Saxon: Metalhead - Album Of The Week Club review

The dark Metalhead is another highlight from British metal veterans Saxon's late-career purple patch

Metalhead cover art
(Image: © SPV/Steamhammer)

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Saxon: Metalhead

Saxon: Metalhead

(Image credit: SPV/Steamhammer)

Are We Travellers In Time
What Goes Around
Song Of Evil
All Guns Blazing
Piss Off
Watching You
Sea Of Life

A heavier, darker record than most Saxon albums that preceded it, 1999's Metalhead made a bold statement about the band’s intention to give obsolescence the finger, while showcasing a renewed sharpness in the songwriting. 

"This was the first of what I would call our dark albums," frontman Biff Byford told us. "Doug [Scarratt, guitar] by then was firmly bedded down in the band, and as result played a bigger role on the writing side. I was also interested in different subjects lyrically to what I had been previously writing about. So, there are songs here about spirituality and aliens. 

"For me, this was a benchmark album for the way we sounded. I know from talking to musicians that it was very much loved by a lot of other bands.”

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Other albums released in November 1999

  • 6:66 Satan's Child - Danzig
  • The Battle of Los Angeles - Rage Against the Machine
  • Scream for Me Brazil - Bruce Dickinson
  • This Desert Life - Counting Crows
  • There Is Nothing Left To Lose - Foo Fighters
  • Live at Sturgis - 38 Special
  • - Marillion
  • The Last Tour On Earth - Marilyn Manson
  • Issues - Korn
  • Live... With a Little Help from Our Friends - Gov't Mule
  • Alchemy - Yngwie Malmsteen
  • Blue - Third Eye Blind
  • Hampton Comes Alive - Phish
  • Listener Supported - Dave Matthews Band
  • IX Equilibrium - Emperor
  • Live Era: '87-'93 - Guns N' Roses
  • S&M - Metallica with the San Francisco Symphony
  • The Millennium Bell - Mike Oldfield


What they said...

"Much as Painkiller revitalised Judas Priest's sound with more bite and energy than any of their work prior, Metalhead serves as Saxon's most starkly different album, certainly taking note of its place in a post-thrash world. Heavy, fast, and still just a bit goofy, it tidily wraps up Saxon's run in the 90s on a high note." (SputnikMusic)

"There’s really no duds here, this is a full-on classic metal album, with great tracks like All Guns Blazing (killer intro) , Watching You, and epic finale Sea Of Life. Love the production, the big guitar sound, Biff’s distinctive voice; it all worked so well." (Outsider Rock)

"Some inevitable clunkers (Piss Off and the forgettable Watching You) and a sense of solid proficiency prevent it ranking alongside inspired classics like Power & The Glory. But with Metalhead Saxon made their strongest, timeliest statement of the decade. I’ll bang my head to that." (Heavy Metal Overload)


What you said...

Gary Claydon: It's been a long and eventful journey following Saxon, starting back in their Son Of A Bitch days. I saw their last gig under that name, at Barnsley Civic just before Xmas 1978. A few months later, it was back to the same venue to watch Saxon celebrate the release of their debut album. They have been a constant in my record buying and gig-going right up to this year, which has been bookended with excellent live dates plus yet another good album.

So what were the high points? Undoubtedly the early 80s, in particular 1980, their annus mirabilis. Two genuinely classic albums, high profile support slots - with Rainbow and Whitesnake ( in the UK), Rush, Sabbath and B.O.C. (in the U.S.) - then sell-out headline tours of their own at the U.K.'s top venues. Mixed in was an appearance at the famous Heavy Metal Barn Dance plus, of course, a slot at the inaugural Monsters of Rock festival at Donington Park. Chuck in chart success and the ultimate sign that you've arrived - an appearance on Top of the Pops. Heady stuff.

Low point? Has to be the noughties, a decade that was particularly unkind to hard rock and metal bands. For Saxon that led to the whole 'Get Your Act Together With Harvey Goldsmith' debacle with the nadir being the world record attempt for mass air guitaring. This took place at a Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland football match in January 2007. It saw the band miming to If I Was You in the middle of the pitch while the crowd were encouraged to air guitar along with them. It all went badly tits-up. I was there that day and felt bad for the band but yes, I'm very happy to admit, I was one of the few in the crowd to join in with the air guitaring. Apparently we were Guinness World Record holders at the time. Rock'n'roll.

