Biff Byford has, for more than 40 years, led the way for the famed hard rock band Saxon. Considering his expasive resume, one would have thought that Byford would have already released a handful of solo recordings by now. Interestingly enough, he has not released any solo material. That is until this year. Byford released his solo debut album School of Hard Knocks Feb. 21 through Silver Linings Music. The 11-song, 51-minute record is a work that longtime Saxon fans will appreciate just as much as fans of Saxon’s fellow British heavy metal counterpart, Judas Priest and even hair metal fans. This element will be addressed shortly. The lyrical content that accompanies the album’s musical material adds even more insurance of listeners’ engagement and enjoyment. It will be addressed a little later. The album’s sequencing rounds out its most important elements, and will also be addressed later. Each item noted here is important in its own right to the whole of School of Hard Knocks. All things considered, they make the album a presentation that rock and metal fans across the board will agree is a strong solo debut from one of rock’s most talented and respected vocalists and his fellow musicians — Fredrik Åkesson (Opeth) on guitars, Christian Lundqvist on drums and Gus Macricostas on bass.
Biff Byford’s solo debut album School of Hard Knocks is a presentation that is certain to appeal to a wide range of rock and metal fans. That is due in part to the record’s musical arrangements. The arrangements are varied throughout the course of the album. The album’s opener ‘Welcome to the Show’ is an up-tempo work that lends itself to comparisons to works from the likes of KISS, Motley Crue and AC/DC. The same applies to its follow-up, which is also the album’s title track. One could even argue here that there are hints of Ted Nugent similarities in this case. ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ changes the record’s pace, offering more of a power metal approach. This song’s arrangement immediately lends itself to comparisons to works from Saxon’s fellow British metal counterparts Judas Priest, with its soaring vocals, driving guitars and solid time keeping. ‘Worlds Collide,’ which immediately follows ‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’ could easily match up against any of today’s metal compositions and hold its own with ease. Byford and company’s take on Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Scarborough Fair’ is intriguing in the best way possible. With its minimalist approach, it is just as enjoyable as its source material. ‘Pedal to the Metal’ changes things up once again, going back to the power metal for which Byford has come to be known for crafting with his Saxon brethren. At the same time, it is just as comparable once more to works from Judas Priest. Much the same can be said of ‘Hearts of Steel.’ ‘Throw Down The Sword’ is a direct cover of Wishbone Ash’s song by the same name, and it changes things up once more, stylistically speaking. As the album comes to its close in ‘Me and You’ and ‘Black and White,’ the feeling turns toward a more distinct 80s hair metal approach, with the first of the pair easily likened to a certain ballad from Poison while the latter is more akin to the sound that bridged the late 80s and early 90s with its hard-edged guitar-driven sound. By the time the record reaches its end, audiences will look back and realize they have experienced a work that at least musically has taken them on a positive rock and roll ride from start to end. That mix of rock and metal sounds is just one part of what makes the album worth hearing. The record’s lyrical themes are just as important to its presentation as its musical content.
The lyrical themes featured throughout the course of School of Hard Knocks are almost as varied as the musical arrangements that are presented. ‘Hearts of Steel’ is an autobiographical piece about Byford’s life and career. In turning his attention to ‘Scarborough Fair,’ Byford explained that song’s content in a recent interview. “It’s a traditional medieval song, and the story goes that Paul Simon happened to hear somebody playing it in Whitby, which is just down the road from Scarborough,” he said. “But I wanted something which represented Yorkshire and it is a Yorkshire folk song, so we tried a new arrangement which made it a little heavier, and it works really well.” In other words, here in this song is a work whose roots go back ages and is distinctly different from the likes of ‘Wheels of Steel’ in its lyrical theme. ‘Inquisitor,’ as short as it is – it clocks in at approximately one minute, 26 seconds – is a semi-spoken word piece that takes its inspiration from the Spanish Inquisition, yet another distinctly different topic from the lyrical content in the rest of the album. ‘Me and You’ takes the more familiar route of a song centered on the topic of a relationship. It’s just one more way in which the songs’ varied lyrical themes prove to be just as key to the album as the record’s equally varied musical styles. That variance in content from one song to next continues to make the album appealing for audiences. When it is considered with the variance in the album’s musical arrangements, that overall variance makes fully evident why the record’s content in general is so important to its presentation. It is still not the last important element to examine. The record’s sequencing rounds out its most important elements.
School of Hard Knocks’ sequencing is crucial to its presentation because the energies in the content is just as important as the content itself. As already noted, School of Hard Knocks opens in very up-tempo fashion in ‘Welcome to the Show’ following its slow build in the song’s early bars. From there though, the energy stays solid throughout the remainder of the composition. The album’s title track keeps that energy flowing, and even picks things up a little bit more with its blues-based approach. ‘Inquisitor’ pulls the energy back, but only briefly before the record’s energy picks right back up in ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’ That energy increases even more, again, in that already noted hard-driving metal opus that is ‘Worlds Collide.’ The energy pulls back again in the group’s cover of ‘Scarborough Fair.’ That moment of reserve only lasts a short time, though, as the album progresses into the high-adrenaline ‘Pedal to the Metal’ and ‘Hearts of Steel.’ Once more, the album reaches one of its troughs as it progresses from ‘Hearts of Steel’ into the cover of Wishbone Ash’s ‘Throw Down The Sword.’ The relaxed feel and tone of ‘You and Me’ and the bluesy mid-tempo rocker that is ‘Black and White’ make for a fitting finale for the record. The two songs never overdo the energy on the high or low end. Looking back at all of this, it becomes evident that Byford, who produced the album, and everyone who worked with him made certain to put all the highs and lows at all of the right points. The result is a solid balance of energies throughout the album from start to end. That balance ensures even more, listeners will remain engaged and entertained throughout the course of the album’s almost hour-long run time. Considering this element with the record’s overall content and the matters within the music and lyrics, the whole of it all leaves School of Hard Knocks a work that is a positive solo debut for Byford.
Biff Byford’s solo debut LP School of Hard Knocks is a surprisingly enjoyable offering from the longtime Saxon front man. That is especially considering that he has spent more than 40 years at the band’s helm, the whole time without having released even one solo record until now. The album’s musical content will appeal to a wide range of rock and metal fans while the lyrical content is just as certain to keep listeners engaged and entertained with its own variety. The sequencing that is utilized throughout the album keeps the record’s energy balanced throughout its run. Each item is important in its own way to the whole of School of Hard Knocks. All things considered, they make the record a work that is deserving of at least one listen by rock and metal purists alike. More information on the album is available now along with Byford’s latest news at:
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