The New Wave of British Heavy Metal hasn’t been new in almost 40 years, but some of the bands birthed in that musical crucible are still soldiering on today. The chief influence for the classic mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap, Saxon, have been road warriors since the late 70s, rocking their traditional metal fare far and wide, though never coming close to the fame achieved by contemporaries like Iron Maiden and Def Leppard. If awards were given for stubbornness and dedication, Saxon would win in a clean sweep, and the fact we’re reviewing their 22nd album, Thunderbolt is further proof of their taciturn commitment to this whole “metal thing.” With the same line up from 2015s Battering Ram, you can expect another predictable platter of old timey metal, but that doesn’t mean these ancient dogs don’t have a few new tricks up their worn, dog-eared leather sleeves.
After a throwaway instrumental intro, the title track delivers exactly what you expect of modern-day Saxon. Burly mid-tempo riffs, battle ready lyrics and the seemingly ageless vocals of Biff Byford. You can imagine it killing in a live setting and it’s the kind of stuff we once got from Judas Priest but now have to look elsewhere for. The followup cut “The Secret of Flight” is where the band really slaps you with the Smelling Glove of Justice. This is the classic Saxon geezers like me live for, where they nail traditional metal to the wall with grace, class and ten inch spikes. The riffing is spot on and aggressive as Byford weaves epic tales of Icarus and man’s eternal dream of soaring high above the clouds. It’s a stately, instantly lovable song with a slobberknocker chorus; essentially their answer to Bruce Dickinson‘s “Kill Devil Hill,” which it will spend many years slotted alongside on a playlist of my own making.
“Nosferatu (The Vampires Waltz)” is a moody, dark cut with a good amount of punch, and “They Played Rock and Roll” is an ode to Motorhead and its sadly departed members, approximating the rowdy sound of the legendary subject band quite well. “Predator” is an extra heavy ditty which even features death metal vocals for a head turning surprise1. “Sons of Odin” is another major highlight, with an epic Vikings theme and an appropriately larger-than-life, badass vibe and nicely phrased “death before fear” lyrics.
No song qualifies as filler, but “A Wizard’s Tale” has some really corny lyrics about Merlin and King Arthur, and “Speed Merchants” is a bit flat despite some fun guitar harmonies. Saxon has been at this forever and know their bread and butter is short, memorable rockers. Thus, all the songs are between 3-5 minutes and things wrap up just over the 43 minute mark. The Andy Sneap production is fine, with the guitars beefy and Biff leading the charge without overpowering anything. There isn’t a big bass presence, but this isn’t Iron Maiden, so what of it?
Biff Byford is on the back-end of his 60s but still sounds sharp; his distinctive nasally whine reporting for duty. He even hits some high-registers wails here and there, which is impressive. His voice has held up far better than that of singers 20 years his junior and while it could be clean living Biff has to thank for his pipeular longevity, I tend to doubt it. Founding guitarist Paul Quinn and newer recruit Doug Scarratt deliver the classic NWoBHM styled riffs you’d expect, but Saxon plays it way heavier these days than they ever did in the 80s or 90s. That heavier guitar tone helps their classic style sound more modern and fresh than it otherwise might. Some of their riffs here are really ear-grabbing, as on “The Secret of Flight” and the album has a goodly share of catchy dual guitar harmonies.
Some may consider it heresy to say, but Saxon is becoming the most consistent of those NWoBHM acts still alive and functioning. They’ve easily surpassed Judas Priest (who were not part of the NWoBHM but tread the same ground), and Thunderbolt is another in a long line of solid, enjoyable albums from a band that simply doesn’t know what the word “quit” means. Keep on rocking, Saxon, your 40 year anniversary is just another milestone on the long road to metallic immortality.