SAXON – Carpe Diem

In terms of tenacity, there are few bands to rival Saxon. During the 80s, the band found themselves among the top tier of British metal acts and, for a time, they seemed unstoppable. Changing fashions meant they fell hugely out of favour throughout the nineties – especially with the press, and especially in the UK – but due to the grit and determination of frontman Biff Byford and guitarist Paul Quinn, the Barnsley boys ploughed on through some pretty lean times, and eventually rode high again in the twenty first century. Off the back of a run of strong albums beginning with 2011’s ‘Call To Arms’, Saxon became popular fixtures on festival bills once again and gradually reclaimed their place as one of British metal’s most important acts.

A global pandemic forced the band off the road in 2020. Robbed of their most natural environment, Biff and company resorted to that time honoured stop gap, the quickly completed covers album. ‘Inspirations’ featured a couple of interesting choices, but was one of those projects that was better in theory. It wasn’t a great release, but it did an important job in keeping everyone’s spirits up until some form of semi-normality returned. It was but a temporary blip, though, since heir twenty third studio album ‘Carpe Diem’ – released in February 2022 – truly reignites the twin engines of Barnsley’s finest denim and leather sons, and features at least a half dozen potential classics among its ten high octane cuts.

The lead track ‘Carpe Diem (Seize The Day)’ opens with an atmospheric wash of keys and a battle drum, almost as if the band are taking everyone back to their ‘Crusader’ days, but quickly branches out into a full scale metal banger that could’ve slot into any number of the band’s post-’Lionheart’ albums. With everything driven by Doug Scarratt and Paul Quinn’s dual guitar attack, the main riff is full of that heavy metal thunder that’s often made Saxon so enduring, but once Biff takes centre stage, he dwarfs everything with one of his biggest performances to date. The huge vocal accentuates the broader end of his metallic wail, and its amazing how well his voice has held up considering the years constant touring. By the end of the second chorus (hammering home an already effective hook), a very busy lead guitar part thrusts Scarratt into the spotlight via a relentless flurry of notes. His tone – as always – is a little dirtier in comparison to many of the band’s best known works from the 80s, but there’s still plenty of sheen, and more than the necessary compliment of squeals to make it a superb fit for the job in hand. Between a sheer power, some sharp melodies and a relentless energy, this is the perfect opener. It’s a welcome update on similar material like ‘Heavy Metal Thunder’ and ‘Altar of The Gods’, and certainly strong enough to claim a place among the very best Saxon tunes from the twenty first century.

‘Age of Steam’ boasts an impressive intro where drummer Nigel Glockler drives everything via a solid battle metal influenced drum part and Quinn offers a clean counter melody to the slowly rising chug. Moving into the verse, there isn’t much that lifts the arrangement beyond its trad metal origins, but in many ways, it really doesn’t need to be flashy; that intro has already commanded your attention, and the very chunky riff that’s constantly pushing forth with ease shows how Saxon can hold their own against a few of the heavier European bands. For those who aren’t necessarily sure about the heaviest parts, a deftly executed twin lead break and a solo each from Scarratt and Quinn will be enough to make this a winner, presenting some great tones from both. In terms of classic sounding trad metal, this track – and, indeed, the bulk of this album – is a great demonstration of why this band has endured, while lyrically, its slowly unfolding narrative concerning the “march of progress” into an industrial age where the railways “bring wealth and power to the few” unleashes another thoughtful historical lyric which, occasionally feels like a precursor to the much-loved ‘Princess of The Night’. ‘Carpe Diem’ is in no way short of good material, but this sounds like essential, vintage Saxon almost immediately.

Another instant highlight, ‘Pilgrimage’ wastes no time in hinting at bigger intents when a keyboard drone underscores an atmospheric opening riff from Quinn, offering a tune that sounds like a distant cousin to ‘Crusader’. And indeed, as the melody grows, there’s plenty more within the arrangement that quickly asserts a direct influence from that older number, not least of all its stomping mid-tempo groove. As if to link it to other 80s works and parts of ‘Call To Arms’, this has far more of a melodic heart, though, and its tough guitar tones appear to inspire Biff to reach further inside of himself vocally, ultimately offering one of the album’s strongest performances. The contrast of the verse’s classic metal chug and the slight AOR leanings of chorus pull together different aspects of 80s Saxon seamlessly, all the while sounding current, and by the time an instrumental break ushers in a few unexpected jazz toned guitars over a very melody conscious interlude where Paul drops into a very blues toned lead break that’s absolutely loaded with vibrato, it begins to feel like one of those Saxon tunes you’ve known and loved forever. One of the only times the album slows down, ‘Lady In Gray’ has an even more spacious feel that gives bassist Nibs Carter more of a platform for some smart bass work and allows Paul and Doug to throw out a few different guitar sounds. The core of the track contrasts a classically heavy chug with multi-layered vocals that hark back to Saxon’s brief flirtation with AOR and MTV, immediately telegraphing this track as more adventurous. The riff wastes no time in making an impression, but if anything makes these five minutes feel truly special, its the unexpected use of pomp influenced keys fleshing out parts of the song with a spooky presence, always there lurking, yet never overused. In terms of offering something a little different, it’s the album’s trump card; almost prog metal like in places, yet still defiantly Saxon. There are a couple of weird backing vocals to contend with, but so much of the arrangement is impressive, and a couple of listens quickly suggests this is a slow burner that might eventually find a place among ‘Carpe Diem’s best tracks.

