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At the end of the 1970's, heavy metal was still in its fledgling years. For the most part, it was spearheaded by to Birmingham bands, Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. But as the 70's became the 80's, metal would have its first breakthrough in Britain. This new wave of British heavy metal bands practicing their trade (creatively titled NWOBHM – or – New Wave of British Heavy Metal) combined the British metal of the 70's and the punk rock or the time which controlled the UK's music scene at the time. It was here that metal would truly take off, as hundreds of bands popped out of seemingly anywhere. Of the hundreds of bands that gave the industry a shot, four of them gained a major foothold in the scene. Those four bands were Angel Witch, Def Leppard, Saxon, and of course Iron Maiden. Though each of the four bands would take a different career path, they all recorded albums in 1980 (being Iron Maiden, Wheels of Steel, Angel Witch, On Through the Night) which today are considered to not only be important to the development of heavy metal, but also some of NWOBHM's top works. Wheels of Steel was Saxon's second full length album, and is seen as one of the band's strongest efforts.
Like many of their NWOBHM counterparts, Saxon's efforts on Wheels of Steel are raw, fist pumping offerings. Energy is the name of Saxon's game, and they make use of this valuable asset quite well. Numbers such as 747 (Strangers in the Night) and the title track use this to their advantage, creating a mid to fast paced adventure for fans of the band to immerse themselves in. There's a very good reason for why Saxon garnered so much acclaim with their sophomore effort, and the solid, consistent rhythms that produce the riffy, yet accessible tunes can be considered one of the major catalysts. Virtually every song contains at least one moment where the Quinn/Oliver guitar tandem shows off their rhythmic talents. Indeed, the riffs create one of the more memorable aspects of the band's music; will be remembered days after listening to the album. For the most part, the different instrumental aspects of the album are quite simple, as is the standard of NWOBHM music, but this does not take away from the music at all, really. Saxon isn't the most impressive band musically, but they're a helluva lot of fun to blare through a stereo.
But the most impressive part of Saxon's attack is by far vocalist Bliff Byford. This powerful singing often sets the tone of the music, whether it be through a strong, proud chorus or a melodic effort in the verses. By far my favourite performance by Byford on Wheels of Steel occurs during the chorus of 747. Very calm concentrated, yet energetic and determined at the same time, Bliff steals the spotlight from the guitarists not only as he sings " We were strangers in the night / Both on separate flights / Strangers in the night (x2) / Lost on separate flights / Going nowhere", but also on tracks such as Suzie Hold On or the title track, Wheels of Steel. Yes, the melodic, yet raw, clean yet rough style of Bliff Byford is most definitely Saxon's greatest strength, and most impressive member.
Though perhaps not one of metal's best albums, Wheels of Steel is still a very worthwhile album. Through driving rhythms, impressive vocal deliveries, and infectious leads, Saxon has succeeded in creating an 39 minute album full of early metal anthems that metal and hard rock fans alike can rock out to. Wheels of Steel was Saxon's breakthrough album and assured that like some of their counterparts, Iron Maiden, Diamond Head, or Angel Witch for instance, they would be remembered years down the road. Unlike today, where the majority of bands attempt live off of the successes of their latest albums for a few years, Saxon did not sit back. Instead they headed right back to the studio to record their third album in to years, Strong Arm of the Law, which was greeted with similar praise as Wheels of Steel. This is a great album, and I would definitely recommend it to fans of rock and metal.
Originally written for Sputnikmusic