Sunday, February 1, 2009

Review: Saxon - Into the Labyrinth (2009)

Saxon [ Website | MySpace | Facebook ]
Into The Labyrinth
SPV/Steamhammer Records

Into The Labyrinth is the 18th studio album that the legendary NWOBHM outfit Saxon has released since forming back in 1977. At this point in their career, the South Yorkshire lads need little introduction since anyone who's familiar with Heavy Metal has at least heard of Saxon, not to mention the impact the band has had on countless musicians over the past couple of decades. Their eponymous debut is widely considered to be the very first album of the NWOBHM era, and more than 30 years later Saxon continues to rock the nations with their balls-out brand of pure Heavy Metal. For those readers who are pressed for time, I'll summarize this review by simply stating that Saxon cannot release a bad album. It's impossible. Go buy Into The Labyrinth. The rest of you, read on...

Into The Labyrinth kicks off with what I feel is one of the best songs of Saxon's career, certainly to be counted among their Top 10. "Battalions Of Steel" opens with a majestic intro before guitarists Paul Quinn and Doug Sacrratt turn up the heat with their patented twin-guitar anthemic riffs. Nigel Glockler's galloping beats keep the song blazing at top speed as Quinn and Scarratt trade heated solos. Iconic frontman Biff Byford is in top form, as always, belting out the chest-pounding choruses with unfeigned conviction. Having placed the bar so high so early, it seems inevitable that the rest of Into The Labyrinth would fail to live up to the opening track. While none of the other songs can match "Battalions Of Steel" in intensity, the remainder of the album is far from ordinary.

The backbone of Saxon's sound is of course Quinn and Scarratt's dual-guitar assault. With the exception of the acoustic, Bayou-blues rendition of the Killing Ground track "Coming Home" that closes out the album, the axemen's presence is a force to be reckoned with throughout Into The Labyrinth. Whether laying down traditional hard rock riffs on "Live To Rock" (which is sure to be a concert favorite) or thrashing it up on "Demon Sweeney Todd", these guys prove yet again that they are masters of the riff. As integral to Saxon's identity as their six-stringers are, Byford consistently gives an instantly recognizable face and voice to the band's music. The years have been remarkably kind to Byford's pipes, and while he occasionally exhibits a bit of a Brian Johnson (AC/DC) rawness now and then, his voice remains as familiar and as strong as ever.

Highlights lurk everywhere on Into The Labyrinth. The epic "Valley Of The Kings" features soaring choruses and guitar solos with a slight Egyptian melody to them, while "Slow Lane Blues" is a bluesy rock throwback with plenty of chugging riffs. "Hellcat" stands out for Quinn and Scarratt's Gatling-gun riffs and wildly unrestrained solos, though the most sinister riffs can be heard on "Crime Of Passion". What would a NWOBHM album be without a power ballad? "Voice" fills that role on this release, yet remains a solid track thanks to some groovy sway and swagger. The only lackluster song on the album (aside from the two sub-minute interludes) is "Protect Yourselves". The riffs are unquestionably heavy, but the track just doesn't live up to the standard set by the other songs on the disc.

Into The Labyrinth is not a classic of the genre, nor is it Saxon's magnum opus (that remains a toss-up between Denim and Leather and Strong Arm of the Law), but it is a helluva strong Heavy Metal album. As long as Saxon has been churning out metal, and as many bands as they've influenced, it seems like quite an injustice that they've toiled in the shadows of other NWOBHM legends such as Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. Maybe it's poetic justice then that 30 years later Saxon is still cranking out kick-ass albums while the aforementioned bands have lost much (if not all) of their momentum. Bottom line - even though Saxon is my favorite '80s metal band, Into The Labyrinth is an album that absolutely needs to be in the collection of every self-respecting metalhead.

Track Listing
1Battlions Of Steel6:34
2Live To Rock5:30
3Demon Sweeney Todd3:51
4The Letter0:42
5Valley Of The Kings5:03
6Slow Lane Blues4:08
7Crime Of Passion4:04
8Premonition in D Minor0:40
10Protect Yourselves3:56
12Come Rock Of Ages (The Circle Is Complete)3:52
13Coming Home (Bottleneck Version)3:12
Total Runtime50:01

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