The Elder Godz of the NWoBHM are making a major statement in 2015. Iron Maiden dropped their first ever double album last month, Satan hit this month with a righteous release and here comes Saxon‘s twenty-first album, Battering Ram. Let that number soak in for a moment – twenty-one goddamn albums of heavy metal thunder! That’s an accomplishment few bands will ever equal and they certainly deserve every bit of goodwill they’ve earned over their long career. I wasn’t thrilled with 2013s Sacrifice, finding it rather dull and without many memorable moments, but the same can’t be said for Battering Ram. It takes the heavier approach featured on Sacrifice and uses it to good effect on a superior collection of metal anthems to guarantee an energetic album that belies the collective age of the musicians involved. It also works as a sampler platter for the sounds of the early 80s British metal scene, and that’s pretty nifty if you ask this old-timer.
The opening title track is appropriately beefed up and energetic, featuring some nice, Maiden-esque trilling guitar harmonies and a very metal vocal performance by Lord Biff Byford. It’s such a simple song but the earnest, hard-edged delivery sells it, as do the heavy, crunching riffs. This will go over big at the outdoor festivals next year for sure. The rockers keep coming with the hurly-burly “Destroyer” and the raucous, gritty smoker “The Eye of the Storm.” All are 110% pure, working class NWoBHM and sound surprisingly fresh and vibrant today thanks to the added dose of crunch.
“Kingdom of the Cross” is another moody Saxon power-ballad dealing with the horror and loss of war. The offbeat spoken word segments call to mind Motorhead‘s “1916,” and the soft, sad chorus is appropriately emotional and striking. This is similar in vibe to their classic “Broken Heroes,” and it definitely has the same gravitas. Another somewhat usual cut is “Queen of Hearts,” which bases itself around a very Nevermore sounding riff while exploring a trippy Alice Through the Looking Glass theme. It takes a few spins to completely sink in, but once it does it’s there to stay for a spell.
Later on we get treated to “Three Sheets to the Wind (The Drinking Song)” which is about as close to an AC/DC tune as Saxon will ever get, and the chants of “more wine, more beer” are good, rowdy fun. The album winds out strong with the Mount Everest themed “Top of the World,” which may be the pick of the litter, packing in sweet harmonies that remind me of Somewhere in Time era Maiden along with a chorus lifted straight from The Tenth Dimension era of Blaze Bayley (how’s that for a dichotomy?).
As enjoyable as most of this is, there are a few underwhelming cuts that may have been better left behind, like “Hard and Fast” and Stand Your Ground.” Neither requires skipping, but they don’t have as much going for them as their peers. “The Devil’s Footprint” is better and I like the fast-paced energy and guitar-work, but the chorus is flat and lets the song down.
What I like about the album is the way snippets of their fellow NWoBHM legends flash through the music. Besides the obvious Maiden and Judas Priest riff here or idea there, some of the harder stuff is reminiscent of classic Raven and even the more recent output of Satan, but none of it feels like mimicry, which is admirable.
If there’s one thing you can rely on, it’s the rock-steady voice of Biff Byford. His nasally crooning mixes the machismo of Bruce Dickinson with the grit of Udo Dirkschneider and he seems to get better with age. He sounds particularly fired up on these songs and showcases the pipes of a much younger man. He’s especially effective on “Kingdom of the Cross” where his understated singing really puts the material over. His enthusiasm seems to spill over to Paul Quinn and Doug Scarratt who lift their harmonizing and riffing a few steps higher than usual for a feisty and at times, speedy outing. The guitar tone is great and adds a lot of punch, making this feel harder and meaner than most of the Saxon catalog.
Maybe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but Battering Ram sees this pack sounding spry and hungry, and it looks like there’s still a lot of hunt left in them. 2015 is the year the British invaded again, and we certainly had it coming. Keep going boys, for Queen and Country.