Come on ride the rebel / Raise the Texas yell,
When you think of hard rocking heavy metal, fist pumping, head banging, bad ass, balls to the wall "noize," what bands come to mind? Most seasoned music fans get visions of a jumping Robert Plant and a jiving Jimmy Page in their head, while others see Ozzy's lunatic fringe freak-outs, Satan symbols thrust in the air and deer in the headlight eyes starring blindly into the open maw of massive public admiration. There could be a few who, having weaned at the teat of disco as craven little children of the late 1970s, found their dog collar calling in the hairspray and teasing combs of '80s pop metal. There, bands like Bon Jovi, Winger, and Motley Crüe made the coiffeur and non-threatening Tiger Beat bawdiness a hallmark of air guitar dreams. But facing off on the sidelines of popular acceptance were two distinct and divergent areas of alternative arena rock. In the US West and European East, thrash and/or death metal became a unique underground unifier, meshing those disenfranchised at home with others less than happy with punk's poseur proclivities. And then there was the entire British hard rock scene, a pub based panzer of beer and blue jean blasted football hooligans who stole Slade and Sweet's entire back catalog and inserted an angry life spent on the dole into the mega-mix. More a direct response to the New Romantic/blissfully unaware Blitz kid movement clogging the club scenes with make-up artists in training, groups like Venom, Girlschool, and Saxon taught the dentally challenged channel monkeys how to hammer the gods with neo-civilized delight. But that was over twenty years ago. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, music was so much older then, it's better than that now (perhaps).
So, a quarter century later one just has to ask…Good Gravy Marie! Who in the wide wild world of wet nurses is still a fan of Saxon? Or better yet, what Neanderthal or neophyte metalhead, when faced with the plethora of P.O.D.s and lunchboxes of Limp Bizkit, still longs to see a group of aging old English farts drone on like dinosaur turds? It's not like there's a homosexual angle to explore, like a regrouped Judas Priest could provide or the angry Eddie skeletal shriek mixed with raging environmentalism of an Iron Maiden. Indeed, about the only facet of forced fun this guitar and bass infirmary could provide now is a Surgeon General's warning about musicians taking the talentless tactics of This is Spinal Tap too seriously. As the decades dance by and music mutates into genre busting combos of country and rap (crap) or blues and punk (bunk), the notion of elderly English types cock rocking your local college student union in a mad attempt to recapture some faded glory reeks of pitiful desperation…or the recent Ratt/Poison revival tour. Heavy metal is music of a time, usually associated with male puberty, drunken bar fights, and anti-social mass murdering. It's not serious, sarcastic, overly post-modern, or glibly ironic. Those who choose to continue on long after the cowhide has cracked and comb-overs are required to maintain the massive mane of man fur are destined for mockery, alcohol poisoning, and semi-successful tours of Japan (those saints of the Rising son—many a Uriah and a Tull have kept up their house and ex-wives payments and thoughts of retirement artificially suspended thanks to tours of the tiny island of techies). But then you pop on this DVD and there they are in all their denim and leather lethargy, the United Kingdom's numbskulled namesake, strutting and fretting their sour sop for over an hour upon the stage for all the world to chortle over. And never once understanding that the joke is all over them.
Part of the problem with the live concert portion of The Saxon Chronicles is the notion that 17 or so songs, all played at the same tempo with the same boot stomp riffing and head aching castrati karaoke vocals, would entertain anyone outside the legions of confirmed Saxonites, or Samsonites, or Sacagaweas—whatever they are called. Maybe a post-Communism crowd who used to have to listen to Joseph Stalin sing show tunes for 40-plus years would appreciate this rump and happenstance. But it's hard to think that in this day and age, with all its thrash dance beat hip hopping, that five white guys of varying middle ages and stages of Guinness bloat could still command a concert hall. If acts like Aerosmith and Metallica have taught us anything, aside from how to have massive contempt for the file trading fans who made them multi-gagillion-aires in the first place, it's that hard rock can grow and evolve into something much more successful and subtle, existing outside the standard "let's party 'til I projectile" parameters. But obviously Saxon is stuck somewhere between Dee Snider's twisted drag act and Blackie Lawless's buzzsaw codpiece. They want to raise a fisted glove and bite the backsides off bilge rats in order to keep his Satanic majesty's request filled properly. And you're not even getting the real thing here. This is like New Coke or Vanilla Ice: it's a pale, paltry imitation of the actual entity, in this case, the angry young men in spandex experience. There is only one other founding member of Saxon on stage with lead singer Biff Byford (Rock Rule of Thumb #1: No God of Heavy Metal is ever to be named "Biff"). The rest have gone off to take the piss out of this traveling trick by creating the animus act Oliver/Dawson Saxon.
