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Set the Spirit Free - 84%

Tanuki, July 20th, 2017
Written based on this version: 2009, CD, EMI (Remastered)

What abundant truth there is in "Denim and Leather brought us all together". It was this album, Saxon's fourth in two years, that turned Saxon fans into Saxon cultists, abiding in the gospel of their sanctified 80-81 trinity. As solemn as the chants of praise are, I'm afraid there lurks some dodgy scripture in the fourth book of Saxon. Although no less sleazy nor catchy, a tidier production and more anthemic tracks tend to denominate Denim and Leather as Saxon's first outing for business rather than pleasure.

I'll keep the history lesson brief: after steamrolling their way through the nascent scene with three big-balled albums released practically on top of each other, not to mention a damn-near perpetual touring schedule to promote each one, Saxon earned themselves a bit of breathing room in the ensuing NWOBHM frenzy. They took their time with Denim and Leather. They enjoyed some lunch, a comparably lenient recording schedule, and most pertinently of all, a healthier recording budget. And thus, Saxon's 'commercial sound' began to form.

Not that I'm complaining, of course. As any Saxon fan knows, their next album sounds as lively as an elephant graveyard on Mars, so the spick-and-span glam sound of 'Midnight Rider' and 'Play it Loud' is by far the lesser of two evils. What's more, I don't use the word 'glam' as a pejorative in this context. Yes, Denim and Leather is accessible, and yes, it resulted in Biff Byford wearing some of the world's worst pants, but it also created two of the finest songs of Saxon's entire career. I of course refer to the unequivocally 'glammy' singles: the infectious power ballad 'And the Bands Played On', and my all-time number one favorite Saxon song of all goddamn time, 'Princess of the Night'.

The latter track boasts a host of intriguing experimentation. Up until this point, Saxon riffs were characterized by roughness and beefiness, yet now they're mostly palm-muted and delivered relatively subtly. It's still rock 'n' roll, by and large, but it's amazing to think how far Denim and Leather has strayed from previous efforts in such a short amount of time. Biff also follows more adventurous, harmonizing lines with a smoothness and vibrato usually designated to his ballads. And I can't overstate the skill of Pete Gill, who controls fantastic polyrhythms just as effortlessly as the pulse-pounding kicks in the bridge. Sadly this would be Pete Gill's last album with Saxon, later performing - albeit briefly - for the mighty Motörhead.

Sadly, the glam affectations came at a price. I've grown accustomed to a more equitable ratio of fast and slow tracks, and Denim and Leather is undoubtedly biased toward the mid-tempo rockers. If you'll excuse my blasphemy, the title track is by far the worst cuplrit. I'm no stranger to cheese, but the bit where Biff describes each part of a metal band with the corresponding instrument playing is just wretched. It's like something out of a children's TV show. But I'll go ahead and shut up now, because I need to save my anger for the rest of Saxon's 80's discography. The blundering mountain of AOR we're about to hike is daunting, to say the least.