I've made it a point since my youth to purchase every Saxon album as it was released, since they've always held some quality I find endearing, and are one of my favorite NWOBHM bands, probably the most enduring over their entire career. The 90s kicked off with Solid Ball of Rock and Forever Free, which were alright, but did not have the lasting impact of some of their earlier material.
And lo, while its predecessor Dogs of War had a few decent tracks on it, I was not expecting much out of Unleash the Beast, and thus was entirely blown away when I first sat down to listen to it. Up to 1997, this is by far the heaviest effort Saxon had produced, and every fucking song is memorable. I will go even so far as to say it's the best album they wrote in the first two decades of their career, just edging out the accessible (and oft-rued) Destiny. It's important not only because it brought Saxon's style into the era of modern production values, but added an extra level of aggression that would help fuel the band's excellent future catalog (Metalhead, Lionheart, and the band's opus magnum The Inner Sanctum). It was as if Saxon had broken out of a slump and realized they were one of the last true torchbearers left to this style. For example, compare Unleash the Beast to ANYTHING Iron Maiden has released since Somewhere in Time, or ANYTHING Judas Priest has done since Painkiller. There is just no fucking comparison. Saxon wins. Long live Saxon!
"Gothic Dreams" is a fine intro to the record, with swelling synthesizer/choirs that part curtains for the rumbling steel of the title track. Once that speed metal verse rhythm comes in, you know that Saxon has been putting in long hours to make this album fantastic. Biff's vocals were the best they had yet been, every line carefully composed and delivered through his veteran throat. His mid range is excellent, but he can also shriek when he deems it necessary. The four chord chorus is dripping with Nibbs' saucy basslines and even the fucking guitar solos burn with a fire this band had quelled for too long. If you cannot raise your fist in the front row and bang it along to the sky diving "Terminal Velocity", you are NOT metal and do not belong here!
Time has come, paid your dues
Take a chance, light the fuse
Step right up, stand in line
In thirty seconds time
You're at terminal velocity
"Circle of Light" maintains the band's hammer gait, a dark track with a gorgeous payoff. Again, the band has successfully taken their roots approach to blue collar NWOBHM and bathed it in something above and beyond the call of duty. "The Thin Red Line" could have been on the Top Gun soundtrack and kicked everything else there in the arse. Perfect for truckin' and fighting'! "Ministry of Fools" takes a toss at Maiden-style melodic riffing, eventually coming one of the most dear tracks on the album (as if you could choose favorites, really). The chorus to this song is just incredible hard rock bliss:
We're not listening, listening to you
We're not listening, don't tell me what to do
We're not listening, listening to you
We're not listening to the ministry of fools
"The Preacher" takes another jab at authoritarian impostors, and "Bloodletter" makes for a nice successor to a classic like "Wheels of Steel". "Cut Out the Disease" is probably the most heavy goddamn songs Saxon has ever composed, and the darkest on this record, with some atmospheric synthesizers behind the intense string hammering, not to mention the colossal crunch of its verse rhythms. "Absent Friends" is a bluesy rock ballad, and while it lost this album 1/2 a point, Biff still sounds great singing it. "All Hell Breaking Loose" picks the pace back up to close the album; strangely the tune reminds me of Running Wild.
Yeah, so...Unleash the Beast. If you couldn't already tell, I'm rather fond of it. If you're into this sort of thing, you know, quality heavy metal music, and you've made the grave life mistake of missing out, you should probably be heading out to the store about now, or clicking on your little iTunes icon.
Highlights: there are some...
Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (gather round beneath the mission bell)