Ryan is here with his recommendations for the best barbarian rock albums.
Saxon by Saxon
Not every track on Saxon’s debut is an unmitigated classic, but make it past the mystical cheese of the opening “Rainbow Theme,” and this 1979 effort yields several satisfying rockers like the defiant “Backs to the Wall” and the liberating “Stallions of the Highway.” This is the sound of the untamed workingman holding it down in Britain’s twilight, riding around on a motorcycle without a helmet, and getting rowdy and raunchy with the lads down at the pub. If you like the beautifully naïve warrior artwork on the album cover, you’ll probably also like the music. The ample bonus tracks, which actually outnumber the original set of songs, include multiple versions of “Still Fit to Boogie,” “Stallions of the Highway,” “Backs to the Wall,” and more.
Wheels of Steel by Saxon
Saxon really hit their stride with 1980’s Wheels of Steel, a perfect soundtrack to some shirtless partying or a bout of destructive roughhousing. “Motorcycle Man” and the hellraising “Wheels of Steel” are worthy thematic successors to “Stallions of the Highway,” and the inclusion here and there of campy sound effects like police sirens doesn’t at all diminish the fun. “747 (Strangers in the Night)” is a memorably doom-threatening tune about an imperiled airplane, and even second-tier tracks like “Freeway Mad” and “Street Fighting Gang” are welcome stompers. The album’s one love song, “Suzie Hold On,” doesn’t stink up the place too badly, and thankfully “Machine Gun” is close at hand to disturb the peace and keep the proceedings poorly behaved. As with Saxon, the selection of bonus tracks is generous, and the heavier, more percussive version of “Suzie Hold On” is especially tasty. You’ll be pretty sweaty after all of this Saxon, but don’t let anybody pick a fight with you after you listen to it. You’ll be too tough, and it wouldn’t be fair.
Strong Arm of the Law by Saxon
Released just four months after Wheels of Steel, this 1980 album marks another major contribution to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, boasting confident, searing guitar solos and anthemic statements like the opening “Heavy Metal Thunder.” The cool title track was inspired by an incident in which the band was pulled over and searched in Whitehall by Margaret Thatcher’s security detail which took the musicians for “some kind of beatniks,” as guitarist Graham Oliver remembers. The unusual “Dallas 1 PM” is a rocking but not particularly insightful commemoration of the JFK assassination and its stagecraft, while the heavy “Hungry Years” is a grim take on rock-and-roll ambition and dues-paying in the tradition of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top.” Demonstrating themselves to be true heroes, the boys even venture “To Hell and Back Again.” Bonus material includes alternate versions and performances from a 1982 BBC session.
Denim and Leather by Saxon
1981’s Denim and Leather consolidates Saxon’s signature sound of working-class majesty. No aficionado of heavy metal or classic rock can fail to appreciate this set of straightforward, fist-hoisting bangers. Having previously sung about jets and motorcycles, Saxon checks off another mode of transportation with the opener “Princess of the Night,” which romanticizes the power, beauty, and noise of a locomotive. “Never Surrender,” with its story of brutal struggle “on the rotten side of town,” serves as a sequel to “Backs to the Wall” from the group’s first album, with other rockers including the lust-fueled “Out of Control,” the self-aggrandizing “Midnight Rider,” and the obeyable “Play It Loud.” “Fire in the Sky” is a pleasant little ditty about the nuclear holocaust that will end humanity, and “Denim and Leather,” which closes the album, is Saxon’s tribute to their fans and to rock and roll culture generally. Bonus tracks feature selections from a rampage at the Hammersmith Odeon, with the audience getting everything it paid for.
Battle Hymns by Manowar
If Conan the Barbarian and Soldier of Fortune editor Robert K. Brown had put their heads together in 1982 to come up with a concept album, I can only imagine that the result would have sounded something like Manowar’s debut, Battle Hymns. These over-the-top American rockers could have benefited from punchier production, but lead screamer Eric Adams is the star attraction here and finds occasion to hit a high note on practically every track. The confrontational songs, largely concerned with wanton violence, have often entertaining lyrics like these from “Dark Avenger”: “No one can escape me, on Black Death I ride. / When kissed by the sword of Vengeance, your head lays there by your side.” “But if they tell you that I’ve lost my mind,” Adams explains in “Shell Shock,” “Maybe it’s not gone, just a little hard to find.” My favorite song is the opener, “Death Tone,” about an angry, unemployed Vietnam veteran and ex-convict who cruises around on his chopper looking for trouble: “Hear me ride on into the night. / Pull alongside if you’re looking for a fight!” One surprising moment is the tender, melodic passage in the climactic “Battle Hymn,” but this album is mainly for those with the stomach for heavy metal hysterics.
Sign of the Hammer by Manowar
1984’s Sign of the Hammer finds Adams in glorious screaming form again. The standout track is the rousing “Thor (The Powerhead),” which pictures the titular god of thunder thrusting Mjolnir “HIGHHHHHH.” Don’t have any hammers lying nearby when you listen to this one, or you’ll smash everything in sight! Manowar mines more of the mythological and the elemental on “Mountains,” “The Oath,” and the title song before giving Adams’s lungs a break with bassist Joey DeMaio’s unusual, Spanish-flavored, scurrying, and cockroach-paced solo instrumental “Thunderpick,” a sequel of sorts to “William’s Tale” on the group’s first album. Then, just to sum things up in sufficiently kitschy fashion, the album closes with the Jonestown-inspired madness of “Guyana (Cult of the Damned).”
Day of the Saxons by Witchkiller
Canadian rockers Witchkiller broke up not long after recording this earnestly delivered 1984 EP, which is unfortunate. Sounding like a more primitive version of Judas Priest, the group tears with definite promise through five satisfying barbarisms beginning with the merciless title track, which tells of men rising to the occasion of a martial emergency on a “day when blood will flow like wine.” Atmospheric songs like “Cry Wolf” and “Riders of Doom” leave the listener wanting more and wishing these heavy metal warriors from the Great White North had left potential aficionados a more substantial legacy. Paired with a top producer, Witchkiller could have achieved some degree of stardom. Day of the Saxons, writes All Music Guide’s Eduardo Rivadavia, “is a very recommended release for crate-digging metalheads.”
Do or Die by Viking
This savage 1988 debut from Los Angeles thrash band Viking finds them sounding more than prepared to live up to their lyrics about “splitting helmets [and] splitting skulls.” Viking, like Manowar, draws inspiration from Norse myths and fantasies of barbarian bloodshed, and if song titles like “Warlord,” “Hellbound,” “Militia of Death,” “Valhalla,” “Berserker,” and “Killer Unleashed” sound promising, this will probably be up your fjord. Believe it or not, vocalist and guitarist Ron Eriksen later became a Bible teacher!