Saxon – Call To Arms

Militia Guard Music

Review by Rick Ossian

The term “return to form” has been bandied about in the music press for some time now.  One imagines, upon hearing the phrase, a band in its real prime, triumphantly revelling in their halcyon days of yore. You can almost smell the ancient seductive oils as we envision our heroes pulling birds and getting up to other rock star lifestyle behaviours.  While they may or may not be celebrating conquests past, musically, at least, the mighty Saxon have done just that. Call to Arms finds these British icons in absolutely astonishing form.  Now, ordinarily, I wouldn’t be as intent on writing such an adamant love letter to this aggregation.  However, there is something you must understand first: I am not, well, at least, I WAS not, a rabid Saxon Fan.  That, it would appear, has changed.

Of course, like everyone else, I’d heard of the metallic prowess of these New Wave of British Heavy Metal stalwarts.  I remained on the sidelines for years; a bit curious (enough to procure two live sets, The Eagle Has Landed and Rock and Roll Gypsies), but never committing.   As I mentioned briefly above, my perspective has been altered somewhat.  I now intend to seek out as much of the back catalogue as I can.  Why, you may inquire, have I suddenly become so obsessed with Biff and company?  The answer is simple: it is the vengeance with which they attach this new set of tracks. It is pure metal.  A bit of everything for us, the fans!  Track by track, then, shall we?

Hammer of the Gods, the opener, is, like most of the tracks here, a riff-heavy monster.  It also, like most of the tracks, features exceptional guitar soloing (courtesy of axe wizards Doug Scarratt and Paul Quinn), usually about half way into the song.  I got to where I was waiting for them (the solos) during each track, and I was not disappointed once.  Hammer is a hard-charging, driving, almost relentless track in its pace.  Uptempo just doen’t fairly describe it. Lyrically, we’re talking about vikings, dragonships, thunder: (“Gods of war, stand in fear, the Viking horde, attack(ing) with battle axe and sword, strike him down with the Hammer of the Gods“).

Back In ’79 is a burning, mid-tempo blues number, a bit autobiographical, perhaps, urging the crowd to “Show me your hands…raise up your hands – deliver me!”  Biff Byford tells a tale on their MySpace page of getting exactly 79 locals to do background vocals, something they had done before, according to him. “It was a fantastic result”, says Byford, “and a direct tribute to Denim and Leather, where we did the exact same thing.”

Surviving Against the Odds is, quite possibly, my favourite track here.  It stops and shifts hard on hair-pin turns, again at a breakneck pace, so exciting to hear their energy here.  My head was bobbing and banging profusely during my first airings of it.  Again, perhaps a bit autobiographical.

Mists of Avalon is a 6-minute plus epic, with subject matter, of course, dealing with swords and sorcery, notably Excalibur, the Lady of the Lake, etc.  Perhaps the only track where they slow down, save Back in 79. Lyrically predictable, though, as the Lady of the Lake is “waiting there for you“, and “you must be brave and true“.

The title track is represented twice here, once as a regular recorded studio version, then again at the end, presumably as a bonus track, in an ‘orchestral’ version.  Both are majestic, spacious in their scope, even gorgeous.

Chasing the Bullet, another roaring uptempo number, features Biff’s staccato stutter in the chorus (“ch-ch-ch-Chasing the Bullet“), a vocal trick which never ceases to impress.   This track finds Byford ruminating on the possibility of a vacation coming up: “Running out of time, running free, Ain’t gonna wait a year for therapy“.

Afterburner is almost scary good, complete with shredding guitar solo, a metal thrash attack upon all the senses.  It’s comforting, somehow, to know that they can still sound this good.

When Doomsday Comes features a touch of violin riffage, straight out of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, but it doesn’t sound contrived or obvious — well, perhaps a bit.  The lyrics are appropriately questions in many instances, such as “where will we be?” or “what will we do?“, but, inevitably, Byford concedes, “we’ll be here for a moment, then we’ll disappear”. There is a very classy bit of synthesizer on the outro that begs mentioning.

No Rest For the Wicked, meanwhile, features a chugging, almost galloping riff (a la Maiden), and a phase shifter in the vocal treatment department.  Again, lyrically, the words are almost predictable, but prophetic, nonetheless: “No rest til the work is done, no peace for the chosen one“.

On Ballad of the Working Man, again we find the vocals very powerful, but also very introspective.  Perhaps it is the industrial nature of their surroundings (steel mills, etc.) that prompted the boys to work this one up.  One wonders if they would have had to work in the factories had they not become musicians…Overall, then, a definitive outing for the boys.  Fierce rhythm work, as always, from Nibs and Nigel!

Rating: ****

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