SARACEN – Marilyn

Saracen have been making music since the 80s, and their debut album ‘Heroes, Saints and Fools’ saw the band lumped in with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement. They disappeared during the 90s and resurfaced with a fourth album in 2006. That album, ‘Vox In Excelsio’ was released by the UK melodic rock label Escape Music, who also reissued some of Saracen’s earlier work.

The band’s 2011 project is an adventurous work – a musical tribute to the life and work of Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe featuring a selection of guest vocalists, including Robin Beck in the lead role. Before we even begin to look at the merits of the music, however, the sleeve art must be bought into question. Yes, it looks like the artwork on so many other Escape Music releases, but that’s not the real issue. The big problem here is its suitability: who decided a knight’s crest and Saracen helmet (adorned with the “s” from the band’s logo) would be suitable packaging for a concept album about Marilyn Monroe?!! There must have been literally hundreds of other far more suitable artwork designs out there.

This musical journey into the life of a legend naturally begins with an overture. For this instrumental piece entitled ‘Norma Jeane’, the band settles on a punchy chord pattern at first, which it must be said, sounds a trifle stiff. The guitar chords meet some rather pompy keyboards in places, creating an overblown sound but clearly recorded on a limited budget. The main focus then centres around Snake Davis’s saxophone lead, which in an attempt to convey youthfulness and emotion sounds like he’s providing the soundtrack to a eighties advert for a box of chocolates. Those kinds of saxes always bring a maximum cheese factor – and it’s incredibly unfortunate Saracen insisted on unleashing them on the unsuspecting listener so early on. ‘Whither The Wind Blows’ is better, at least to begin with, offering a decent mid-paced riff and a strong vocal performance from Steve Betteny. After a couple of verses it starts to sag, since it doesn’t really veer from its original musical path. Give us a chorus, give us a key-change, give us anything…but as it stands, there’s definitely something missing. The addition of backing vocals (courtesy of Issa) help a little later on, but by then it’s too little, too late. On the technical side, try listing to this through decent speakers – it has a major flaw. You can hear where bits of the music were spliced together; there are definitely audible glitches throughout the track’s first half. This is not a demo, guys… Maybe you ought to have been a bit more professional?

Moving on then… ‘Hold On’ reinstates the cringe-worthy saxes and subsequently drops things back down to a gentle pace. Issa takes lead vocal – a job she does well enough, given the weakness of the material – but musically, this is quite, quite boring. The only excitement comes when the drums kick in and a key change pushes things into a rockier territory, but the saxes are desperately uncool – thanks to those, this track hardly stood a chance.

The first bright spark on the album, ‘Make This Body Work’ features a great performance from Robin Beck, plus some good lead guitar work from Rob Bendelow, presenting a multi-tracked effect in places to give an always welcome twin-lead sound. This is also one of the only times Paul Gibson breaks into a sweat behind the drum kit, and his work is respectable throughout. You’ve heard it all before and done far better, but when Saracen take things up a gear, there’s definitely more potential – especially with Beck out front. It doesn’t last and before long it’s back to mid-paced dullsville and the arrival of what could be the most embarrassing track on this record…The bulk ‘Who Am I?’ is sickly musical theatre, coupling Robin Beck’s Marilyn with a vocal from Steve Overland. The vocals are overwrought and the passion pushed to levels where it starts to sound silly. You can visualise the performers with eyes closed, fists clenched, believing they’re creating magic. It’s so, so, tacky it pushes the boundaries of musical taste. A rocky mid-section provides respite from the sickliness, even if it doesn’t provide any respite from the supposed theatrics. Here, Overland and Beck bounce lines off each other in a Meat Loaf and Ellen Foley style, except nobody on board has Jim Steinman’s sense of vision, so naturally, it doesn’t make it out of the second division. Steve Overland is a very experienced vocalist and his ‘Break Away’ album from 2008 features some great songs (as do various FM albums), but this…this is just horrible and an absolute waste of his talents.

‘Love Like a Razorblade’ is the album’s guitar playing highlight. This slow blues allows Bendelow plenty of space to play some decent fills and lead breaks. Paul Bradder’s organ contributions could have been a bit more upfront, but generally, the band sounds fine here, providing you’re happy to listen to a third-rate version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’. A cover of Charlie Rich’s ‘Feel Like Going Home’ (familiar to most rock fans in the version recorded by Mark Knopfler’s Notting Hillbillies in 1990), allows Robin Beck a chance to really shine. Often a gifted melodic rock performer, she ekes out every ounce of emotion possible during this performance making it the album’s absolute highlight. Musically, it’s marred a little by a thin drum sound and thinner keyboards, but if you just focus on Robin, it’s fine. Robin also excels vocally on ‘Not For Sure’, giving her all, despite some hugely uninspiring music. Surely the band owed Robin’s performance more than just some clanging acoustic guitars?

The credited closing number, ‘Marilyn’, is a pomp-rocker designed to create an exciting ending where a choir of voices sing out over a solid rock arrangement. The quickening of pace is welcome, but like the bulk of Saracen’s work, there’s still a feeling of stodginess with regards to the arrangement. It’s like listening to a budget version of Frontiers Records signings TEN. Vocally, Beck is in fine form, while Bettney and Issa also bring good performances to the piece, but overall, it still doesn’t generate any actual excitement since Saracen’s music is so desperately laboured.

The album should have ended there as promised, but there then follows a hidden bonus track that’s the work of pure evil. Adopting a similar show-tune vibe to ‘Who Am I?’, Betteny, Overland and Issa join in three part harmonies over a trite set of lyrics regarding Monroe’s passing. “We knew her name, but could we know the real price of fame? Norma Jean, shine on in our dreams” they ask, expecting the audience to somehow feel emotionally moved.  Snake’s back too, parping on his horn in a lounge-band fashion… Jesus. It should have said “may induce vomiting” on the sleeve as a warning – maybe somewhere just underneath the Saracen helmet.

For the bulk of this release, Saracen prove to be reasonable players. It’s a pity they weren’t better songwriters or arrangers. Far too much of this album feels dreary and somewhat tired in its approach. There are not enough changes of pace; things move from wistful and saxophone filled, to wistful and plodding and back again for most of the time, with only ‘Make This Body Work’ and ‘Break the Spell’ providing doses of “proper” rock and anything resembling choruses. Throwing in a cover tune only weakened the self-penned material further.

It goes without saying this is not the ideal way to remember the life of a much loved movie legend. Marilyn deserves better. Remember her the way she’d like to be remembered: sit down with a cup of tea and watch ‘Some Like It Hot’. Billy Wilder’s 1959 film remains smart and funny, several decades after it amused audiences for the first time. There are about two dozen adjectives which describe this Saracen album, but not one of them could be considered positive. This record takes uncool and embarrassing to previously unchartered heights. Save yourselves some time: download ‘Feel Like Going Home’ and then don’t even bother listening to the rest of this. Life’s just not long enough.

September 2011