There’s no better example of a hard-working, determined, but ultimately second tier act than Saxon [Ouch.. that smarts. - AMG]. They were part of the original NWoBHM and have been churning out traditional metal albums since 1979. They’ve had classic platters like Wheels of Steel and Denim and Leather and a wealth of classic songs (“Crusader” is so damn good). Still, most metal fans wouldn’t put them on as high a pedestal as Maiden or Priest in the Pantheon of Metal Kings (ov Steel). To me, they occupy the same space in the NWoBHM world that Exodus occupies in relation to the “Big Four” of thrash: right up there, but forever outside looking in. Since 1997’s Unleash the Beast, they’ve had a pretty consistent run of decent to good albums, albeit with little variation from the typical 80s metal sound. Unfortunately, Sacrifice is a slip up and some of the tunes are rather lackluster. It still sounds like Saxon (i.e. no frills, simplistic, bluesy NWoBHM), but a flat and generic version. That’s ironic and a quite the bummer, since some of this stuff is considerably heavier than any of their recent material and the band sounds plenty fired up, despite the group AARP plan.
The newfound heaviness is immediately on display with the title track, and while it’s still a traditional Saxon tune, the riffing is jacked way up and bordering on thrash. Biff’s classically whiney voice is in fine form and it’s nifty to hear him singing over some really ballsy music. Still, something about the song just feels blank and boring. This same problem affects other tracks like “Walking the Steel,” “Night of the Wolf” and especially the dreadful “Standing in the Queue.” All have the trademark Saxon sound and style, but all misfire and drop the dreaded Meh Bomb on the listener.
Even some of the decent songs like “Warriors of the Road” and “Wheels of Terror” don’t floor me like they should, despite some interesting riffs and vocal hooks. Take the former for example: it’s lively, energetic and pretty much exactly the type of traditional metal I’ve always loved, but I just can’t get too fired up over it and I’m at a loss to explain why. It just doesn’t move me to metalize.
Despite my ambivalent feelings for much of Sacrifice, there are worthwhile numbers here. “Made in Belfast” is a solid, enjoyable mid-tempo stomper about the famous Irish shipyard that forged the Titanic. It has the classic Saxon “it factor,” a palpable working class, blue-collar grit and you can almost smell the hot iron, blood and sweat (and there’s riffing that approaches Fear Factory heaviness at times). It’s an added thrill to find a Titanic-themed song which isn’t about ice, lifeboats or drawing dirty pictures (oh that Kate Winslet!). Also worthy is “Guardians of the Tomb,” which has good, crunchy riffs, quality vocals and a hooky chorus full of old school ethos. Lastly, “Stand Up and Fight,” is an anthem with attitude which could have been on any of their classic albums.
As a band, everyone sounds good, with Biff in particular sounding feisty and full of prunes. Paul Quinn has been slinging the axe since 1977 and he has a knack for crafting vintage riffs, of which there are a fair amount scattered across Sacrifice. He has some interesting harmonies with co-axe Doug Scarrett and most of their playing is pretty cracking, even if it doesn’t always translate into great songs. I appreciate the way they experiment with heavier riffing and tones and hope this continues in the future, as it adds an interesting element to the tried-and-true Saxon sound.
It’s worth noting Sacrifice is a surprisingly short album at just under forty minutes and that makes me wonder if this was a bit of a rush job release. Regardless, after a million albums, a slightly underwhelming Saxon platter isn’t that big a deal and they’re entitled to the occasional minor flub. Sacrifice may not be up there with albums like Call to Arms or Lionheart, but it has moments and it won’t piss anyone off. And there’s the beauty of eternal second tier status – there’s so much less pressure to excel! Keep those feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars!