.
Battering Ram found Saxon sticking strongly to their roots and delivering another no nonsense slab of classic metal which appeared to pay off handsomely; Battering Ram achieved the bands highest UK chart position since 1988!
3. Wheels Of Steel (1980)
A year after their self titled debut, Saxon released their sophomore album Wheels Of Steel and while their debut hinted at the bands potential, this all-time classic saw that potential fully realised.
As with Strong Arm Of The Law (more on that album later), the production from Peter Hinton is sparse and raw and, along with the uptempo nature of the tracks, this gives the album a vibrant sound that only really eases up (momentarily) on the power-pop of “Suzie Hold On”.
From the full-tilt riffing of “Motorcycle Man”, to the anthemic title track, you needn’t be a big fan of Saxon to appreciate their impact on the burgeoning New Wave Of British Heavy Metal scene. Not forgetting, Wheels Of Steel is also home to one of the all time great metal songs in shape of the focused and refined “747 (Strangers in the Night)”.
While there isn’t a bad song to be found on Wheels Of Steel, it’s not actually home to as many great tracks as the two albums that followed it. However, it remains a startling statement of intent from a young band who at this stage had the world at their feet.
2. Denim and Leather (1981)
1981 saw the release of what is commonly thought to be the final third of Saxon’s classic trilogy. Even after all these years, it’s still hard to believe that they managed to release three classic albums in under 18 months. Especially considering most bands struggle to have that many classics in their entire career!
Denim and Leather expanded on the template laid down on Saxon’s previous two albums, however this time the production from Nigel Thomas reigned in some of the rawness and gifted the album a fuller sound. Of course, all this would be meaningless without the songs to back it up and Denim and Leather is home to more than a few rip snorters! Album opener “Princess of the Night” is a stormer, home to a colossal rolling riff and ingeniously catchy chorus and is quickly followed up by the call to arms that is “Never Surrender”. Incidentally, when you also find the time to record two all time classic metal anthems – “And the Bands Played On” and “Denim and Leather” – you know you’re on to a winner.
At this stage, Saxon could seemingly do no wrong.
1. Strong Arm of the Law (1980)
You can say many things about Saxon but you cannot question their work ethic and with this, their second album in just four months(!), the band released another certifiable classic of British heavy metal.
There is a real sense of urgency with this recording. The band had by now nailed down their sound and were ready to build on the momentum kickstarted by Wheels of Steel. You can hear their ravenous desire to make their mark on the metal world in each and every track and this is what makes Strong Arm Of The Law the definitive Saxon album.
Take your pick from “Dallas 1pm”, “Strong Arm of the Law”, “Too Hell and Back Again” and the statement of intent that is “Heavy Metal Thunder”. All hit you in the gut with a power unrivalled by the majority of their peers; nevermind a top class production, the sheer quality of the songs alone qualify’s this as Saxons best album…. and as one of the great British metal albums of all time!
That Saxon are one of the great heavy metal bands there can be no doubt, although they rarely receive the credit they’re so obviously due. Granted, they seemed to lose their way for a period of time but they rectified their problems, injected some new blood into the ranks and have defiantly improved with age; something that cannot be said for most bands of a similar vintage.
Long may the mighty Saxon reign!
Did we leave out your favourite? Feel free to let us know in the comment section below. Let’s talk SAXON!