Released: 2004, Steamhammer / SPV / Playground Music
Reviewer: Anders Sandvall
This legendary band needs no introduction so I’ll dive right into the review. The wait has been long ever since the release of the brilliant album KILLING GROUND in 2001, but now Saxon has an album of new material. In the in-between time they released a compilation CD with their old classics re-recorded and a DVD called SAXON: THE CHRONICLES.
The normally steady line-up has gone through a change this time around. Jörg Michael from the Finnish act Stratovarius has joined on drums. Former drummer Fritz Randow left the band citing various reasons such as spending less time touring and more time with his family and other band, Victory. Other than one change, Saxon remains intact with the same members from the previous album.
Like fellow English icons Motörhead, Saxon has waited a few years to release an album of new material, which is a really smart move I think. Like Motörhead, Saxon used to release an album almost every year which maybe is playing things a little bit too close. I think having to wait for an album has made the fans more eager to hear what the legends have put together now more than ever before. Saxon is also heading out on tour soon and I think the fans expectations for the tour are going to be really high.
For the first time in fifteen years Saxon have returned home to England to record an album. Usually they have recorded in Germany, but to return to England is a good idea because this gives them other points of view to look at things from and maybe get different inspirations as well. They used their own studio (Gems 24 Studio) to record in and it took about fifty days to finish the recordings. As before they have used Charlie Bauerfeind (Motörhead, Halford, Blind Guardian) to produce the album. Bauerfiend doesn’t do anything new with the production and Saxon does what they do absolutely best – English heavy metal of highest caliber. The soundscape and production sounds full and leaves a lot of space for Biff Byford’s lead vocals and Paul Quinn and Doug Scarratt’s sharp guitar duels.
With the exception of the fact that Saxon sounds really hungry/vital/interesting and impressively good, they don’t deliver anything particularly new here. On the other hand, Saxon doesn’t have to create anything new, the fans support them and greet them with open arms anyway. The biographical note says that the guys took a long time to write the material and rehearse before they went into the studio and that shows because LIONHEART is not anything they have put together on a lunch break. The album is very stable and the new drummer feels like the fuel injection the guys needed.
LIONHEART has eleven really strong tracks straight through and Richard the Lionheart and English warriors seem to be the prevalent themes. The album cover reflects the music absolutely perfectly and let’s you know from the start what the album is about. Paul Raymond Gregory returns to do the artwork for this cover, having also done the classic album cover to CRUSADERS in the ‘80s.
Byford sounds as good as he always has and you shown no signs of wear in his voice. He sounds as strong as he did in the 80’s and he’s still got a tremendous vocal range. Many of the old heavy metal singers have tendencies to lose strength in their voice when they pass a certain age but not Byford. Quinn and Scarratt impress as always on guitar and they both fire off some brilliant guitar solos on the album. Michael rules behind the drum kit with a complete and steady sound.
LIONHEART kicks off with “Witchfinder General” which is a typical heavy and fast English heavy metal track with Byford at the top of the mix. There a quite a few tempo changes and Michael uses his double bass pedals heavily. From the beginning Saxon puts the ones who doubted them in their place. “Man & Machine” and “Justice” are also heavy metal a la Saxon style but the tempo is a bit higher here. “Man & Machine” is very sing-along friendly and Quinn and Scarratt deliver some really dazzling solos here. On “Justice” the tempo is slower and Byford sounds really angry. “The Return” is a short 1:30 track that bleeds into “Lionheart,” which is a well played somewhat melodic heavy metal song with keyboards. This song has the potential to be the band’s sing-along hit on tour. “Beyond the Grave” borders on an up-tempo ballad where you have time to catch your breath and Biff sounds totally magical. “Jack Tar” is acoustic with only guitar and Byford’s lead vocals. You could call it a ballad or a sailor song, but I prefer the first alternative. “To Live By the Sword” and “English Man O War” are two songs that are as fast as the first song on the album. The guitars riff heavy on both and there’s a lot of double bass drumming. Quinn and Scarratt play the biggest part in the soundscape of these songs. “Search For Atlantis” and “Flying on the Edge” sound just like Saxon did in the 80’s, which means melodic, semi-heavy English heavy metal. Byford lays pretty low in the mix and the guitars are at the top. “Flying on the Edge” has more sharp guitar lines compared to “Search For Atlantis” and the chorus is also more sing-along friendly.
Saxon has delivered an incredible album with LIONHEART and they show that they are still hungry and a force to reckon with. Michael seems to be the right man for the job and he sounds like he really enjoys being a part of this gang. The speed on the songs feels a bit faster than normal Saxon but that is just a positive thing, I have to say that I can’t find any negative about this album so I have to give it the highest rating.