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Saxon peaked here, finishing their 18 month run of incredibly consistent AC/DC inspired heavy metal. In 1981, one would have been perfectly right to consider this band and no other to be the one to take the world over, but we all now what happened afterwards; a gradual decline started after this record, and Saxon have only occasionally raised their heads above the muck of mediocrity since then.
It’s not they did anything substantially different on this record than what was already there on the previous two. But, everything here is fine-tuned to the point of perfection, and when you realize that, it becomes obvious why they had to go down. The sound is absolutely perfect for Saxon here. The razor sharp guitars are intact, but the sound on the whole is quite a bit fuller and vibrant, clear and live at the same time.
This, of course, helps the songs come across like never before. There seems to be an instant rapport with listener, from the first few bars of “Princess of the Night”. But, this immediacy is not the courtesy of production alone. Eight of the nine songs here are among Saxon’s best. They seem to have perfected the skill of songwriting within their own stylistic limits, making the songs punchier and even more electrifying than before.
Take “Play It Loud” for example. There’s no denying that it’s modeled on the already established insistent pumping rhythm, and that its chorus is simply designed for stadium sing-alongs. In other words, “Wheels of Steel” is its granddaddy. But, “Play It Loud” is a more dynamic and engaging song than its predecessor. Similarly, the title track is their most convincing anthem. I mean, look, songs where bands praise themselves and their chosen genre are not my cup of tea at all, but if there’s one band that makes that shit believable, Saxon is that band. They pull through on the strength of simply sounding honest, but also strangely humble about it, and delivering the goods when it comes to music.
Only two songs are not about playing metal and/or being tough as nails. “Princes of the Night” is lyrically as bizarre as they come, praising a retired train (!). See, they’re just a bunch of nostalgic English gentlemen. But, the said song is also one of the best here, just perfectly written all around. The one relative dud of the album is “Out of Control”, which seems to be about Biff’s significant other, although you can never be sure it’s not about a motorcycle. What doesn’t really work on that song is its lame chorus which foreshadows Saxon’s slimier 80s moments. But, that’s only relative to the rest of the record. It’s not like it warrants rushing towards the skip button.
The second side contains no such wobbly parts. The steady, laid-back “Midnight Rider”, while lyrically a bit of an attempt at endearing the band to the American audience is among the band’s most developed and textured, and a nice contrast to the speedy “Fire in the Sky”. Now, that one song that raises this album above the previous two is, you guessed it, “And the Bands Played On”. Never has there been written a more blood-pumping, adrenaline-inducing song about heavy metal itself, which is even more of an accomplishment when you realize it’s not actually, you know, aggressive or dark in any way. Which, incidentally, might make some of you young ’uns consider it “hard rock” or somesuch nonsense, but that will be dealt with case by case.
So, I’m not sure if it brought us all together, especially since I’m an anti-social maniac who would rather watch Sex and the City before pledging any allegiance to “heavy metal as a lifestyle”, but even I can enjoy this fine record in the privacy of my own room. Denim and Leather is everything that’s good about Saxon turned up to… no, I’m not gonna go there.