So what about the preceding decade? The 90s weren't exactly a roaring success for Saxon to begin with either. Their ill-judged attempt at a more commercial sound in the mid-80s, aimed squarely at America, had alienated a large part of their fanbase without ever threatening to achieve the desired result. Though the 90s started somewhat inauspiciously, through sheer hard work (so much so that poor old Nigel Glockler's arms damn near fell off!) and a sound that evolved into something much heavier, more solidly metallic, they gradually re-established their credentials, as well as connecting with the fans. The result? Two of their better albums, 1997's Unleash The Beast and 1999's Metalhead.

I admit, I have a slight preference for the former but there is very little in it. Metalhead is a fine album, full of crunching, riff-tastic metal.

The outstanding title track sets the tone in mighty fashion and there is little let-up thereafter. Are We Travellers In Time, Conquistador and the epic closer Sea Of Life are other particular highlights. There are one or two missteps along the way. Watching You plods a bit, Piss Off is pretty run of the mill (not helped by slightly cringeworthy lyrics) and Prisoner is probably the weakest track here. In truth, though, they don't detract too much from what is, overall, a very good album. Biff is on fine form, the twin guitar attack of Quinn and Scarrett hits suitably hard. The rhythm section of Nibbs Carter and Fritz Randow (standing in for the incapacitated Glockler) do a sterling job.

Metalhead is a different beast to Saxon's early 80s output and while it doesn't reach the heights of their very best work, it is a fine addition to the band's canon. Now, where did I put that air guitar?

Chris Downie: Never a band to shy away from their unashamedly boisterous Heavy Metal roots, despite a brief flirtation with AOR production values on 1988's Destiny album, Saxon have released a number of albums in which their working class NWOBHM ethics are front and centre. This effort is no exception, exemplified by the call-to-arms of the title track.

While there was admittedly a dip in quality in their output from the aforementioned Destiny to decent, but unremarkable, 90's releases like Solid Ball Of Rock and Dogs Of War, there was a turning point of sorts when they delivered an impressive return to form in 1997's Unleash The Beast, in an era where contemporaries were either long forgotten, or in the case of Priest and Maiden, having a midlife crisis among the tidal waves of US grunge and a resurgent Euro power metal scene. In short, they found an impressive balanc in modernising their sound while sacrificing none of their identity or integrity.

It would be fair to say 1999's Metalhead is a suitable companion piece to the latter. There are nods to their 1984 classic Crusader on Conquistador and on Piss Off they evoke the spirit of Unleash The Beast's Ministry of Fools. It is this ability to both retain and modernise their roots, in a way that alienated few, if any, diehards, that saw Saxon stand tall among then-emerging talents such as Hammerfall and Primal Fear and thus ensure their longevity.

If there is one criticism to be had here, it is that it is in many ways a consolidation of - rather than a continuing evolution from - its predecessor. An encore and victory lap, if you will. In the catalogue of most bands this would be a definitive 8/10, but when one considers the history of this band, from the legendary Wheels Of Steel and Denim And Leather, to fantastic efforts like Power And The Glory and (the admittedly slightly over-produced) Innocence Is No Excuse, it is a solid and respectable 7/10.

John Davidson: By the mid 80s I had written Saxon off as high school metal. The kind of thing that was already in my rearview mirror as I looked for more "sophisticated music" that suited my lifestyle as a yuppy grownup (I know, I know). It's a pity as I missed out on a fair few bands and albums at the time.

By the 90s I was back in touch with metal but still didn't seek out Saxon. This album is surprisingly good. The sometimes plodding style of their output seems to be entirely gone and this is a much crunchier set of songs than I expected. The lyrical themes are very in genre (aliens, ancient warriors , war, evil) but that's ok - I still like those things myself.

There's not really a standout for me that I'd pull out and play on repeat but it's a solid and enjoyable album. 7/10.

