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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Contains some classics, but not their best work
on November 27, 2003
I've been a Saxon fan for well over 20 years, and I've seen all the debate over their lack of major, worldwide success that bands such as Maiden or Priest enjoyed. 'Denim & Leather' holds some of the answers to that burning question of why Saxon never garnered the attention of the bigger bands of the time.
When I speak of Saxon's lineup, I'm talking about the band from 1979-1985. I don't consider anything after 1985's 'Innoncence is No Excuse' to be true Saxon ('Innocence' doesn't have much to do with true Saxon music, though it had a few bright spots). Musicianship was never a question. Graham Oliver & Paul Quinn were the most underrated guitar duo of the New Wave metal bands, Steve Dawson always gave a workman-like (if unspectacular) bass performance, and Pete Gill/Nigel Glockler could thunder with the best. When we get to Biff Byford, however, the problems begin. Byford's voice is best described as a third-rate Ian Gillian knockoff, and he showed weak range & power in his vocals. Trying to carry subject matter & lyrics that were often trite with a weak voice was a drag on the band. You'd never mistake Biff for Rob Halford, Graham Bonnet, or Bruce Dickinson. Biff's best vocal work showed up on 'Power & the Glory'. On to 'Denim & Leather' now.
First, the good stuff. 'D & L' opens with an absolute classic Saxon killer, 'Princess of the Night'. The main riff hits you right in the gut, and after Graham Oliver's ripping solo slaps you upside the head, you're ready to replay the song about 15 times. A Saxon Top 5, hands down. 'Never Surrender' is an angst-ridden trip back to the band's youth that was a hit in the U.K., and a cool song to boot. 'And the Bands Played On' is Saxon's very own 'Smoke on the Water', a tune about their gig at Donnington's Monster's of Rock the previous year. It's a short, rocking song with a catchy main hook riff. 'Fire in the Sky' is a fast-paced, hard-hitting nuclear holocaust tune, comparable to 'Motorcycle Man' in terms of structure. Finally, the title track is a classic Saxon anthem about the New Wave of British Heavy Metal ("where were you in '79/when the dam began to burst/") featuring more piercing solo work by Oliver.
Sadly, this album also began a bad trend for the band. 'Denim & Leather' seemed to start the band's penchant for radio-friendly filler junk songs. 'Rough & Ready' is utter filler garbage that should've stayed on the cutting floor. 'Play it Loud' is a silly attempt at an airplay-friendly anthem, with a laughable main riff. To a lesser extent, 'Out of Control' seems to be the most polished & commercialized track on the album. It's a decent song, but a little weak in the knees (much better than the two mentioned before). Funny how 'Never Surrender' was a hit, when it's glaringly clear that 'Out of Control' was aimed at radio. 'Midnight Rider' isn't bad, but once again comes up a little weak. Think of it as a tamer version of Motley Crue's drivel-anthem 'Girls Girls Girls'. Biff croons about riding a tour bus across the U.S.A., without the raunch of Crue's stupid song. Okay, but nothing that sticks like 'Princess'. 'D & L' is a good album, but it isn't the watershed point that many claim it to be. 'Wheels of Steel' & 'Strong Arm of the Law' were much stronger efforts.
This penchant for including too much filler material became a staple in the band's future releases (with the exception of 'Power & the Glory', which I believe to be the band's finest hour). Too many forgettable songs delivered by a lead vocalist with a forgettable voice were vital components to Saxon's downfall. In the end, the key to their failure was the unwise decision to abandon their strong cult following by shifting gears and penning the radio-friendly, commercial tripe that showed up on 'Crusader' and the next few albums. The title track to 'Crusader' was Saxon's last great anthem. Such a shame for so promising a band. There was a reason Steve Dawson quit after 'Innocence' flopped and created backlash by fans. I guess Byford's proclamations that 'Crusader' & 'Innocence' were indeed sellout attempts at commercial success didn't sit well with Dawson, much like it didn't sit well with fans who stuck by this band. A stronger follow-up to 'Power & the Glory' could've vaulted Saxon to elite status. Well, we'll never know.