Saxon – Thunderbolt Review

220px-Album_cover_of_Saxon_-_Thunderbolt_(2018)Now, I don’t claim to be the world’s biggest or most devout Saxon fan. I only got into them about five or six years ago after hearing ‘Denim & Leather’ in an episode of both Metal Evolution and also Heavy Metal Louder Than Life and feeling like I needed to hear more. Since this was in my most financially broke student period its been a slow process gathering their discography. At present I own only about ¾ of their albums, but to be fair, have seen them live about 3 times (would’ve been four, but one was cancelled). Slowly, slowly they’ve won me over more and more and more until I’d now consider them one of my absolute favourite bands (if not for a mental block about having to have the full discography I have), and its a rare day you catch me without a Saxon t-shirt on, even at work.

Saxon have had several distinct periods over the years. The unsigned and first album era. The classic and most publicly beloved era of the next 3-5 albums where the bulk of their live setlist and greatest-hits tracklists will be drawn from. The more commercial 3 albums after that in the mid-late ’80s. The early ’90s comeback. The early ’00s comeback. The late ’00s comeback. Their current three comeback albums. Yeah, when I saw them live, singer Biff Byford joked “we’re on about our tenth comeback now!”

Even though they were already on an amazing comeback with Sacrifice, the public considered their last album Battering Ram a comeback as well, and judging by the chart performance and critical and fan reaction to this current album, 2018’s Thunderbolt (their 22nd studio album), the same thing is happening again.

Much like German Metal Legends, Accept or Kreator; Saxon are playing and writing better now than so many younger bands, than so many of their peers, and arguably than themselves in much of their classic discography.

Even as a new fan, this record is not something you want to be missing out on, this isn’t just a reason to tour or one or two new songs to add to a setlist for one tour, to be forgotten forever after, this is a damn strong, exciting, vital sounding album!

Highlights include the bombastic strung-up moody album-centerpiece ‘Nosferatu’ with its astonishing guitar work, dynamic mix of tempos and evocative lyrics, as well as the furious Motorhead tribute ‘And They Played Rock N Roll’ and the heavy ‘Predator’ which features guest vocals from Amon Amarth’s Johan Hegg.

To be honest though, apart from an instrumental intro, there is not one skippable song on the whole album. Even towards the end of the album, tracks like ‘Speed Merchant’ are just as good as anything at the start of the album. It makes sense that the band are playing six or seven songs from this record live at the moment, as it is some seriously strong material. With Paul Quinn’s searing guitar solos, Nigel Glocker’s mighty drumming and Andy Sneap’s absolutely perfect production job… this is exactly what Heavy Metal is supposed to sound like; punchy, heavy, vital, catchy, impressive and fun!

If you like Saxon then this is no album to miss, if you are lapsed its a good re-entry point, and of course, if you are new or newish to Saxon then this is mandatory listening. I know some people would call it sacrilegious to compare it to career triumphs like Strong Arm Of The Law, Wheels Of Steel, Demin & Leather or Solid Ball Of Rock, but this tight, consistent and damn entertaining album is honestly good enough to be both up there with the best Saxon material but up there with the best Heavy Metal material coming out at the moment. I would have it over Iron Maiden’s latest at the moment, and they are on a high period as well. Don’t miss out, get struck by the Thunderbolt now!

I went to go see Saxon last Friday in Cardiff Student’s Union Great Hall on 23/02/18.

I went to go see the mighty Saxon last Friday in Cardiff; this was my third time catching the NWOBHM legends live and my second ever concert in Wales. (It would have been my fourth time seeing Saxon but I’ve already written before about the time I had tickets and it got cancelled due to Lemmy from Motorhead getting diabetes.)

The trip to the venue was great, now that I know the way it was a lot less stressful to find than the time I went to see Mastodon and this time the city centre was a lot quieter and less full of boozed-up thugs. I got there a bit late and missed all but the last minute of the opening act, Rock Goddess, so just got to hear them chant ‘Heavy metal – rock and roll’ about six times and take a bow. I remembered the really good comfortable spot from the Mastodon concert – behind the sound/lighting desk, so I headed there and remained there for the rest of the show, great sound, great view and no people bustling you around.