Mike Canoe: For the longest time, Saxon, to me, meant the albums Wheels Of Steel, Strong Arm Of The Law, and Denim And Leather. That changed when I finally saw them live in early 2018. While they didn't play anything from Metalhead that night, newer songs like Thunderbolt, Sacrifice, and the jaw-dropping Battering Ram made me realize that I was cheating myself by focusing on the band's first three albums of the 80s.

As someone who really likes and actually prefers Saxon's more metallic music, Metalhead is pretty perfect. The "more metal" move especially suits Biff Byford's singing and lyric writing. Whether the menacing aliens of the title track, the surveillance state paranoia of Watching You, or the anthemic Conquistador, Byford writes lyrics I want to pay attention to. I even did some fruitless Googling to figure out who the excellent Song Of Evil is about. And then there's the epic closer, Sea Of Life, which combines the death imagery of Greek mythology with "a single silent bullet flying through the air." Absolutely stunning.

The music is equally stunning. The still relatively new Doug Scarrat meshes perfectly with veterans Byford, Paul Quinn, and Nibbs Carter. Special kudos to drummer Fritz Randow who successfully sat in for the injured Nigel Glockler.

It cheers my heart that this lineup (plus Glockner) is still touring and recording. The world is a better place for bands like Saxon being in it. As Biff himself might tell you, carpe diem.

Alex Hayes: Saxon are nothing less than one of the all-time great British metal institutions. The timing of this week's review couldn't really be better to be honest, even if I do say so myself. It comes hot on the heels of the band's very successful Seize The Day tour, a jaunt that found Saxon performing before large (and very enthusiastic) audiences, the length and breadth of the country. All in support of the band's genuinely superb recent album, Carpe Diem. It's 2022, and Saxon are a band firing on all cylinders. Seize the day indeed.

I went to the gig at King Georges Hall in Blackburn on the 19th of November. Needless to say, it was a fabulous night, the icing on the cake being the firm realisation that these were good times indeed to be a Saxon fan. The band's current profile is finally, finally, somewhere close to where it always should have been. I only recently got around to watching the group (Biff in particular) butting heads with Harvey Goldsmith in the Get Your Act Together documentary from 2007, and, hey, what do you know? It happened. They made their way back to the top. Sometimes the good guys really do win.

As a quick aside, a big shout out to Diamond Head, Saxon's support for the recent tour. I've long been a big fan of their classic Lightning To The Nations album, and getting to finally see the band live was a proper bucket list moment. Cheers lads.

Anyway, back to Saxon. I actually came to the band relatively late, certainly much later than Iron Maiden and Def Leppard. As a teenager, I was unfortunately taken in by Kerrang!'s harsh editorial stance on the band during the late 80s. These were the peak years for both hair and thrash metal, and Saxon were considered stylistically passe by the magazine. Nary an article or review could pass without the band almost being presented as a set of has-beens. It was only when I acquainted myself with those core Saxon albums several years later that the penny dropped. 'No, this is a fucking great band. You were full of shit K!'. I've never looked back.

Whilst it's pretty undeniable that Saxon have suffered commercially at periods during their career, I would contend that they have always succeeded on an artistic level, bar a slight wobble in the 80s. Which brings me to the band's 1999 album, Metalhead. Recorded by the same line-up that continues to the present day, bar Fritz Randow filling in for the injured Nigel Glockner, Metalhead built on the strong foundations that had already been laid down during Saxon's admirable creative rebirth of the 90s, beginning with 1991's Solid Ball Of Rock. The band have recorded another 13 albums of original material since then (including Metalhead), and, honestly, they are all well worth checking out. I've actually got 2007's The Inner Sanctum belting out as I write this review. It's great stuff.

Saxon themselves must still rate the material on Metalhead, as they included the title track in the set on the recent tour. That track, as well as the likes of Conquistador and Song Of Evil, are prime Saxon cuts, heavy yet melodic old-school metal. Then there is my personal favourite track, the epic closer Sea Of Life. Had Iron Maiden or Metallica been responsible for this number, it would have been instantly hailed as a modern day metal classic. No justice sometimes.

