SAXON – Call To Arms

call to armsSaxon has always been one of Britain’s hardest working rock bands. They’ve had shifting line-ups over the years, band members have come and gone (and in the case of drummer Nigel Glockler, come back again…twice!), but at the heart of it all frontman Biff Byford and guitarist Paul Quinn have strived to push the band ever onward, never giving up. Although still best known to many for their early 80s work, the band worked on tirelessly, releasing albums at regular intervals and playing live shows. After 1990’s ‘Solid Ball of Rock’, Saxon’s popularity waned in the UK, though they retained a strong following in Europe. Their 90s album’s aren’t always essential listening, but in the 21st century, the band eventually got somewhat of a second wind.

2004’s ‘Lionheart’ presented the band in an incredibly good light, while 2007’s ‘The Inner Sanctum’ and 2009’s ‘Into The Labyrinth’ featured similarly decent songs and strong musicianship. The line up of Byford (vocals), Quinn (guitar), Glockler (drums), Nibbs Carter (bass) and Doug Scarratt (guitar) which drove the latter two albums (and also Saxon’s 1997 release ‘Unleash The Beast’) is arguably the strongest line-up the band has ever had – and their work on 2011’s ‘Call To Arms’ goes a long way to cementing that opinion.

The choppy riffs which power ‘Hammer of The Gods’ resemble Saxon’s early 80s work (although slightly meatier) and as such have a classic 80s metal sound, but beneath those riffs, Nibbs Carter’s pounding bass sound gives everything a great boost (that bass in turn given a boost by a particularly loud production job, courtesy of Biff Byford and ex-Little Angels/Gun man Toby Jepson). While it doesn’t bring anything especially new or surprising to the Saxon catalogue, it makes a strong opening number. The title cut finds Biff’s songwriting in good shape as he tells of a soldier going off to serve in the First World War. The emotional lyrical content is given a suitably epic musical arrangement, with plenty of clean guitar work and a very melodic vocal on its verses, before a chugging riff appears on its chorus sections. Even though it doesn’t quite tug the heart-strings in the same way as Lemmy’s similar tale on Motörhead’s ‘1916’, lyrically, this is superb – one of the album’s best songs. Also taking on a fairly epic stance, ‘When Doomsday Comes’ offers chunky riffs served up with a slightly eastern vibe. The band sound tight here and the balance between hard edges and melody is pitched just right. The faster sections bring with them a couple of great solos, while the slower moments provide a base for Biff’s very confident vocal. The staccato keyboard and strings which bring the eastern elements are bound to conjure thoughts of Led Zeppelin’s brilliantly monolithic ‘Kashmir’, but it’s not plagiaristic by any means.

Like ‘Denim and Leather’ and ‘And The Bands Played On’ before it, ‘Back In 79’ is a song which celebrates the union of band and fans (and the fans are something Saxon have never taken for granted); and in this case, Biff’s storytelling centres on the early touring experiences and how those audiences were really supportive. The riff is meaty, but it’s a simple chorus of “show me your hands” which is designed to stick in your head long after listening. Another recurring theme in Saxon’s work – standing your ground and taking on the world – reappears here in a storming 80s-style metal workout ‘Surviving The Odds’, which in addition to a really bracing hard rock riff and good vocal, features a rattling bassline from Carter. Occasionally lapsing into a riff which sounds a lot like ‘Western Eyes’ by Jan Cyrka, ‘Afterburner’ celebrates the power of the jet-fighter, which is given a suitably rousing arrangement, possibly the album’s heaviest (certainly it’s fastest). The riffs are intense enough, but after a few plays, it doesn’t offer too much beyond those. While Biff puts in a fine performance and Glockler’s drumming is powerful, in terms of songwriting, it’s not as good as some of the material here.

‘Mists of Avalon’ is a fantastic number which carries more of the spirit of Saxon’s mid-80s melodic experimentation. As the track fades in, Quinn can be heard using a smooth, clean tone. His work here, which recurs throughout the track between the bigger riffs, is evocative of his work on ‘Nightmare’ from Saxon’s ‘Power and the Glory’ album. It’s a style which is very welcome indeed. Most of the track is based around a very solid riff, but it’s the featured solos which provide the best moments, with both Quinn and Scarratt on top form. In addition to this, Biff is in great voice (one of his best performances on this album) and – guesting on keyboards – ex-Rainbow/Deep Purple man Don Airey adds plenty of extra texture. Also edging towards the more melodic, ‘Ballad of a Working Man’ features swaggering riffs, which occasionally tip the hat to Thin Lizzy with their twin lead sound. For those looking for “classic” Saxon, this track more than delivers, sounding very much like the best moments of their ‘Denim and Leather’ and ‘Strong Arm of The Law’ albums.

Biff Byford believes ‘Call To Arms’ to be one of Saxon’s best albums – and he may be right; it’s certainly very consistent, with nothing which could be regarded as filler. It’s an album rooted in the old-school – at times more celebratory of Saxon’s past than some of its immediate predecessors – but that’s where most of its charm lies. And although its eleven numbers represent a band sticking to what they know best, Saxon still sound extremely vibrant some thirty-two years and nineteen studio albums into their professional career. There aren’t too many bands who can claim that after so long.

June 2011