Ace in the hole

by Alun Thomas

Saxon just released their 15th studio album, ''Killing Ground'' at the end of September, two years to the day the underwhelming ''Metal Head'' hit the shelves. But earlier this year a rarities collection was unveiled that was far more interesting than the promise of a new recording. ''Diamonds And Nuggets'' is an assortment of unreleased songs and alternate takes of Saxon classics compiled by ex-Saxon guitarist Graham Oliver who left the band in acrimonious circumstances in 1995.

Oliver was Saxon's original guitarist but was fired after he illegally allowed a live Saxon recording to be released without the band's consent. He has since gone on to form an alternate Saxon, with fellow Saxon original, bassist Steve Dawson (1977-86). Interestingly this lineup has as many original members as the official version, which boasts Biff Byford and Paul Quinn. This move has caused all sorts of rancor between both bands but the ''Diamonds And Nuggets'' CD is more than a curiosity. The main reasons to own ''Diamonds'' are to hear the three ''Power And The Gory'' tracks that never made the final album. These songs ''Turn Out The Lights,'' ''Coming To The Rescue'' and ''Make 'Em Rock'' are Saxon at their peak. Heavy, melodic and totally aggressive, they are the last of the ''old'' Saxon style before the slight decline that started with 1984's ''Crusader.''

How these never made the final cut I'll never know. The actual album is a classic but these might have furthered it. ''Turn Out The Lights'' is about an ex-circus performer ''who used to walk the high wire'' but is put out of work when the circus closes down and is reduced to nothing. Strange lyrics and subject matter but Biff's always been known for that. One song in particular, ''Make 'Em Rock'' really puts the fire out and is better than several songs on the final album, think ''Midas Touch'' and ''Watching The Sky.''

Tragically, these songs had gone unheard for 17 years until Oliver had the sense to dig them out. The rest of the 16 songs are various live tracks and demos from early versions of Saxon. It is worthwhile to hear ''Freeway Mad,'' ''Frozen Rainbow,'' ''See The Light Shining'' and ''Still Fit To Boogie'' just to marvel in their crudeness as many were recorded in the 1976-77 period -- two years before Saxon's debut album came out.

''Aren't You Glad To Be Alive?'' is an early Saxon gem that never made the cut for any Saxon album and is similar to Kiss' ''Let Me Go Rock 'N' Roll.''

Byford and Quinn's pre-Saxon outfit, Coast, are showcased by ''Lift Up Your Eyes,'' a less than two minute rocker that has little in common with early Saxon.

Similarly Dawson and Quinn's early efforts, ''Walking'' and ''Anne Marie'' are not in focus with the later sound, more of a labored early 70's Uriah Heep. It's an intriguing mixture though, essential for any Saxon fan.

What separates this from modern day Saxon is its unpredictability. In the songs is a mixture of styles that remain within the realms of traditional rock 'n' roll.

Saxon in 2001 have hit a stalemate that involves the uneasy combination of old and new Saxon. Old being a few faster numbers and new being a more modern down-tuned sound that does not suit the band. This was a trend started on 1997's ''Unleash The Beast'' and continued on ''Metal Head.'' I do not dispute their right to toy with this mixture but Saxon succeded mainly as barroom boogie merchants than some brooding gothic outfit. Mind you, with one of the new songs titled ''Rock Is Our Life'' maybe their hearts are still in the right place.

Saxon fell into this situation because of the influences of bassist Nibbs Carter and guitarist Doug Scarrat, both (marginally) younger members who have brought updated sounds into the mix. Carter has been around since 1991 and been involved with more traditional Saxon moments like ''Solid Ball Of Rock'' and ''Forever Free.'' But he changed tack with the last two albums and convinced Biff to alter things. If Oliver was around this might not have happened.

It is undeniable to me how much more satisfying it was to hear the rarities rather than go back and listen to ''Metal Head'' -- probably because this is how I would like Saxon to sound, although I accept they never will again.

Saxon have triumphantly (a shocking line) revived a career that seemed dead five years ago. I'll give them that. But I would still go and see the bogus Saxon. They contain two original members and surely are capable of delivering musically. It's not the same without Biff but you can't stop powerful music which was early Saxon's trademark.

More importantly (and worryingly) this other Saxon might be playing a more pure style of metal than Biff's boys right now. Until I hear them I can't say. But when I hear ''Killing Ground,'' I might have more to add. If it flops you won't hear anything at all.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online October 2, 2001

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