Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Saxon's 'Thunderbolt' - Album Review

If there is a classic heavy metal band that is putting out new studio albums as regularly and of such a consistent quality as Saxon, then they have slipped beneath my radar. Barnsley's road warriors have been releasing new studio albums since their self-titled debut release in 1979, the vast majority of which are highly enjoyable slabs of no-nonsense heavy metal in the classic British style. New albums from the real legends of the heavy metal world are often, sadly, a rare occurrence. Many bands, despite still being hugely entertaining live, see making new albums as an extremely low priority task, and have either stopped making new albums altogether or only release something new once in a blue moon. Luckily for us Saxon fans, the band are not one that subscribe to either of those philosophies. In recent years Saxon have been putting new albums out every two of three years, all while still touring heavily around the world. The band's last album, 2015's Battering Ram (which I reviewed here), was the latest in a long line of highly enjoyable Saxon albums. While on the whole I feel that Battering Ram was not quite as good as the albums that it followed, particularly 2011's Call to Arms and 2013's Sacrifice (which I also reviewed here), it was still a worthy addition to my CD collection. Saxon are not that a band that regularly take risks with their sound, so fans know exactly what they are going to get when they buy the band's latest album. This brings us to Thunderbolt which, like clockwork, was release earlier this month and is the band's follow up effort to Battering Ram. Thunderbolt is the band's twenty second studio album, and once again sees them delivering a collection of red hot British heavy metal, done in the band's trademark way. Battering Ram saw the band working with famed metal producer, and recently announced touring guitarist for Judas Priest, Andy Sneap which saw one of the band's best sounding albums to date. Wanting to re-create that success, the band have also worked with Sneap on Thunderbolt so, predictably, it sounds huge. Sneap always manages to make every band he produces sound massive, and he seems to be the master at getting really heavy, but also extremely pure, sounding guitar tones. Under his watchful eye Saxon's guitarists - founding member Paul Quinn and long-time gunslinger Doug Scarratt - sound better than they ever have. Despite a similar sound, I feel that Thunderbolt is a step up from Battering Ram; although it does not quite reach the heights reached on Call to Arms or Sacrifice. This is still a worthy album in any heavy metal fan's collection however, and it contains a handful of tracks which I feel could become future classics for the band.

After the fairly standard atmospheric intro piece Olympus Rising, the album gets underway proper with the muscular title track. Anyone who knows anything about Saxon will immediately feel right at home here, as Quinn and Scarratt lay down a powerful guitar riff and long-time drummer Nigel Glockler lays down a powerful double bass pattern. Unlike many of his peers, founding frontman Biff Byford is truly ageless. His voice still sounds as good now as it did in the early 1980s, and his commanding performance here - especially during the anthemic chorus - demonstrates this. This is a song that is destined to open the band's shows for the foreseeable future, and I am sure that this is a role it will fill perfectly. While Thunderbolt is a show of pure power from the band, the follow-up number The Secret of Flight has a more melodic feel. The opening instrumental section is characterised by a flowing lead guitar melody, something which is reprised during the choruses, while the rest of the song is paced with real groove. It does not feel as instantly heavy as the opening song, but still contains all the hallmarks of a classic Saxon song. There is perhaps a little more light and shade than usual however, with a small atmospheric passage part way through that soon leads into a fairly laid back solo section. Both Scarratt and Quinn show off their skills here, and they afforded a little more space to breathe than usual. Their shredded efforts are always excellent, but it is also interesting to hear them slow things down a little here. Nosferatu (The Vampire's Waltz) features more of a gothic sound, something which the band has experimented before on songs like Mists of Avalon from Call to Arms. Session player Corvin Bahn supplies the song's keyboard parts, which add plenty of depth and atmosphere to the piece, but this is a song that really shows the skills of Byford. His vocal power is still something to behold, and as he bellows out the song's pre-chorus with all the venom he can muster you cannot help but be transfixed. The rest of the band, as well as Bahn's keyboards, provide the perfect backing for this tale of vampires with a mid-paced chug that is perfectly heavy. They Played Rock and Roll is the band's tribute to Motörhead. Saxon and Motörhead shared the stage together many times throughout the years, and this song really sums up that relationship - as well as the sounds of both bands. There has always been a little bit of Motörhead's sound in Saxon's style, and this song perfectly both demonstrates this and pays tribute to that band's simple, heavy style. In true Motörhead style, this song is a relentless display of heavy metal with fasy double bass drumming, quick fire guitar riffing, and simple lyrics. Producer Sneap joins in the fun with the first of the song's two guitar solos, which sees him shredding with Quinn in a style not unlike that of the late 'Fast' Eddie Clarke. Predator sees the band try out something new as it is, I believe, the first Saxon song to feature harsh vocals. Johan Hegg (Amon Amarth) adds his deep growls to almost the entire song, and it is great to hear him doubling Byford's rough vocals throughout. Their voices mix well together, and Hegg's growls act almost as an extra layer of music and make the song sound suitably evil. While I imagine the choice to include harsh vocals here will upset some of the more conservative of metal fans, as there are quite a few out there who really struggle with harsh vocals in general, but I think their inclusions works really well here and helps the song to stand out.