So just why should someone outside the Saxon fold buy this DVD set? The answer is clear. You wouldn't and shouldn't. If you love Saxon, following them from the early days of Wheels of Steel, up through Crusader and even the more recent Metalhead and Killing Ground, you will want, worship and treasure the treat that Steamhammer Records has provided here. But if you can't hear the band's name without thinking of "Anglo," "John," or "Egbert the" (look it up people), then your digital dime would perhaps be better spent on The Osmond Family Christmas Extravaganza: 4 Disc Special Edition. Only the converted will consider the concert and context material here worth the price of admission.
This two DVD test of temperament represents a 97-minute concert performance from the group's headliner slot at the 2001 W.O.A. (Wacken Open Air) Festival as its main feature. Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1 and beautifully transferred, this is a nice looking concert film. Not that there are any innovative strategies to how the performance is captured: this is your standard point and shoot and cut and shoot and cut again short attention span multi-angle nightmare. When will directors learn that the crowd comes to see the musicians', not the editors', technical prowess? All this jumping just tires everyone out. Sound wise, Saxon is a decent, if sometimes sloppy, sonic sludgefest that is perfectly captured by the Dolby Digital 5.1 and PCM Stereo. If push comes to shout, use the 5.1, as it tends to add the needed spatial aspects that make the DVD presentation seem more "outdoor stadium-esque." Disc One also contains an interview with Byford (who never once mentions the band's legal and member issues—fancy that) and a nice discography. It's too bad a commentary track couldn't have been included. Aside from a flaming reliance on the F-word, both on and off stage, Byford doesn't have a lot to say about being a Heavy Metal monster.
Disc Two does have a few fine moments, though. First we get a 36-minute snippet of the band's 1995 world tour, including three extra live songs from the Esbjerg Festival (what is it with the European's, both Eastern and Western, and heavy metal festivals?) of which only "747" we've not seen and heard before. This life on the road routine is fairly rote but it is nice to see the band interacting with people and acting like normal human beings. The Saxon Video history is 35 minutes of mind-bendingly bad music movies from that decade of delirium, the 1980s, which proves that MTV spawned more than its fair share of unbelievably incompetent cinematic silliness. Especially enjoyable in all their unfettered cheesiness are clips for "Suzie Hold On," "Power and the Glory" (featuring the band in full Buck Rodgers regalia), and the "glad that they're dead" rock star tribute "We Will Remember." Even better is the Saxon TV chronicle, which allows you to see the band metamorphosize from gangly youths to grown up gobs in one 16 minute montage. The most priceless moment is Breakfast with Biff, where a British version of the Today show hangs out with the aging rocker at his palatial estate, which looks like it could use a visit from the Ground Force. There are three minutes of Saxon photos (in a rather creative slide show) and five minutes of press clippings (which you can't really read, but are presented in that wonderful old hoary cliché of the spinning newspaper). With DVD-Rom content and a huge photo/scrapbook (both unavailable to this critic) it's the second section of Saxon's saga that makes this DVD set an interesting testament to a time when metal meant tight pants, high voices, and stupid beat brat attitudes.
The Saxon Chronicles therefore becomes a non-reviewable work of wasted energies—to attack is to aggravate fans and to be accused of missing the point. But to praise it without enjoying its music or sense of film style seems counterproductive to the notion of being a critic. So let's call it a draw and hope that as the years pass by more niche groups from long forgotten moments in musical history don't release a two-DVD retrospective of their mediocre career and hope someone pays attention to it. What's next? The Anti-Nowhere League's Songs for Stupid Sods Compilation?
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Scales of Justice
• Interview with Biff Byford
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