I would strongly recommend Metalhead to any fan that naturally leans towards this kind of traditional heavy metal (if they are lucky enough to track down a copy that is). Few bands play this style of music as well as the mighty Saxon. In fact, you can actually count those bands on one hand. I'll say it again, these are great times to be a Saxon fan. Long may they continue. Thanks for Blackburn fellas, you were fucking brilliant.

Adam McCann: Saxon's output of the last 25 years has been superb. Equally good, if not better than their 80s output. The band are a true British heavy metal institution and do not get anywhere near the credit they deserve. Metalhead is a great album, up there with Unleash the Beast, Killing Ground and Lionheart.

Nigel Taylor: I have massively fond memories of the period of Saxon from Dogs Of War on to The Inner Sanctum as in the UK they completely had their backs to the wall and were playing to some very small crowds across the country, but still went out there and delivered at a consistently high level both on albums and on stage.

The Metalhead album is Saxon's heaviest album and it kicks ass with the opening three numbers (Metalhead, Are We Travellers in Time and Conquistador) being up there with any opening salvo of any Saxon album. That's not to say it's all about balls out metal though as is shown on the epic Sea Of Life which closes the album and is 8mins of perfection. There is a week spot on the album for me with the lackluster Piss Off, but on the whole the album sits happy alongside any of their output and is from a period of Saxon which does contain some of their finest work, but a period that for some reason (ahem, here's looking at you UK press) was widely ignored despite it's greatness.

Adam Ranger: I have to admit I not so familiar with this period of Saxon's output,  sort of stopped listening. Probably more due to the low profile the UK music press gave the band after the earlier NWOBHM years. And that is something I should put right.

This album is generally very good. Heavier on many ways than I remember them from first few albums. I guess that's called moving with the times. And here generally it works very well as great riffs and driving guitars and vocal style that I do remember. Sea Of Life probably my favourite track as that is closer to those earlier albums. But the rest of the album generally rocks very well indeed.

Off to listen to more if the later output now.

Paul Hutchings: It was so good to have Metalhead included on the recent tour. A real heavy metal track and one of the heaviest the band have ever done. As many have said, Saxon have been consistently great for the last 25 years. Metalhead contains some excellent songs, and provides a fine balance of 'bangers' and more refined songs like Sea Of Life. There's also the punch in the face of Piss Off! It's a good, solid album from a UK institution who are as good today as they were in 1982.

Chris Elliott: It's indifferent at best. Saxon had a golden period, and this is way after that period. Why would anyone listen to this by choice confuses me. What's the logic? I want to hear a crap Saxon album? I want to hear an indifferent metal album?

Greg Schwepe: I’ll be honest, I was not exposed to a lot of NWOBHM bands during my formative music years. Not that I wouldn’t have liked a lot of these bands, there was just minimal exposure to them. I bought Def Leppard’s On Through The Night after reading about them in Circus magazine – “Wow, these guys are about my age” –and the next summer Iron Maiden’s Flight Of Icarus actually was in heavy rotation on the FM station I listened to. That was the extent of my NWOBHM upbringing.

When I later became more aware of these NWOBHM bands after seeing a music documentary, I began my quest to listen to some of the ones mentioned in the TV show. Saxon was on that list. And when the club did another another NWOBHM album a while back, Saxon kept showing up in the comments and reviews.

After checking out a few of their early albums, they all gave me that “Now that's the kind of metal I like!” vibe. Everything I like in metal, nothing (or not a lot of) stuff I don’t like.

Metalhead checks the boxes for me. Basic hard driving metal. Has melody. Good vocals. Plenty of distortion (a given!). Decent songwriting. At least nothing cheesy that made me cringe. Some double kick drums; but only a few songs and not the 10,000 beats per minute variety.

I’m not going to review every track…because I liked them all and what Saxon brings to the NWOBHM table. Just a good, fun hard rocking album.

Jim Collins: Another in a long line of great albums that showed Saxon was the only NWOBHM band still putting out quality albums on a major label and on a regular basis. These guys left Maiden in the dust decades ago and I can't remember the last time they disappointed me with an album. Nothing since the dawn of the 90s anyway.


Final score: 7.04 (36 votes cast, total score 444)

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