Denim and Leather Remembers: Killing Ground, by Saxon (Guest edition)

By Jon Horberry 

Heavy Metal is important to me, perhaps more so than food, oxygen or sleep. And it has been this way as long as I can remember being truly ‘in to’ music. I always felt more comfortable with Def Leppard, Iron Maiden and Metallica than I did with popular artists, rock or otherwise. Perhaps it was my upbringing. Perhaps the Gods intended for it to be this way. Maybe it is actually in my blood, just as Manowar claim it to be in theirs. Either way, the fact is as stated: Heavy Metal is important to me. I wanted to write a music review and I have decided to take on Saxon’s Killing Ground release.

It may not be Saxon's magnum opus, their most popular. or their most musically intricate, but it was my first experience of really listening to Heavy Metal with intent; and in that way it is almost part of me. In many ways the record is the proverbial par with which I base all of my assessments of music on. “Is it good? Yes. But is it as good as Killing Ground?” The album has influenced me both as a music fan and as a musician, as anyone who knows me and knows this album will probably be able to attest. And these are just some of the reasons I chose to begin with this record.

The year is 2001. Grunge, widely regarded as the killer of metal, is long dead. A distant memory cherished or reviled depending which side of the line you stand on. Green Day and The Offspring are just two of the acts fronting up the mainstream of Rock, spikey hair and off key vocals punctuating their punk rock reverie. Nu-Metal is busy asserting itself as the de-facto Heavy sound for the skater/mosher youth, downtuned guitars and hip hop oriented music dominating the airwaves in teenage bedrooms around the world. You have to ask yourself; is Heavy Metal still relevant at this point? Not least a band forged in the fires of the late 70s New Wave Of British Heavy Metal…

The answer? Heavy Metal is always relevant.

The name ‘Saxon’ fell off the radar with the decline of Glam and NWOBHM in the late 80s and 90s, the band still churning out albums (most notably 1995’s Dogs Of War and 97’s Unleash The Beast) with mixed results. 2001’s Killing Ground is a game changer for Saxon, unleashing a sleek, powerful, modern metal sound, still true to the band’s roots; a blueprint for how Saxon would continue to write and perform to this day.

An overture or artillery and machine gun fire opens the proceedings, a clean guitar riff punctuated by the sound of church bells forming the basis of the intro track. This serves beautifully to emphasise the immediacy of the first true track of the album, the title track. Simple, heavy staccato riffing pounds from the speakers, guitars, bass and drums on a war march. Then Biff’s trademark, Yorkshire born, vocals tear into the song; telling a tale of charging into battle, war cry’s raging. Camaraderie, brotherhood and frantic fretwork are the order of the day on this call to arms. Notably, this song includes an extremely atmospheric and well executed bass solo, something seldom heard away from live performances by bands. The next track of the album is a King Crimson cover, the band still obviously humbled by their heroes and influences, demonstrating their maturity and distinct lack of arrogance, despite their high status as Metal ‘Elite’. ‘In The Court Of The Crimson King’ tells a melancholy, medieval tale that slows the record’s pace for a moment (a 6 minute moment), but is in no way boring; instead perfectly displaying the capability of the band to diversify its sound.

Next up, Saxon treat us to two mid paced Hard Rockers that allow the members ample room to flaunt their instrumental prowess in the bluesy ‘Coming Home’ and ‘Hell Freezes Over’ (the former later re-recorded acoustically for the Into the Labyrinth album). Both songs sport well crafted chorus melodies that stick with the listener long after their time has elapsed. ‘The Dragon’s Lair’ takes the album to a new pace, complete with tastefully used double bass kicks and a shreddy guitar solo. The track is somewhat Saxon coming full circle, showing influence from the generation they no doubt influenced; clearly inspired by the pace and dexterity of European bands such as Running Wild, Gamma Ray and Blind Guardian – as even the lyrics may suggest. ‘You Don’t Know What You’ve Got’ brings five minutes of experimentation with downtuned instruments and is overall another bluesy number.

Deeds of Glory’, aside from perhaps the title track, is arguably the high point of the album. Another full force, fast paced, riff filled Metal monster that erupts from the speakers like Mt. Etna hosting a rave. The guitars are heavy, yet immensely melodic, transferring readily from palm muted, staccato riffs, to cleanly picked melodic passages and beyond to intricate guitar solos that would make the fingers of even the most budding guitarists melt. The vocals are beautifully backed by Biff’s own harmonies during the chorus, which sings of the accolades of fallen heroes.

Running for the Border’ again demonstrates the band flexing their musical muscles in the territory of downtuned riffing, with bluesy twists. Lyrically the song doesn’t break any new ground, telling the age old, romanticized tale of escaping across the border of Mexico; but the quality of the songwriting causes the song to resonate with you long after listening. ‘Shadows on the Wall’ is as close as the band gets to the obligatory ballad on Killing Ground, and it is another highlight of the recorded. Whispered prayers and eerie synths give way to heavy, held chords and melancholy keys, before the mournful voice of Byford laments the events of the Hiroshima and the testing of atomic weaponry in New Mexico, over clean guitars. A powerful, downtuned riff, reminiscent of Creed’s heavier work, paves the way for another trademark Saxon chorus – full of melody and harmonized voices.

The closing track of the album is classic Saxon through and through. ‘Rock Is Our Life’ fits perfectly alongside established works such as ‘And the Bands Played On’ and ‘Denim and Leather’ (did I just give away where this site took its namesake from?). The song is a rallying call built for live performance, complete with a stadium rock chorus, self referencing lyrics, gang vocals, pounding drums and very nice guitar hook. Pretentious? If you always have to see the negative side of things; maybe. Damn good fun? Indeed!

While it didn’t set the mainstream world alight, the album is a classic in its own right. It raised hope in the Heavy Metal world that not all of their heroes were dying or falling to the Nu-Metal scene (see Metallica and Judas Priest at this time), and that the style could still stand and fight. Saxon took a modern look at what was seen as an old and dead style, infusing it with up to date production values and musical sounds, whilst maintaining the raw energy of their ‘heyday’. This album served as a beacon of hope for ‘True’ metalheads, and laid the foundations for this portion of Saxon’s career. Let’s put it this way; they haven’t released a questionable offering since…

Devil Horn Rating (Out of five): \m/ \m/ \m/ \m/