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Solid, Ballsy Rock - 73%

Tanuki, January 3rd, 2018

Saxon's descent into pop rock mediocrity had been a long time in the making, spanning several years, several studio albums, and finally culminating in a Christopher Cross cover. Such a convoluted, unfructuous web of nonsense isn't something a band can easily untangle with just one album, unless its name happens to be Ironbound. Thus, Solid Ball of Rock is a comeback 'in spirit'. A courageous recital of the band's old x-factors, without question, but still far from a dramatic turnaround from the hi-fi commercialism of Destiny. That'll come later. Put simply, this album is Saxon taking their losses on the chin, refusing to throw in the towel, and proving to their jaded fans that they can still throw a punch.

With much less emphasis on slow, soppy, major-scale affairs this time around, Solid Ball of Rock delivers a pugnacious barrage of hard-charging blues rock. Uptempo tracks like 'Crash Dive' and 'Baptism of Fire' had been well in order ever since Power & the Glory renounced them, and it's such a breath of fresh air here. During these tracks, Biff's throaty hollers sound rejuvenated, and his intrepid exploration of his higher registers sound so much more natural and fitting than the tremulous glam crooning of Crusader and the bulk of Rock the Nations. Not to mention the unexpected scorchers like 'Altar of the Gods' finally puts Nigel Glockler to the test behind the kit.

No kidding, the man had replaced drum dignitary Pete Gill shortly after Denim and Leather, and only now has the soporific songwriting sped up enough to provide any degree of challenge for Glockler. His untapped potential finally gets to flourish with elaborate fills and a dynamic top-game, particularly in the creative change-ups in my favorite track 'Baptism of Fire'. And that's to say nothing of the infectious shuffles he bestows the more rhythmic, bluesier tracks like 'Ain't Gonna Take It' and the title track.

And then there's 'Bavarian Beaver', which is not a hidden Tankard track. Instead, it is quite possibly the best way I've ever heard a band introduce a new bassist. Nibbs Carter, just twenty-two at the time, stepped up to the oche after Paul Johnson jumped ship after Destiny (can't say I blame the guy), and performed an absolutely hypnotic bass instrumental. I don't know what it is; the pacing, the circulating melody somewhat reminiscent of Xentrix's 'For Whose Advantage', or perhaps it's the vibrant bass-oriented production that had been lacking since Innocence is no Excuse. Whatever it is, there's a touch of magic in this track, and I'm honestly weirded out by how often I revisit it.

But before I get too excited with Solid Ball of Rock, I have to remind myself of two things. One, after spending a few days in a Destiny deprivation tank, I could probably find nice things to say about the latest Hellyeah album. Two, I very rarely touch Solid Ball of Rock. And believe me, there's no one more confused about this confession than myself. This album is genuinely stuffed with hits; 'Altar of the Gods' is a real asskicker, not to mention 'Refugee' is proof that Saxon can still write emotional and ambitious ballads, easily able to go toe-to-toe with anything on Innocence Is No Excuse.

I suppose my reluctance to spend much time with this album is simply due to hindsight. This album is the beginnings of Saxon setting things right again. Not much more, and nothing less. That alone makes it worthy of a recommendation, but it's not my favorite of 90's Saxon. Stay tuned, though. Things are about to get pretty wild.