Wednesday 26 February 2020

Biff Byford - School of Hard Knocks (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Hard Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 21 Feb 2020
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We might be forgiven for thinking that Phil Campbell took a long time to get a solo album out, given that he was 58 years young when Old Lions Still Roar hit the streets last year. Well, he was a lot quicker off the mark than Biff Byford, lead singer with Saxon for over four decades, who has finally got a solo effort out at the Bill & Ted age of 69, dude. While it sounds different to Campbell's in many ways, even when Campbell is guesting here, it follows the same general approach, to let the solo star explore new musical ground.

Initially, it's very safe, opening up with two songs that could easily have been recorded by Saxon. Welcome to the Show is the sort of fourth wall song that was popular back in the day, a humble homage to the fans. It's more of a hard rock song than heavy metal, though the hard rock we would have called heavy metal back in 1983. The title track is even more overtly Saxon with a great riff duetting with Byford's ever-recognisable vocals. It's clearly an autobiographical song too and not the only one on offer here.

It's Inquisitor where things shake up completely. A Spanish acoustic guitar sets the scene while Byford narrates a story in a gruff voice. It sounds to me like he's reading something he didn't write but, if that's true, I don't know what it comes from. It serves two purposes, to allow Byford to explore his interest in history and to introduce The Pit and the Pendulum, which is a heavy metal song that leans towards power metal as it takes a lyrical look at the Spanish Inquisition. Most critics are citing this as a highlight but it underwhelmed me because it feels so subdued for something that aches for bombast and relish. Sure, it's suitably theatrical and Byford gets emotional at points but it mostly left me dry.

I was much more impressed by Worlds Collide, which is heavier still but not feeling out of place. For what is arguably a hard rock album, a few heavier tracks fight that label. Pedal to the Metal is another one, seemingly built entirely out of clichés from achingly similar metal songs. It sounds great, with the chorus more Judas Priest than Saxon, but the lyrics are awful. The other heavy song is Hearts of Steel, which could easily have been a clichéd mess too, being a quintessential Manowar song title, but it's another leap back in time to visit the days of knights and chivalry, albeit through the rose-tinted glasses of Victorian books for kids. It's another good song.

Against the odds, so is Scarborough Fair. I really wasn't expecting this to work in the slightest but it does, well beyond Biff's ability to pronounce Scarborough properly. There are folk songs that have balls but this is never going to be listed among them, though Byford surely comes closer than anyone else ever will. The other cover is surprisingly strong too. It's Throw Down the Sword from Wishbone Ash's pivotal Argus album, which I knew was a great influence on Iron Maiden's twin guitar sound but not that it was as much of an influence on Saxon too. It shouldn't surprise me. It works very well.

I wonder if it would have been better to wrap up the album there, over forty minutes in, because I'm not as sold on the last couple of tracks that nudge it over fifty. Me and You is a softer rock song, though not really a ballad like the title might suggest. It's fun, right down to the organ and saxophone. Black and White has the bombast I wanted from The Pit and the Pendulum. It's another song worthy of Saxon, if a little on the softer side. Then again, the point here is for Byford to do things that wouldn't necessarily work for Saxon and I enjoyed him mixing things up here.

Overall, perhaps inevitably for such an approach, it's a hit and miss affair but there are more hits than misses and the misses are still worthy. I don't believe there's a song here I'd skip on another repeat listen and the songs I thought I wouldn't like as much turned out to be some of my favourites. Is it a definitive album from a much respected elder statesman of rock? No, it isn't, but it's a good album that's occasionally great and that works for me.

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