Review Summary: The best album of Saxon's rejuvenation period, Unleash The Beast features some of their heaviest and most sophisticated songwriting.
Saxon's steady climb in quality through the 90s may not have yielded much commercial success, but has left some intriguing and often very good albums. After a rapid decline in commercial fortunes in the mid-80s, Saxon's "back to basics" approach with albums like Solid Ball of Rock, Forever Free and Dogs of War saw them draw closer to a heavier, more focused sound that has since become their staple in the new millennium. Unleash the Beast was their first truly great album from that period and remains one of their best albums overall.
With longtime guitarist Graham Oliver departing immediately prior, Unleash the Beast features new blood with fresh guitarist Doug Scaratt. Whilst it's uncertain how much direct input he had on the overall direction of the band, it's fair to say his arrival brings a sizable change in the pace of their songs and the overall style of the playing, with somewhat heavier and faster influences like that of power metal or perhaps Painkiller-era Judas Priest seeping in. The opening title track exhibits this best with several thrashy riffs and an honest-to-god (good) breakdown to close out the track, and as a result is significantly more heavyweight than anything else the band had recorded prior. The drumming is generally a lot faster too, and Biff Byford's vocals are well layered and as operatic as ever.
Juxtaposed against the new heavier direction is a broader variety of song styles than previous works, along with, frankly, less lazy lyrical themes. There's a larger emphasis on fantasy and military content which, whilst somewhat conservative compared to some of the lyrics of their competitors in Priest or Maiden, help to make the experience feel less contrived and commercial, as well as adding a nice theatrical edge. A good example is The Thin Red Line
, about the Battle of Balaclava, which, along with some tight and purposeful songwriting, makes a vocally centred track a lot more enjoyable than on their previous efforts (at least their previous efforts after Denim and Leather
). There's an interesting capability for restraint which really works for adding extra dynamics and tension, such as in the excellent chorus of the title track or the closer All Hell Breaking Lose
, saving its fastest and busiest guitar work for the end. Whilst the core sound is business as usual, there's a significant improvement in songwriting quality with a good variation in the density of the guitar parts and a faster overall pace.
Whilst still held back a bit by a couple of generic hard rockers (namely Terminal Velocity
), Unleash the Beast is largely satisfyingly heavy, catchy, and more interestingly written than the vast majority of their prior material. Unsurprisingly, the relative success of its formula has lead to the increasingly "power metally" sound of the band that characterizes almost all their material since, and of its own merits it is one of Saxon's best albums.