Into The Labyrinth
posted on 1/2009 By:
A full three decades after their debut, NWOBHM mainstay Saxon stands strong among the elder statesmen of metal, with only a handful of equally aged contemporaries who are still consistently this good. Like its immediate predecessor, 2007’s The Inner Sanctum, Labyrinth won’t unseat Wheels Of Steel or Denim & Leather from the top spots in the band’s catalog. Even as solid a ball of rock as it is, it doesn’t live up to the metallic heights of Lionheart or the power and the glory of The Power & The Glory. But like Sanctum, it rocks, and at times, it rocks hard. It is Saxon, after all, and there’s something to be said for that.
I can understand being wary of a Saxon record. Traditionally, they've been notoriously inconsistent—for every streak of kickassery like the four-record run after their first release, there’s the stretch of misguided AOR-metal wussitude that was Innocence Is No Excuse / Rock The Nations / Destiny… (Man, I bet the Saxon guys would like to forget those records as much as we would. They’ve been referenced in every review since about 1995.) Since they came back to the harder edge of things in the mid-90s, Saxon has gotten heavier in their advancing age. Within that progression stands the only real problem with Labyrinth—part of it is more metallic, and part of it is squarely within the band’s trademark boogie-rock, melodic and riffy and arena-ready. Both sides of Labyrinth are enjoyable, but it makes for a disjointed record, sometimes power metal but predominantly hard rock.
Labyrinth opens with the uber-bombastic "Battalions Of Steel," among the catchiest and corniest on hand; its generous use of keyboards and choirs are ridiculous and yet uplifting in that distinctly European way. "Battalions" gives way to the album’s first single, "Live To Rock." Yes, it’s yet another Saxon song about the power of rock and their intense personal dedication to all things rocking. Yes, it’s all AC/DC-esque power chord riff and anthemic chorus and Byford’s gravelly wail, same as the ones before it. Yes, it’s silly, and yes, it’s fun, even if it does last about a full minute too long. The blistering "Demon Sweeney Todd" starts with a delicate intro that worried me at first, until the guitars kicked in and the song became a stand-out. "Valley Of The Kings" is another anthemic goofy metal moment, with a power-metal guitar riff and a soaring half-time Hammerfall chorus, once again laden heavily with keys. "Slow Lane Blues" is another highlight, back to the hard rock side, with its (literally) driving theme and stomping mid-tempo groove. "Protect Yourselves" sports a killer dirty intro riff, and so it goes, back and forth along the hard rock/heavy metal state line, always one step over in either direction, and good either way, even if both sides are more than a bit pompous and cheesy. (For the Saxon devotee, they even cover themselves, offering a "bottleneck version" of Killing Ground’s "Coming Home," performed here as a stripped-down semi-blues number that works surprisingly well.)
On the performance side, Byford’s voice has weathered, but that almost works in his favor. He’s never been the greatest singer on Earth—but he’s always been among the most rocking, and that much at least hasn’t changed. He’s still got the power and most of the range, and he sounds killer here, even at the tender age of 183. (Well, he looks that old.) The band behind him is solid and equally broken in, with guitarist Paul Quinn and drummer Nigel Glockler remaining from the classic days, as well as longtime bassist Nibbs Carter and guitarist Doug Scarratt. (The tandem of Quinn and Scarratt is in especially fine form.)
In 2009, if you already dislike these guys, then there is nothing here that will convince you otherwise. Into The Labyrinth is preaching to Saxon’s choir, and I’m okay with that—I’m a fan; I liked The Inner Sanctum; I like this. If you’re a fan, too, then you’ll like what you hear on Labyrinth. If you’re new to Saxon, this is by no means the best place to start—you can certainly try it out, but I’d recommend wholeheartedly that you also sample the better albums in their canon. (Wheels Of Steel, Strong Arm Of The Law, Denim & Leather, Lionheart, Power & The Glory.) Regardless, Labyrinth is a good record by a good band still going strong.
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