Friday, April 15, 2022

CD Odyssey Disc 1552: Saxon

Welcome to the long weekend! Here’s a review.

Disc 1552 is…. Crusader

Artist: Saxon

Year of Release: 1984

What’s up with the Cover? Knights! When I was a kid I loved both fantasy and history, so this cover was right up my alley. Of course, the crusades have not aged well. Maybe the guy in the front is having an epiphany. As he pauses to look down at all the pointless carnage and ask his buddy, “Why the hell are we doing this again?

            “Um, well, I’m here because the law says I have ride around with you for 40 days every year. For you, your oldest brother got the land and the next oldest got the bishopric, so it was this or go to Oxford.”

Really? And I picked this?

Anyway, these particular crusaders appear to be from an alternate universe where they are part of the Most Holy Order of Heavy Metal (note the shield of the guy on the right). Like Knights Templar, only they protect your right to rock! More on Saxon’s obsession with “rocking” a bit later.

How I Came To Know It: I grew up with this record. My brother used to come in from commercial fishing, buy a ton of heavy metal records, and then let me borrow them when he went out fishing again. This one was one of my favourites and received heavy air play. I was digging through the metal section in my local record store and saw it there and bought it based on those fond memories.

How It Stacks Up: After rekindling my love of Saxon, I went a little crazy over the last six months or so, and now have five Saxon albums. Of those, “Crusader” has held up well since my youth, and lands solidly in second place.

Ratings: 4 stars

“Crusader” is Saxon’s sixth album and sees the band not only fully embracing the mid-eighties metal movement but leading the charge. This record is chock full of what makes that era of metal so great: furious but controlled aggression, soaring melodies and wailing guitar solos.

The record starts with the title track, which is an epic example of all these elements, and also a reminder that metal bands (and their fans) are often big history buffs. I don’t know if they’ve ever done a sociology study on this (someone call Sam Dunn) but it is a fascinating connection. But I digress…

Back to “Crusader” (the song) which isn’t technically the first track. That is a one minute “prelude” which is just a bunch of battle sounds, and some guy galloping across the field yelling “crusader!”. I used to love that bit as a kid because on headphones the horse rode from one ear to the other. OK, I still love that bit.

The song itself opens with a stirring bit of guitar picking, then a crashing of bass drum and power chords, then briefly back to the picking before everything launches like a roll of thunder, or the charge of some heavy horse. In terms of arrangements, it doesn’t get much better than this. Unlike my whimsical approach to the cover, the song is very literal (often painfully so) and told from the perspective of a soldier who has joined one of these armies. Based on the “warrior king” references I’m going to assume this was the Third Crusade, aka the “King’s Crusade” led by King Richard I of England (and a couple other kings who didn’t fare as well). If that seems like a lot of information about a single song, I did warn you metal-heads were also history buffs…

When they’re not singing about historical events, Saxon often defaults to their other favourite topic – rocking out! There is a host of songs on “Crusader” that are variations on “let’s rock” including “Just Let Me Rock”, “Bad Boys (Like to Rock N’ Roll)”, and “Rock City.” This oft-visited topic tends to bring out the best in Saxon, with that energetic delivery screaming party, and willing fist pumps from the audience. Note that “bad boys” here is an honorific, not a judgment.

The record’s guitar solos are inspired. I think it is Graham Oliver on lead, but apologies if I have that wrong. Either way, the two-guitar sound of the band at this time (with crushing riffs AND screaming solos) together make the sound. There are lots of great solos, but “A Little Bit of What You Fancy” is particularly glorious. Each one serves the song’s melody while not just slavishly repeating it, taking you just to the edge of going too far, before reeling it in and returning you to the main tune.

The record also includes a cover of Sweet’s mid-seventies classic “Set Me Free”. I love Sweet’s version, but Saxon’s is every bit as good, replacing the deliciously lascivious feel of the original with (you guessed it) thump and power.

The one song that let me down was “Sailing to America,” again with history (waves of emigration to the United States) but the orchestral, aspirational hope vibe they try to create feels forced and empty. There are some great bass riffs in the song’s undercarriage courtesy of Steve Dawson (who drops similar gems throughout the record) but overall I could’ve lived without this one.

Saxon is well-regarded in the heavy metal community but gets little notice outside of it, and that’s a damned shame. They are one of the key bands of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (caps deliberate) of the seventies and eighties. “Crusader” is them at the height of their power and influence, and a must-have for metal historians, but also for anyone who just wants to rock.

Best tracks: Crusader, A Little Bit of What You Fancy, Just Let Me Rock, Bad Boys (Like to Rock and Roll)

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