By Kelley Simms
Britain’s SAXON has been a heavy metal institution for over 35 years. An original entry into the burgeoning NWOBHM scene in the early eighties, Saxon combined its blue collar work ethic with their love of the blues and made a lengthy and satisfying career out of it.
With hair still intact, vocalist Biff Byford and the rest of the band, guitarists Paul Quinn and Doug Scarratt, bassist Nibbs Carter and drummer Nigel Glockler, has released its 20th studio album, Sacrifice. This time around, the band revisited their halcyon days of the ’80s and combined its early heavy metal roots and blues background with a modern metal flavor.
They also have experimented with a few new sounds which aren’t normally present in the Saxon repertoire, such as the Celtic-flavored 'Made In Belfast' and the Asian-tinged 'Guardians Of The Tomb'.
“We’re always trying things and experimenting,” Byford said. “We had ‘Made In Belfast’ written and it started with the heavy chorus riff and I wanted it to have a bit of a Celtic flavor to it. So I went and got an old mandolin and Paul Quinn wrote the Celtic riff at the beginning and I liked it so much that I used it for the bridge before the chorus. It gives it a nice balance between the acoustic mandolin sound and the crunchy riffs. With ‘Guardians of the Tomb,’ the certain Oriental thing at the beginning, I think Nigel first played the pattern on drums and then we turned it into more of a string instrument. We’re all pitching in together.”
The old saying, ‘Better with age’ has never rung so true with Saxon. On Sacrifice, its 20th album, the band has never sounded stronger.
“I co-produced this one myself for a change,” Byford stated. “I wanted it to be an intense album, no ballads on it. I went back to the ’80s influence on maybe two or three songs and just kept it punchy, raw and relevant.”
And it wasn’t forced, either. The old school feel developed naturally, as Byford explains.
“We didn’t go for more of an ’80s sound (on purpose), it’s more natural. It has quite a modern edge to it. 'Made in Belfast' definitely modern-sounding song. I just wanted the guys to play Gibsons through Marshals and not get too involved with the digital side of things too much. The rhythm section is pretty live on the album. Just to keep it real, really, that’s what we wanted.”
Paul Quinn and Doug Scarratt’s guitar work really shine on Sacrifice. It’s some of the heaviest riffing in quite some time.
“A lot of the guitar riffs were obviously written by Paul and Doug, and me and Nibbs wrote some, and I wrote some alone as well. We had a pretty good thing to start with. I brought back some guitar harmonies, twin guitar parts, which is another throwback to the old days. We wanted to bring that element back into the band again.”
Included in the Sacrifice CD is a special bonus disc of reworked orchestrated and acoustic versions of Saxon originals.
“We didn’t really re-record 'Crusader', they just orchestrated it for us, which worked fantastic. The acoustic stuff is basically just an acoustic guitar and me, really. I like 'Frozen Rainbow', it’s off our first album. I think I sung it really well and it deserves a spot on the bonus disc. We took a song from the Crusader album called 'Just Let Me Rock', which was an MTV hit in the ’80s, and a forgotten song called 'Forever Free' and one more acoustic called 'Requiem' which I wrote for the Solid Ball Of Rock album.
Similar to Biff’s 2002 autobiography, Never Surrender (or Nearly Good Looking), the recently released DVD, Heavy Metal Thunder: The Movie, tells the story of the band’s history. Looking back at all the old footage of the band’s early days, Biff doesn’t get overly sentimental.
“It goes with the book I suppose. If you’ve read the book, it’s sort of the same. I think it was quite good to do it, to get the old members to talk about the old days as well. When you look back on it, obviously we’re doing it 24/7, so it’s not such a big deal. But it’s cool to look back and see the old footage and the older members telling their story. I still got the hair. I suppose when that goes I’ll have to pack it in!” Biff says with a dry chuckle.