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So after the rather pedestrian, generic affair of 'Metalhead', Saxon realize that maybe hiring German producer Charlie Bauerfiend wasn't such a good idea after all...I mean, it was a good sound they were working with and all, but trying to fit an old English warhorse (or iron horse?) into a Mercedes just doesn't make the slightest bit of sense. Therefore they decide not to let Charlie in on the next album any further than engineering, opting to leave the matter of production in their own hands.
On one level, this album succeeds. Namely, as an attempt to bounce back from a generic, indistinct, modern German sound to a more classic, screaming (NWO)British heavy metal sound, surprisingly reminiscent of the good ol' Saxon we all know and love. Great job there, guys. But once we begin to take a look at the actual song material on here, beyond the mere sound of it; as a classic Saxon album, it turns out to be a real loser. Sure, even as far as songwriting, this may very well some of the most "classic-sounding", 100% pure heavy metal ever released in these "resurrection" days of the genre, but even that cannot diminish the fact that 'Killing Ground' in reality is a platter of slow-moving, plodding and non-vicious tunes that show every possible sign of a classic band faltering at an alarming rate. Other than a couple of tracks, what we have here is a mere shadow of the raging fury of old Saxon.
It's funny, because while I tend to agree with the previous two reviewers on most everything that has to do with CLASSIC heavy metal, the best way there is to play it, it surprises me that none of them ever bring up the truly absurd lack of SPEED and ENERGY on here. That's what I'm here to do, because this plays a big part in what really ruins the whole album for me - the other big part being the slightly too frequent lack of inspired songwriting: filler material, basically. I mean, Saxon had this very problem on even their most classic outings too, but not quite by this much - for example, familiar awkward blues-rock riff constructions that plagued a couple of tracks in their immortal Wheels/Strong Arm/Denim trilogy (even moreso on "Crusader", I might add), they show up in at least THREE songs on here. Worse yet, towards the end of the album, modern ideals of "groove", that have more in common with Machine Head than the fun catchy ones of Sinner, start to rise to the forefront. And then some vocal distortion in one song too, managing to even ruin the pretence of sounding "classical" there for a while.
Petty complaints aside, though, let's get back to the real one: out of the ten full songs found on here, a whopping SIX of them are completely non-aggressive - as I said earlier, either it's the speed that's missing ("You Don't Know What You've Got", "Running for the Border"), or the energy is ("Coming Home", "Hell Freezes Over"). Now, understand that not all of them are total filler - for example, the King Crimson cover ("Court of the Crimson King", but the band is strangely not credited for it) is genuinely cool, and "Coming Home" is, if a bit unspectacular, still pretty catchy fun rock 'n' roll - but c'mon, guys, SIX FUCKING SONGS of a caliber this low? From the same band that once, a long time ago, and judging from this probably in a galaxy far, far away too, wrote "Machine Gun"? Sorry, but this is just not acceptable. Even if some of them weren't as filler-ish and flat-out dull as they are ("Running for the Border" especially, featuring that overly boring, Machine Head-styled "squeal"-grooving I was talking about earlier), I would still get on their case a bit, because this just isn't what I've come to expect from Saxon. Not just compared to classic/old Saxon, but also to the two releases prior to this one.
Previous reviewers already pointed out the title track and "Deeds of Glory" as the album's main highlights - I couldn't agree more there, and I have little to add to what's already been said about them. Both are far more speedy and energetic than anything else on here, and are right up there with Saxon's most classic, memorable stuff - clear evidence that the boys still have something to offer after 20+ years, something that far exceeds anything that 99% of all power metal can claim. But as I said, this time around it just didn't turn out to be that much, and certainly not enough to score a particularly high rating. 'Unleash the Beast' is a far more recommended album if you're looking to get into modern-era Saxon. Stylistically, this album is best described as Saxon's answer to 'Point of Entry', but with far less memorable songwriting.
One of the pioneering bands of true British heavy metal, along with such giants as Judas Priest and (in my opinion to a lesser extent) Iron Maiden, is of course Saxon. Although they're supposed to have had a more glammy period (which I haven't heard much of at all, so I wouldn't know - this is just what I've been told), 2001's "Killing Ground" marks a release for this band that might as well have been the follow-up to "Wheels of Steel" or "Strong Arm of the Law". Soaring riffs of classic British style, packed with power chords and tasteful licks, mixed with a quite modern production, which on this one - unlike on their latest, "Lionheart" - is done really fucking well, and gives the album a crisp, clean sound and very inspiring; not at all as shallow as "Lionheart" sometimes sounds.
The songwriting is also far more inspired and powerful. While there are a few fillers ("Running For The Border", "You Don't Know What You've Got"), even these have some pretty damn nifty riffs and solos. And the good stuff is total vintage Saxon.
"Killing Ground" is one of the best Saxon songs ever, in fact. The riffwork is fucking HEAVY. The main riff chugs along efficiently and forces you to headbang, with some more melodic but still heavy stuff for the verses for a perfect epic mood, and Biff's vocal performance is out of this world. "Together we stand, divided we fall! On the killing ground!" Total utter ownage.
The second ultra-highlight on here is "Deeds of Glory", which has some very catchy riffage all through, and stars out as a regular Saxon asskicker, and then bursts into that glorious chorus. Man, oh man, that's good stuff.
