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Lion's Pride - 96%

Tanuki, January 13th, 2018

Saxon's storied career was beginning to resemble a Sphinxian riddle: What flounders in the 80's, flourishes in the 90's, and delivers their most finely-crafted album in the mid-00's? I'm sure adventurers would be quite annoyed at what a subjective Sphinx I am, but that's because they didn't study up on their Saxon, and probably insist Crusader is an underappreciated classic. Speaking of which, exactly twenty years after Paul Quinn and Graham Oliver first switched off their amps to play sluggardly major-scale chords in the background of Biff's lounge singing, the same band crafted the shimmering masterpiece called Lionheart. The only way I could adequately describe the feelings I have for this creative juggernaut? Iron striking metal. The sound of racing steel. It's all I ever wanna hear. It's music to my ears.

This is in part due to the superb musicianship, but mostly the immense variety. For a band so often derided for never leaving their comfort zone, Lionheart offers listeners soaring power metal dynamism throughout the title track, moody, Danzig affectations in the gothic 'Beyond the Grave' single, and even some light flirting with progressive metal in 'Man and Machine'. No matter the subgenre, Paul Quinn and Doug Scarratt deliver some of their most memorable riffs of their career, perfectly blending Unleash the Beast's potency with the faithful blues temperance of Wheels of Steel. Nowhere is this more evident than on my personal favorite track 'Searching for Atlantis'. Listen if you dare, because those potent tremolo riffs will be embedded into your memory forever. Even better still? Biff now possesses the vocal range of a VTOL.

I've said it once, I'll say it on my death bed: disparage Biff's glam rock croaking throughout the 80's all you want. In fact, I'll do it for you: It was really bad. But you know what it was, more than anything? Imposturous. Because in 2004, when Biff was well into his fifties, he cemented his ability to belt out mountain-splitting notes with all the range, emotion, and raw power of men half his age. I was going to say "of Bruce Dickinson", but I chickened out. The crescendo of 'To Live by the Sword' scintillates with stratospheric head voice, and the gloom and doom of 'Beyond the Grave' booms with baritone that would show up on the Richter scale. Biff's lungs have me convinced the track 'Man and Machine' is autobiographical.

And finally, I couldn't help but notice the drumkit is bathed in some sort of cosmic, holy light? Saxon's always enjoyed an enviable roster of talented drummers, but Jörg Michael was their very first drum god. I care less of his main claim to fame as the drummer for Stratovarius, and more for his mad percussion in the burgeoning Mekong Delta. His cybernetic timekeeping and polyrhythms switch duties from the maniacal thrash band to the comparatively reserved Saxon. And it is glorious. From the steamrolling kicks in 'Witchfinder General', to the pulse-pounding rhythm of 'Justice', even down to the slower bluesy rhythms throughout the massive 'Flying on the Edge', Lionheart is an unrelenting artillery barrage of solid gold drumwork.

I suppose every long-established band is destined to have this kind of triumph. This out-of-the-blue zenith that transcends all expectations and shows the world that consistency isn't the only thing this band is good at. Riot V's Thundersteel, Rage's Soundchaser, Motörhead's Inferno, and I wouldn't be a Saxon fan if I didn't add Lionheart to this pantheon of heavy metal royalty. If this Saxon retrospective convinces you to listen to just one Saxon album, do me a solid and let it be Lionheart.