So far, Saxon’s industrious career in metal has essentially unfolded in three stages. In the first of these they released eight albums of note, between 1979 and 1986. The first five in particular were awash with enduring gems such as Wheels Of Steel, Princess Of The Night, 20,000 Feet and Strong Arm Of The Law.
Then came the ninth, 1988’s Destiny, a soft-boiled misstep that sounded very much like the band’s last-ditch attempt to sell enough records to appease their label EMI, shortly before they were dropped. We’ve been in Stage Three ever since, with Biff Byford and co. presumably abandoning any dreams they might have of Beverly Hills mansions, and instead revelling in the brute force of traditional heavy metal, plus the major consolation prize of everlasting respect over riches.
Brilliantly, their approach during two decades when all around them was grunge and alt.rock was to keep calm and carry on, unapologetically firing off snub-nosed salvos like Unleash The Beast (1997), Metalhead (1999) and Killing Ground (2001). Their routine has changed little since, and clearly not even a global pandemic could stop this new studio record.
While it was tempting to hope that Carpe Diem would herald some surprising fourth era for Saxon, it’s very much business as usual.
Crucially, though, business is good. Noticeably well-paced, the album has been produced every bit as sharply as you’d expect by long-time collaborator and part-time Judas Priest guitarist Andy Sneap, and the mid-paced bludgeon of Age Of Steam, the blisteringly fast Super Nova and the unusual Black Is The Night steal top honours.
The latter marries the chunky march of a Black Sabbath-esque riff with haunting melodies from Byford, proving that at times Saxon can still exceed expectation.
Sure, there’s predictability here. You can gaze at the album’s track titles and feel confident that Dambusters and Living On The Limit will be fast, while The Pilgrimage and Lady In Gray will be panoramic epics.
You might already have assumed (correctly) that the opening title track, which was also the lead video-single, would involve meat-and-potatoes up-tempo uproar with a catchy chorus hook, but it would be wrong to condemn such a classic band for knowing what works.
As was the case with Motorhead, there’s genuine pleasure to be had in knowing what to expect from salty sea dogs like these. And besides, in a world that feels increasingly unstable, it might have been too much to bear if Saxon had suddenly gone emo.