Older fans will take an instant liking to ‘Dambusters’, a number with a massive old school metallic thrust, delivered at great speed. From the moment that the main riff powers forth with a jagged edge, the rhythm section proves to be unstoppable. In terms of the track’s main musical thrust, however, it’s Biff who’s very much in the driving seat, hammering his huge vocal pipes through very visual scenarios where “mighty engines” come “roaring into life”. His performance comes with the same kind of volume and force of a man thirty years his junior, and this is a recording where you really get to appreciate a classic metal frontman at work. In a little over three minutes, he rarely lets up, whether wailing the simple hook or forcing life into another musical history lesson. Although the band could, perhaps, be accused of making a Second World War event sound like an exciting Boys Own adventure, the performance is never less than terrific. ‘Remember The Fallen’ also taps into war themes, this time exploring those who gave their lives. It isn’t as poignant as Motorhead’s ‘1916’ (an absolutely devastating listen), but it has its own strength and charm. The way Biff’s forthright vocal sets against a classic sounding riff quickly creates a musical interest in keeping with the bulk of this album, and the fact that part of the melody occasionally echoes the earlier ‘Power & The Glory’ immediately makes this top draw Saxon. Taking two impeccably played guitar solos into consideration, it has a power and energy that – again – seems to have a genuine vigour that wasn’t as obvious on the previous couple of albums. Granted, there’s a lot about this track – riff wise, subject wise, performance wise – that sounds like typical Saxon without any new twists, but it’s certainly none the worse for any over familiarity. In terms of “Saxon by numbers” it’s definitely stronger than ‘All For One’. A retelling of the Three Musketeers story, the lyric encroaches upon something that would’ve fit very much more into the Iron Maiden world of 1984, but approaching the track musically, it’s very much Saxon on autopilot. At this point, the band were unlikely going to reinvent themselves musically (even despite ‘Lady In Grey’ taking a couple of unexpected turns), but there’s something about this track that feels just a little too safe. Its riffs, although brilliantly executed, could be derived from at least a dozen previous cuts and Biff presents himself in great shape vocally, but again, there’s a lot within his performance that’s practically interchangeable with older Saxon stuff. That’s not to say fans won’t love it – they will, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t, especially with a couple of decent solos along the way – it’s purely that ‘Carpe Diem’ has shown a greater sense of imagination and spirit elsewhere.

‘Black Is The Night’, meanwhile, yields a great chugging bass with Nibs in full flow, a swaggering riff and fantastic harmony vocals that add more of a melodic metal edge to the usual trad metal elements. Every part of this heavy groove feels vital in making the whole picture work, and as with the best bits of ‘Carpe Diem’ it feels incredibly natural. Halfway through the first verse, there’s the air of a potential classic, with Biff crooning against one of the album’s hardest riffs, and Quinn colouring the dirtier sound with a few ringing notes. The heavy parts are great, but the number really comes into its own when revisiting a slow bluesy sound via a solo that could have its genesis from as far back as ‘Frozen Rainbow’. It’s beautifully played, bringing a lovely contrast with the most aggressive riffs, proving that Biff and Paul have never truly lost their love of those pomp and prog flourishes that coloured their earliest recordings with Coast. So much of ‘Carpe Diem’ feels like a loving homage to various bits of Saxon’s past, but this is perhaps more obvious than most.

Dropping back into a dirtier sound, ‘Super Nova’ is another high speed Saxon banger in the spirit of tracks like ‘Red Alert’, but crossed with the more melodic aspects of US thrashers Overkill. Its main riff quickly locks down a great union between Nigel’s drums and Doug’s guitar, but tempering the melodic thrash sound, there’s some brilliant twin lead work (especially during a really taut intro). The verse offers something that’s “typically Saxon”, but shifting keys into the pre-chorus, there’s a little more inspiration, where a melodic streak comes through with ease. A few shrieky backing vocals err on the side of silly, but Biff’s commitment to the overall performance and massive lead vocal have so much force, you can’t help be swept along. At the point where you think the track has become rather predictable, it does a complete volt face for the mid section, and everyone settles into a slower tempo and almost prog-like atmospherics inspire terrific lead break from Paul. It’s just enough to lift the number from brilliant yet standard metal fare to something grander, whilst ‘Living On The Limit’ retains just as much speed juxtaposed by surprising amount of variety. Glockler drives a classic power metal riff forth from the outset and Biff belts out his lungs with in a manner that suggests another pure metal frenzy, but eventually, Quinn drops in a vibrato fuelled solo before joining Scarratt in a perfect twin lead break. Paul has always been integral to Saxon’s sound and success, but some of his playing here could be a career best. He brings some great accessible sounds, and although his part of the twin lead sound perhaps owes just as much to early 80s Maiden as the most well loved Saxon work, everything sounds superb. The bulk of this album closer carries an unmistakably Saxon flavour and its balance between energy, heaviness and melody teeters across a fraught three minutes in the most exciting way. It could easily be argued that the band sound better than they have for a good few years. They make it all sound so effortless.

In terms of latter Saxon albums, this is on a par with ‘Call To Arms’ in terms of high energy fun (the best bits of that album did indeed sound like a veritable battle cry with tracks like ‘Back In ’79’ leading the charge), making it easily the band’s very best latter-day releases. With a brilliant production job courtesy of the legendary Andy Sneap, it’s certainly one of their beefiest sounding records ever and, song for song, it’s arguably Saxon’s finest forty five minutes for many a year. Between some classic sounding riffs, several rousing choruses and no shortage of that never say die attitude that often drove their best 80s long players to greatness, ‘Carpe Diem’ offers almost everything most fans would want from a classic Saxon disc.

Check out our other Saxon related reviews here.

February 2022