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Wheels of Steel

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  • When Saxon entered Rampart Studios in February of 1980 to record their breakthrough LP (and second overall) “Wheels of Steel,” the NWOBHM was just starting to really unfold, and would arguably peak later that year, with debut records being released by the scene’s top contenders, most notably Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Diamond Head, Tygers of Pan Tang and Girlschool.

    With the exception of Iron Maiden, none of those groups however, not even Def Leppard, would chart that year as high as these working class boys from Barnsley. With the strength of singles from the record such as “747 (Strangers in the Night)” and the title track, “Wheels of Steel” actually at one time reached #5 in the U.K. national charts. Astonishing, especially for an independent, underground recording from a previously little known heavy metal band. (Can you imagine that happening in the U.S.?)

    Listening to this CD you can hear why. This was then and now the ideal music for speeding down the freeway with this particular album blaring loud (probably on an eight track at the time). The aforementioned title track is particularly earthshaking, taking the deceptively simple but highly catchy riff patterns of bands like AC/DC before them and merging them with the reverb of early Motorhead. Side 2 of the original vinyl opens with the track that best embodies this spirit, “Freeway Mad.” The record’s second half actually proves to be speed metal city for the most part, on standout scorchers like “See the Light Shining” and “Machine Gun.” Sure, Motorhead and Judas Priest before them had at times been fast, but Saxon were FAST. You just did not find tempos this rapid in music in 1980 without crossing over into hardcore punk, making Saxon one of speed metal’s true pioneers.

    These 2009 remasters are infinitely superior to any previous pressings of their early albums, both in sound quality and packaging. They boast a much fuller and more roomy sound than older editions, more like listening to the original LP, but without the expected crackles and pops of 30-year-old vinyl records. To add to that there are great and informative liner notes with input from frontman Biff Byford himself. The icing on the cake is that each CD contains a reproduction of the original LP’s back cover, making them essential for collectors.

    Saxon would just keep getting better and better and followed up “Wheels of Steel” with two even better LPs (one later the same year!). “Wheels of Steel” though remains a defining moment in the band’s career and brings you right back to the excitement of the early NWOBHM scene. Highly recommended.

    Posted on November 21, 2009 - Permalink - Buy Now
  • Iron Maiden may be the best known band from the legendary New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) scene, and rightly so, but for a time Saxon was a close second. Actually, once Maiden acquired Bruce Dickinson and took on the larger world stage, it was Saxon that best embodied the sound and spirit of the NWOBHM scene. The speed, the frantic energy, the “denim and leather” attitude – Saxon had all that and then some.

    If Saxon is the quintessential NWOBHM band, their second album – 1980’s Wheels of Steel – is their quintessential album. Others may argue that Strong Arm of the Law or Denim and Leather are better albums, but Wheels of Steel was my first exposure to the band and it’s still my favorite Saxon album by far. It was a big jump forward in terms of songwriting and musical ability from the self-titled debut, has some of the band’s best known songs, and just captures the spirit of the NWOBHM scene completely. Listening to songs like “Motorcycle Man” and “Wheels of Steel” always make me wish I could have seen Saxon live in those early club days (alas, I was only 6).

    I could go on and on about this album, but I’ll leave it at this: If you’re a fan of British heavy metal, particularly the NWOBHM, Wheels of Steel is an absolute must-have album. I’d even go so far as to recommend it to just about every fan of heavy metal…period. Not only is it an important milestone in the genre, it’s also a completely rockin’ classic metal album that’s still a blast to listen to.

    Edition Notes – EMI reissued Wheels of Steel (along with most of the early Saxon albums) in 2009. EMI has been responsible for some of the absolute best-sounding classic hard rock reissues lately (see: Whitesnake, UFO, MSG and the Scorpions), so I had high hopes for these Saxon reissues. Fortunately they live up to expectations (and then some).

    The digitally remastered sound is a gift from the metal gods, and is far superior to the old CD version of Wheels of Steel. If that weren’t enough, there are expanded liner notes and a whopping 8 bonus tracks. The bonus tracks include demo versions of “Suzie Hold On” and “Wheels of Steel”, the live b-side “Stallions of the Highway”, and live versions of “Motorcycle Man”, “Freeway Mad”, “Wheels of Steel”, “747 (Strangers in the Night)” and “Machine Gun” recorded at the very first Monsters of Rock festival at Donnington in 1980. Any of these features – the remastering, liner notes, bonus tracks – would make replacing your old version of Wheels of Steel worthwhile; the combination of the three makes in mandatory.

    Posted on November 20, 2009 - Permalink - Buy Now