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Byford, Biff: School Of Hard Knocks

The evolution of Saxon is a journey that has happened almost unnoticed, the standard bearing British heavy metal of the 70s given a gloss and sheen as the 80s came of age. The next decade of the band saw line-up changes and musical fashions play equal part in a band seemingly looking to anchor their sound, without ever knowing which port they should be settled in - although they continued to release cracking albums even then. However, from 2001’s Killing Ground onwards it is arguable that Saxon have never been quite so potent or quite so consistent as they’ve become one of the best exponents of a sound more closely associated with European power metal than anything else.

Hence, the opening pairing of “Welcome To The Show” and “School Of Hard Knocks” on Saxon singer Biff Byford’s debut solo offering, which shares its name with the latter of those two, are something of a surprise. Not because they find Byford fronting a jazz, flamenco quartet, but because both whisk us back in time - Saxon time. With the singer in full throated voice after a recent health scare, the first of the two could easily and deservedly have slotted onto an album like Wheels Of Steel, or Strong Arm Of The Law. Whereas the title cut would be much more at home on the criminally underrated Back On The Streets, and as such you’re left wondering if Byford is still truly the man with the hand on the tiller of Saxon’s sound, or is this vintage attack more to his liking?

The short, spoken “Inquisitor” moves the lyrical focus, which has up until now been autobiographical and nostalgic, into the times of Spanish conquests, before “The Pit And The Pendulum” heads into a more contemporary metal direction - weaving guitar lines and off kilter beats the basis for a hard hitting attack. With a clever, string laden breakdown, there’s much to become embroiled with and Byford’s enigmatic drawl merely heightens the effect, although it’s the bristling, gristling “Worlds Collide” that takes the mantle of heaviest beast on show. From there we go off piste, as any solo album should, a well intentioned, but for me, slightly lacking cover of the Simon & Garfunkel landmark, “Scarborough Fair”, a brave, interesting diversion that doesn’t quite come off. The much more convincing run through of the Wishbone Ash standard “Throw Down The Sword” is a much more convincing change of pace and emotion, Byford’s voice seeping into the cracks of your mind as the melancholic melodies dig deep.

“Pedal To The Metal” and “Hearts Of Steel” reset the course by bringing things much more obviously back into Byford’s home territory, before the acoustic ballad “Me And You” proves just how many vocal strings this singer has to his bow. Something confirmed by the much more melodic rock swagger of “Black And White”, a track that finds the Saxon frontman giving thanks for the journey he’s taken and acknowledging, as he has every right to, just how many of us have joined him along the way.

As albums like these often do, proceedings come replete with a host of guest appearances - Phil Campbell (Motorhead), Alex Holzwarth (Lione Rhapsody), Dave Kemp (Wayward Sons) and Saxon’s very own Nibbs Carter, while the ‘band’ comprises Fredirk Akesson (Opeth), Christian Lundqvist and Gus Macricostas - but it’s to School Of Hard Knocks great credit that not one of them overshadows a heartfelt and heart on sleeve set of songs that do exactly what they set out to. This is Biff Byford, this is his music and it’s his life, and rightly so his first solo album is a celebration of all three.

Track Listing
1. Welcome To The Show
2. School Of Hard Knocks
3. Inquisitor
4. The Pit And The Pendulum
5. Worlds Collide
6. Scarborough Fair
7. Pedal To The Metal
8. Hearts Of Steel
9. Throw Down The Sword
10. Me And You
11. Black And White

Added: February 24th 2020
Reviewer: Steven Reid
Related Link: Biff Byford online
Hits: 305
Language: english

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