Saturday, June 17, 2017

Unleash the Beast

If I had been listening to Saxon in 1997, I might have been concerned when I heard this album.

Unleash the Beast finds Saxon diving into a darker and heavier direction. Maybe it's the arrival of new guitarist Doug Scarratt (replacing fired founding member Graham Oliver), but Saxon seems to have actually unleashed a beast within themselves. Their sound is louder, packs more crunch, and resembles modern German power metal more than classic British New Wave. The title track is about stone gargoyles coming to life, but it could be a metaphor for the band embracing its heaviest sound yet.

"Unleash the beast.
The time has come.
Feel the fire in your soul.
It's time.
Unleash the beast."

But that's not why I would have been worried. It's not how the music sounds but what the songs are about. Lyrically, singer Biff Byford sings not about motorcycles, rock n roll, or good times but about betrayal, the loss of friends, near-death experiences, media manipulation, and snake-oil preachers. The band was almost 20 years old, and it's finding the world to be a frightening, despairing place. I can only speculate if "Cut Out the Disease" is about their soured relationship with Oliver.

"You make your living from backstabbing.
You're just a snake in handmade boots.
You slither round like something slimy.
Nothing's ever what it seems."

I mean, ouch. Tell us how you really feel, Biff. Elsewhere, Saxon includes creepy monster songs, including the aforementioned title track and "Bloodletter," which is about vampires, and the world itself is turning on people. "All Hell Breaks Loose" describes a hurricane as the "Devil's messenger" that is "screaming across the sky" and creating "death and chaos all around." The boys also describe a near-death experience on "Circle of Light," adding in a pumping heart beat and the sound of labored breathing for a creepy effect.

Only three tracks aren't so pessimistic. The gung-ho war epic "The Thin Red Line" recounts a battle for the glory of the British Empire and is suitably rousing. "Terminal Velocity is about skydiving but would fit in well with the band's past motorcycle tracks in how it gets the adrenaline flowing.

"Absent Friends" has an acoustic riff, and the band gives us a tender ballad dedicated to the group's late tour manager, John "JJ" Johns. Biff sounds genuinely upset and heartbroken over his fallen friend. It doesn't sound like the Biff we'd expect.

"You went in the morning.
We didn't say good bye.
The friends that you left here
Wonder why, wonder why."

I didn't care too much for Unleash the Beast when I first heard it. It didn't resonate for some reason, but the more I listen to it, the more I like it. Saxon shows us their dark side and continue to play with infectious energy and catchy melody melodies and riffs.

Standout Songs
"Unleash the Beast" - The title sets the dark, gothic mood.
"The Thin Red Line" - You'll be ready to enlist after hearing this.
"Cut Out the Disease" - Possibly the band's most cynical song.
"Absent Friends" - A touching tribute to the band's tour manager.

Favorite Moment
The solo on "The Thin Red Line." It feels like you're on the battlements making a final stand.

Album Cover
A living, drooling gargoyle with an evil look in his eyes crouches, ready to pounce from the rooftop. Sweetness.

Track Order
1) Gothic Dreams
2) Unleash the Beast
3) Terminal Velocity
4) Circle of Light
5) The Thin Red Line
6) Ministry of Fools
7) The Preacher
8) Bloodletter
9) Cut Out the Disease
10) Absent Friends
11) All Hell Breaks Loose

Biff Byford - Vocals
Paul Quinn - Guitar
Doug Scarratt - Guitar
Nibbs Carter - Bass
Nigel Glockler - Drums

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