Sons of Odin of the other hand does little to stand out, and it is the first song on the album to not really make an impact. Unlike most of the band's other songs, it never really creates a strong energy and becomes a bit of a plodder without any true identity. That being said, I do really like the slightly murky sound created during the chorus, which sees twin lead guitars forming the main melody with a slow riff while Nibbs Carter's bass drives everything long. While not awful by any means, after five excellent songs in a row this one just seems to pale in comparison. Luckily the next song, Sniper, picks the pace up again and hits the mark. While nothing particularly special, it is such a rip-roaring piece of heavy metal that will automatically make any metal fan want to headbang. The simple driving riff is extremely catchy, and the shout-along chorus is sure to go down well if the band ever choose to play this one live. Saxon have been putting out songs like this for years, and this is just the latest in a long line of faster tracks that are packed full of attitude. A Wizard's Tale is more of mid-paced effort, but it is blessed by an excellent main guitar riff - backed up by some great ride-heavy drumming from Glockler - and Byford's strong storyteller lyrics. Stylewise, this song is very similar to that found on The Secret of Flight, with a chorus complete with a dancing guitar lead and effects-heavy vocals. Fantasy and mythology features in Saxon's lyrics from time to time, and this Arthurian ode adds to that cannon. It is one of the stronger efforts of the album's second half, and really adds a little mysticism and magic to the album. Speed Merchants, unsurprisingly, is another faster piece and it deals with the subject of driving very fast. While not exactly intelligent or thought-provoking subject matter, it is a fun song that recalls Saxon classics like Motorcycle Man. This is a song that never lets up the energy throughout it's relatively short run time, with both guitarists adding shredding solos to the proceedings part of the way through, and Glockler really putting in a shift with a continuous drum barrage. This is an extremely fun song, which it packed with tonnes of energy, and who said that heavy metal always had to be profound anyway? The album's closing number, Roadies' Song, feels like the band's tribute to their long-suffering road crew and it paints a picture of the average day in a roadie's life. It is a strong mid-paced song with a powerful main riff and a really catchy chorus that once in your head it is hard to shift. While not quite as classic as Motörhead's (We Are) The Road Crew, this is a song that really pays tribute to the hard working people behind the scenes of every concert. It takes a lot of people to put on a great heavy metal show, and it is nice to see Saxon giving their crew a shout out on this album. Overall, Thunderbolt is another really enjoyable album from Saxon and one that will help maintain their standing in the upper echelons of the metal world. I always look forward to getting my hands on the new Saxon album, and they have not disappointed me one bit with Thunderbolt.

The album was released on 2nd February 2018 via Silver Lining Music. Below is the band's promotional video for Thunderbolt.

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