Saxon has never been a band to do things by halves: they have released 21 studio albums, their St George's Day live shows are legendary, they've sold 15 million albums and have been flying the flag for British rock for over 30 years. So when they announced The Solid Book Of Rock we knew it wasn't going to be your usual run of the mill box set.
The set includes all nine studio albums from 1991 to 2009 with eight bonus tracks and two bonus CDs - Classics Re-Recorded originally issued with the initial pressings of Killing Ground and Lionheart - rough studio mix originally issued on the 2006 limited edition. Also includes three bonus DVDs and a 24-page booklet with all the lyrics and credits, plus photos with a stunning new cover painting by Paul R. Gregory
The box set is fantastically presented, but imagine what a wonder it would be if all their albums were housed in one glorious tome. However, I'm guessing that given that many of the albums were released on different labels that could be something of an impasse; even so The Solid Book Of Rock celebrates Saxon's return to form after several creative misfires in the 80s.
The band signed to major EMI in 1984 becoming label-mates to Iron Maiden- and radically modified their sound making it more radio friendly and mainstream in the hope of cracking the American market. This dumbing down of their classic NWOBHM sound divided fans and failed to set America alight as they had initially hoped and they were subsequently dropped. Solid Ball Of Rock released in 1991 still carries with it a more commercial sound on tracks like Lights In The Sky and Requiem (We Will Remember). Other tracks like Overture in B Minor/ Refugee hint of a return to a classic Saxon sound with booming fuzzy guitars, stoic drums and the bass lines from new band member Nibbs Carter. The new addition to the band is fully showcased on the surprise Bavarian Beaver which segues from Refugee to Crash Dive with flawless symmetry.
1992's Forever Free has more of the classic Saxon feel from the opening salvo of the title track. The collection of songs on offer here are far heavier than their previous Hole In The Sky had edges of the commercial but also the chugging guitars of red blooded metal. A rock cover of the Willie Dixon song Just Wanna Make Love To You seems a little out of place at first: the gyrating and pummeling backing hints at a quick bunk up round the back of a strip club rather than the mystique of the better known Etta James cover; but the track actually has more in common with the machismo and forthright sexuality of the original. Get Down and Dirty and Can't Stop Rocking have the swagger of classic rock, tinged with bluesy overtones. Nighthunter picks up the pace with another lightning speed track and could have easily have appeared on an earlier album. Iron Wheels adds a different flavour with 12 string guitar and a rootsier track inspired by Biff's heritage. It has a Led Zep feel to it, but only the Phil Collins style drumming interludes ages the track.
After a gradual shedding of their radio friendly appearance, the album that followed Dogs of War (1995) was a real return to the power and prowess of Saxon. However, there were still some marked differences to their sound, perhaps a hangover from their attempts at cracking the US. Don't Worry is less heavy metal and has more in common with the bluesy overtones of The Quireboys than a leather clad road warrior. The Americana musical themes continue on one of the stand out tracks The Great White Buffalo and the Copper Head Road inspired, Demolition Alley but it's certainly the best album that the band had produced in some time. As a result, it won them back their fan base with the no nonsense, ballsy hard rock they craved.
As rock's popularity waned in the 90s Saxon stood steadfast, heavy metal sentinels continuing to gather favour across Europe and grinding metal like their life depended on it. Other NWOBHM bands like Iron Maiden also struggled with two ill feted albums that nearly destroyed the band's popularity. 1997's the aptly named Unleash The Beast represented everything that Biff and the boys held dear. It was the first album to feature new guitarist Doug Scarratt, who has stayed with the band ever since. Circle Of Light has all the hallmarks of a heavy metal anthem with dark lyrical themes, cutting percussion, rousing guitars and the soaring vocal. Cut Out The Disease is darker still in terms of tone, taking on a thrashier feel for their sound. It also sees Saxon playing with synth elements, something they have embraced over the years. It may not have been a knock out album, but it enabled them to tour America once more and keep the band from disappearing without a trace and continue flying the flag and rise like a phoenix back into consciousness.
Longtime drummer Nigel Glocker took a back seat for the next few albums with Fritz Randow taking his place on Metalhead (1999) and Killing Ground (2001). Randow's drumming style gives the tracks less of a traditional British feel to the album and more of a sharp European metal resonance, which no doubt garnished favour with the Euro metal scene. Travelers In Time, Conquistador and Sea Of Life play with different more progressive styles, musical textures and time signatures enhancing their sound but this is very much a red hot metal album that has been a long time coming. Killing Ground is another strong album Saxon, one of the best during this period: the material is effortless and they sound in their prime, despite this being their fifteenth album. The album is packed full of classic rock and heavy metal tracks like Coming Home and the head banging Running For The Border. They even tackle the prog classic Court Of The Crimson King with the elegance of the King Crimson original but claim it for their own with metallic sounds on the instrumental sections. But it's not all good, Shadows On The Wall, for the most part, is an acceptable rock track, apart from an awkward sounding over electronic voice refrain. As Rock Is Our Life says 'the waiting is over, your time has come' after spending too long in the creative wilderness, Killing Ground is a solid cementing of their reputation.
Lionheart is the closest album to classic albums Wheels of Steel and Denim and Leather. With lyrical themes of very British history returning to their work, Witchfinder General and Lionheart have become popular set list choices ever since, the latter replete with piercing banshee screams from Biff. Stratovarius drummer Jörg Michael takes over from Randow and is a perfect choice for the edgier, more contemporary spin on the classic sound that is present throughout the album. Nigel Glocker returns for the final studio album in the collection – his first in a decade – The Inner Sanctum. From the get go Glocker is on fire, crashing the drum kit with speed metal runs on the State Of Grace. Things don't falter for the band as the album progresses either with tracks like Empire Rising and Red Star Falling. Let Me Feel Your Power could almost be a figurative presentation of their own supersized influence in the genre while I've Got To Rock (To Stay Alive) speaks volumes about the band's struggles and glorious resurgence.
The final album in the set,
Into The Labyrinth is a mixture of power metal onslaughts like Valley of the Kings and Battalions of Steel alongside more traditional rock tracks like Live To Rock and Come Rock of Ages with some more bluesy tinged rock like Crime Of Passion and a re imagining of Coming Home (bottleneck version). Into The Labyrinth is an album that certainly represents the sonic consistency of the band as they move into their 4th decade.
You have to raise your hands with reverent Devil horns to a band so passionate about the music they make that no matter how the industry has shifted, how musical tastes have waxed and waned, the band have continued to make heavy metal music, almost oblivious to everything. Fox Saxon heavy metal is a religion, a way of life, and this box set is representative of the testament and commitment to that.
Groupie Rating 5/5