Thirty-four years after their debut self-titled album, Saxon continue to be one of the principal flag-bearers of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. No hiatuses. No succumbing to changing trends and styles. Just crunchy, guitar-driven metal that adds to their legacy -- and is cause for frequent trips to San Antonio. A staple of the early metal scene in the Alamo City, Saxon also has headlined two of the four South Texas Rock Fests (2009 and 2011).
Get ready for another likely visit in 2013.
Saxon's 20th album Sacrifice is an electric, take-no-prisoners heavy follow-up to 2011's stellar Call To Arms set for release March 26. Co-produced by Andy Sneap and vocalist Biff Byford, the 10-song effort highlighted by the title track, "Made In Belfast" and "Stand Up And Fight" was recorded in Yorkshire, England. It includes five bonus classic re-recordings (see track listing and click on video screen, both at bottom, for more).
In between those albums, Saxon (Byford, original guitarist Paul Quinn, guitarist Doug Scarratt, bassist Tim "Nibbs" Carter and drummer Nigel Glockler) released "Heavy Metal Thunder: The movie" which featured a career retrospective that included former members Graham Oliver and Steve "Dobby" Dawson in their own words, plus full concerts from 1981 and 2008. It even has humorous anecdotes about the band's unorthodox backstage beverage of choice.
For the second time in 16-plus months, I spoke with Byford, 62, on Valentine's Day while he was in the UK:
Hello, Biff! It's always a pleasure. Thanks for taking the time, and congrats on the album. I've been enjoying it.
Thanks. Glad you like it!
Q: Saxon continues to churn out incredible metal after all these years, and this is another solid effort up and down from the title track, to "Made In Belfast," "Warriors of the Road," on and on. Do you have a favorite?
A: It changes, really. "Made In Belfast" starts with a Celtic mandolin, then goes into bone-crunching metal. "Warriors of the Road" is cool.
Q: I really like "Stand Up And Fight" as well. Is the sacrifice theme as a whole keeping with the military theme found on Call To Arms, or is it more of a commentary on your coal-mining days?
A: No, each song is different, really, and sound like a little story. "Stand Up And Fight" -- people keep asking how we've been together so many years. That is spoken here.
Q: Is it true the album has been pushed back to March 26 (from Feb. 26)?
A: Yeah, we had a problem with the booklet printing. We weren't real happy with it, so we had to put it back. It had to be put that far back in America. Something to do with it takes two weeks to get booklets or something like that.
One of my favorite parts of the movie was when your former manager David Poxon described the first time he saw Saxon in concert more than 30 years ago . . .
He's a quite funny guy, actually.
Q: Yes! His quote was: "I was actually underwhelmed, because they didn't look like you would expect a rock band to look in any way shape or form. They looked slightly strange. They actually looked like a gang of bricklayers . . . that had just happened to be on stage by mistake. A couple of them were going a bit thin on top. A couple of them had (the) kind of mustaches which made them look like reject American motorcycle cops. (Biff laughs) Leading this chaos -- which it was chaos -- was a very tall guy that was performing like a rocket-fueled squid with a high-pitched voice." (Biff laughs again). Then he described how he was forced to drink tea and listen to your life story for five hours. How did you convince him to become your manager, and what comes to mind when you look back at that?
A: Well, not a lot, really. He was more of the sixth member of the band. But yeah, he was a good guy. Some of his ideas were very strange. We were very, very successful, so obviously, he was doing something right for awhile.
Q: One of my social media readers, Paul from San Antonio, wanted me to ask you about the possibility of a reunion with Graham and Dobby. But I told him that you dissected that in the movie and were pretty outspoken about them and keeping the band's legacy. My question for you is, after editing and watching all the footage the past year or two and seeing how heavily their recent interviews were a part of the documentary, do you feel any different today?
A: Not really, no. I don't feel anything from that. All I can say -- in the movie, I don't really have a problem with Steve Dawson anyway. I mean, I didn't know why he left in the first place. The manager sacked him. But you know, I mean, Graham Oliver has a lot of -- Graham Oliver has a lot of, sort of, he needs to dig deep. He starts to forget about parts a little. But yeah, maybe one-off gigs sometime. They'd have to get real (laughs), if you know what I mean. Can't expect to walk on stage and walk off.