Other highlights.. "Coming Home" almost feels like filler, in being a song that's just kinda 'there' and doesn't stand out much, but it still manages to do what it does very well. The main riff is kinda light, but coupled with the simplistic but effective drumming it works really well along with a more laid-back vocal delivery. Kinda mellow song all over, but really, really good.
"Hell Freezes Over" is excellent too, with an almost AC/DC-like main riff, but more epic, and strong lyrics about going against the grain. And Biff Byford shines on this song as well as all the rest, giving all the material insane amounts of power. "Dragon's Lair" must also be mentioned - total speed/power metal, but totally sans-cheese. Headbanging madness combined with fun fantasy lyrics, and it's given a nice atmosphere with the reverby vocals. The chorus idea works very well too, the lead guitar repeating Biff's vocal melody.
Also, the closing track "Rock Is Our Life" is glorious metal-praising goodness done perfectly. That classic main melody always gives me goosebumps, and the song is filled with banging riffs, a glorious singalong chorus of highest quality and a spectacular solo. What the hell else do you need? It's songs like this that make me proud to be a metalhead.
There isn't really a bad song on here though, it's all excellent stuff. The two epic ballads, "Court of the Crimson King" and "Shadows on The Wall" are a bit weird, especially the latter with the pretty shitty distorted vocal parts, but for the most part they both work very well. The first stands out the most, with a strong main riff and heavy middle section.
This is definitely an essential release for any Saxon fan, or any metalhead in general who want to reminisce the old days of the early 80s and Saxon in their prime. And the best part is that even though it sounds as classic as any early Saxon album, it doesn't sound like they're even trying to be nostalgic - they're just still doing their thing, unaffected by modern trends, which is seen in too few bands these days.
The highlight of the band still remains vocalist Biff Byford, who in these days of over-the-top ball-less power metal opera singers and harsh frostbitten churchburner wannabes, stands as one of the most powerful vocalists in the metal scene of today, just as he was at the top of his game way back in the day.
He's also backed up by some excellent musicians, who just works together extremely well, to create a classic of modern heavy metal.
Yes, Saxon has IT. It's hard to describe precisely what "IT" is, but it's the thing that only very few bands have, in their ability to combine competent metal fucking riffage with a dead-on sense of melody. WASP, Fates Warning, Diamond Head, Metal Church, are a few come to mind. And of course Saxon. Saxon have always been straddling the fine line between epic metal and plain old classic balls-out rockers... for every triumphant headbanging crowd pleaser like Denim and Leather, Rock the Nations or Solid Ball of Rock, they have an absurdly cool atmospheric classic like Crusader, The Eagle Has Landed, or 747.
And this album is no exception... from the Sign of the Cross intro of Prelude to War (chased the lust of the earth below...), which then explodes into the monster title track, to the closer, Rock is Our Life, we've got yet another classic Saxon album on our hands. They distance themselves further and further from the disaster that was their middle era (Destiny, anyone?), proving that the Elton John experience was just a temporary lapse. Only very few bands can pull off a comeback, and I think the only band, other than Saxon, that has done it with such conviction and power is perhaps Agent Steel. Production notwithstanding, an album like Killing Ground doesn't just stand triumphantly beside an album like Strong Arm of the Law, it sounds just about the same too. Realising that trends are stupid and changing one's sound is only acceptable if you want late 80s commercial acceptance, Saxon continue on their merry path of not being a fucking mallcore band. This stuff is not just AS classic as, say, Denim and Leather, it is arguably EVEN MORE SO.
Case in point... see the bonus disc. Princess of the Night '01, for example - could you tell that that song was written in 1980? Or, play Dragons Lair from CD1 - does it in any way scream 2001? No, it does not - both are timeless classics of Heavy Fucking Metal the way it is meant to be played. All guts, and all (Deeds of) glory. Classic riffage to make one bang one's head... from the epic stuffs of Killing Ground with its singalong chorus, done with Byfford's unique vocal style (Crusader, Crusader, please take me with you...) to the Cinderella-with-balls-the-size-of-refrigerators treatment of Coming Home, this is all METAL all the time. Stick THAT in your cunt, Gayhem.
I think the only thing this album is missing is the obligatory blazing speed metal number... there is no Unleash the Painkiller to be found here - Dragon's Lair comes close, but is still firmly in the range of classic/power metal. Singalong chorus, melodic licks that aren't cheesy, and of course RIFFAGE.
Highlights... the title track, and Deeds of Glory, two instant classics. Pretty much everything works here. Running for the Border continues their obsession with North American landmarks, and reminds me of a slower, more crushing version of Riot's old metal classic Outlaw, with the chorus of The Eagle has Landed spliced in. Speaking of Riot, there's another band that nobody fucking appreciates. Just like Saxon. Forget Iced Earth. Forget the idiocy of Schaffer - here's a band that's real fucking metal. Classic NWOBHM-tinged stuff... not even Iron Maiden is this good, and this authentic, nowadays. This doesn't sound forced or pretentious at all - this is retro without purposely sounding retro. It just IS. Sure, it's not 1985 now, but who knows what tomorrow might bring.
There's nothing here that'll jolt you into thinking "whoa, what the fuck was that??" In fact, the album on the whole has the subtly familiar "so wait, where did I hear that riff before" feeling at times - nothing revolutionary, but hey, the formula rocked hard in 1980, and it rocks hard today. Indispensable. Get the 2CD version if possible.