I caught the Metallica-inspiring also-NWOBHM legends Diamond Head next. It was kind of strange to see them be their own roadies. Usually you get excited when the band but I saw Brian Tattler for like 15 minutes before the band were ready just setting up the guitar, I can see why roadies get hired and how annoying it must be nowadays when records aren’t selling as much. They were a man down due to a serious hospital operation but they soldiered on regardless, dropping all the best and heaviest songs from Lightening To The Nations and Borrowed Time. They also dropped one new song from their self titled album (‘Bones’). I didn’t know this beforehand; but they have a younger guy on vocals (Rasmus Bom Andersen). He was a very good frontman, jumping in the air, pumping up the crowd, trying to get people enthusiastic and doing a very good job of mimicking the original vocals. I’ve been listening ‘In The Heat Of The Night’ a lot recently so I really enjoyed it live – he did it justice. The crowd were into it, but not so into it. The band were pretty good; not so tight, but that’s obviously due to the man-down situation and totally understandable. Hey, I’m just happy to be seeing songs like ‘Its Electric’ and ‘Lightning To The Nations’ live.

When they dropped ‘Am I Evil?’ though…the whole atmosphere changed. The crowd sang almost every word, the room warmed up, the band looked five-times as confident and all the energy that was sort of missing before came into the room. It felt like a real heroic moment. Previously the crowd seemed to view them as a bit of a ropey pub band based on how they reacted, but for that last song they treated them how they deserved, like stars.

After a wait, the mighty Saxon took the stage, opening up with the intro and title track of the new album. I had been a bit cold on ‘Thunderbolt’ when it was the previw single but when I heard the album and listened to it on repeat it fell in to place for me. Seeing it live made it even better. Its a really strong tune. Biff mentioned we were the first audience to ever see it live, which got a big cheer. They also dropped some other fairly recent material such as ‘Sacrifice’ and ‘Battering Ram’ (also so good live!). Its nice to see them not just being a nostalgia act.

There was also all the big classic songs you’d expect such as ‘And The Bands Played On,’ (Side note – I never think about how short that song is!) ‘Strong Arm Of The Law,’ ‘Crusader,’ ‘747 (Strangers In The Night),’ ‘The Power And The Glory’ etc.

They also played a good four-six tracks off the new album overall, such as ‘Sniper’ ‘The Secret Of Flight’ ‘Predator’ and ‘They Played Rock And Roll.’ Nibbs did the backing parts that Amon Amarth’s singer Johan Hegg does on the album, which was quite fun. My favorite moment was hearing ‘Nosferatu’ live.

They mentioned that they had filmed their next music video in the venue the previous night and also that the students were filming the concert (maybe that will be their next concert film or maybe just on youtube later, I’m not sure).

They did two encores. They ended the main set with ‘Princess Of The Night,’ and then they came back and did ‘Heavy Metal Thunder’ and ‘Wheels Of Steel’ then they went off again and came back once more and did ‘Denim And Leather.’

The band were absolutely phenomenal. I’ve seen Saxon three times so far and this was unquestionably the best. They were absolutely on fire. The power and confidence and audience reaction was really special. The band seemed really taken aback and grateful and Biff kept commenting on what a great crowd it was that night (which I do agree with, I’ve seen a lot of concerts but its rare to get such good applause and sing-alongs and fans demanding you come back again after you’ve already done an encore).

It appears the band are on an upswing; Biff mentioned the new album was their first to enter the UK Top 30 albums chart since the mid-80s and joked that he ‘almost chocked on my cornflakes when I heard that!’ which was very amusing. He was quite amusing all night to be honest. Someone suggested they play ‘Crusader’ early on in the set and he started doing the ‘Who dares battle the Saracen?’ voice from its intro but said ‘Its not time for Crusader, that comes later’ which was pretty funny in context and got a good crowd reaction.

The band were stunning too. As well as Biff’s excellent stage presence and banter, the guitar solos were so good. Doug and Paul were so impressive – they really are absolute guitar heroes. Nibbs is the rowdy guy with all the energy and gets the crowd going. Best of all of course, as if I would say anyone else, (how many times have I banged on and on about my drummer-crush on his skills?) was the incomparable ‘Engine Room’ – Nigel Glockler! I’ve already written at length about how he elevates the songs with the extra cymbal catches and well timed extra double kicks on the old stuff before he was the drummer and his own stuff is badass to begin with. He has a star power and talent level that really lifts Saxon above so many of their NWOBHM peers and shows you why they are not only relevant now when so many of their peers fell by the wayside but arguably better now than even in their classic period.

The whole concert was an absolute triumph, the old stuff, the new stuff, the stage presence and the performances. Scorching solos and powerful fills. I had an absolutely great night. I really recommend you catch Saxon live if you haven’t already and if this turns out to be available now the students have filmed it, check the video out.