Q: When was the last time you spoke with those guys?
A: Probably around the time we did the video. A couple years ago.
In the movie, you guys spoke about Saxon's attempt to conquer America and be more accessible. "Just Let Me Rock" is one of those tunes considered to have come out during that time, and you've done a re-recorded version on Sacrifice.
More heavier. There's a lot more goods to it.
Q: (Laughs) Well, that's what I was about to ask. Did you try to find a mix of staying true to its original sound but still trying to be heavier?
A: Not really. We just gave it a little more treatment. You can't change too much. The original is a bit silly in parts, and the original, we wanted it to sound really heavy. So that's what we did, yeah.
Q: You took part in Metallica's 30th anniversary shows in December 2011 in San Francisco, singing "Motorcycle Man" with them. That was the day after you were in Helsinki. How did you pull that off?
A: Well, you gain hours. I got on a plane in Helsinki in the morning and flew to San Francisco. We rehearsed in the afternoon. They gave me tea. I don't know why they gave me tea. And a glass of wine. Yeah, It was great. We rehearsed it for, I don't know, around 15 minutes. Then we went down to the venue. Then got on a plane and went back to Poland and just made it about an hour before we went on stage.
Q: And you played a full two-hour show in Poland?
A: That's right. If there had been any delay, I would have missed it.
Q: No jet lag for you?
A: Tons of jet lag. But you don't feel it when you get adrenalized.
Q: I hope no one jumped up on stage like during the St. Georges 2008 footage in the movie. That fan was dancing with you and Paul for 26 seconds (Biff laughs). I was practically yelling at my TV, "WHERE IS SECURITY?" before one guy appeared and gently escorted the fan off. After what happened to Dimebag and what Randy Blythe is going through in the Czech Republic now, do moments like that concern you?
A: Eh, not really, no. You are a little bit worried, but you tend to look at what they're carrying when they come on.
Q: The South Texas Rock Fest has taken place here four of the past five years, and Saxon has headlined two of them. Can we expect a return visit when your U.S. tour kicks off?
A: Yeah, definitely. We just signed with a new agent. I think we were going to play San Antone sometime in March, but it didn't work out. I think we couldn't find a place that had strong supports. If we can't get in in May, it will be in September or October. Keep our fingers crossed. We could come in tomorrow, but you just have to pay eight, $9,000 for a work visa. You'd lose your money by the time you get there.
Q: When you and I spoke the last time in 2011 before that Fest (see link in blue below), you mentioned the time one of your guitarists fell in the River Walk. Can you elaborate for me this time?
A: (Laughs) I think it was Quinn. Was it Quinn? Fell in the River Walk, yeah. It's a bit shallow. He left a mess there. It's pretty muddy down there. A river winding through -- we actually wondered about what monsters lived down there.
Q: Do you remember what year that was?
A: Can't remember, no. I might be able to but, nah, I've done too many interviews.
Well, for Donington, you wrote "And the Bands Played On." Maybe as often as you've come here, you can write a song about the South Texas Rock Fest or all your visits here.
Yeah! I need to research it and look up war cries or sayings or things like that.
I'd be happy to help!
Yeah, well, there are the obvious ones like the Alamo and the River Walk. The sort of things you have to see when you get down there.
Well, thank you so much, Biff. Best of luck with the album and tour. You know, you're always welcome in San Antonio; I know you know that.
We love San Antonio, you know that. We'd be there tomorrow if we could. Say hello to everybody, and keep the faith. Bye!
SACRIFICE track listing:
1. Procession; 2. Sacrifice; 3. Made In Belfast; 4. Warriors of the Road; 5. Guardians of the Tomb; 6. Stand Up and Fight; 7. Walking the Steel; 8. Night of the Wolf; 9. Wheels of Terror; 10. Standing in a Queue. BONUS TRACKS: 11. Crusader (orchestrated version); 12. Just Let Me Rock (re-recorded); 13. Requiem (acoustic); 14. Frozen Rainbow (acoustic); 15. Forever Free (re-recorded).
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