SAXON are one of the immortals of heavy metal. That's a fact. Their latest LP "Sacrifice" coasted through from last year into this one and now comes "Unplugged and Strung Up", a back catalog visit featuring interpretations of SAXON tracks through orchestral accompaniment, acoustic revisions and re-recordings. If you buy the double disc digipak, you'll get "Heavy Metal Thunder", not the fantastic recent docufilm, but a CD bearing re-recordings of the band's classics.
Unfortunately, what's wrong about "Unplugged and Strung Up" is that a considerable number of the main program's tracks have already been released before, i.e. the orchestrated version of "Call to Arms", plus five songs that were featured on the bonus disc of the "Sacrifice" special edition: "Crusader (Orchestrated Version)", re-recorded versions of "Just Let Me Rock" and "Forever Free", plus acoustic takes of "Requiem" and "Frozen Rainbow".
If you missed out on these previously, then "Unplugged and Strung Up" is your chance to hear SAXON do some pretty killer overhauls on most of those previously-mentioned tunes plus orchestral versions of "Red Star Falling" and "Broken Heroes" along with acoustic treatments of "Coming Home" and "Iron Wheels". Of the orchestral songs, the most impressive is "The Eagle Has Landed" with its dense layers of metal, synths and strings, all superbly mixed. Of the acoustic songs, "Frozen Rainbow" from "Saxon" is the most remarkable, stripped down to a gentle ballad with its twelve string textures and sensuous solo. The live acoustic version of "Iron Wheels" is one of the most poignant tracks on "Unplugged and Strung Up", served as a biographical account of Biff Byford's father. Then the swampy moonshine slides of "Coming Home" from "Killing Ground" is a knee-pumping bit of fun as SAXON's tribute to Robert Johnson and American delta blues.
There are new takes of "Battle Cry" from "Rock the Nations" and "Militia Guard", plus a remix of "Stallions of the Highway", the latter two coming from the first album. These songs have been tweaked and re-recorded with extra layers. In the case of "Militia Guard", there are traces of acoustic guitars filtering behind the main drive of the song, accenting it more than the original cut. To SAXON's credit, this new version of "Militia Guard" is very strong.
In all honesty, the re-recording of "Just Let Me Rock" is throwaway since the "Crusader" version is plenty hefty and the new version doesn't have the same drag-lurch-stomp feel of the original. The update of "Forever Free" is agreeable enough, but hardly necessary, which leads to an argument of weakness in this project, especially the "Heavy Metal Thunder" bonus CD. The re-recordings on that disc are fine, that's not the issue. Everything is delivered faithfully and professionally from Biff Byford, Paul Quinn, Nibbs Carter, Nigel Glockler and Doug Scarratt. "Wheels of Steel", "Princess of the Night", "Motorcycle Man", "Dallas 1pm", "747 (Strangers in the Night)" and "Denim & Leather", they're all there as a plausible overview of the band's best songs.
If you're a newcomer to SAXON and want to save some scratch instead of digging up the band's esteemed first six albums, that's your prerogative and the "Heavy Metal Thunder" disc will suit you fine. Yet, as competent and proficient as SAXON's current lineup is, you're still short-changing yourself by not owning the original records that included Graham Oliver, Steve Dawson and Pete Gill. If you're a longtime fan, "Unplugged and Strung Up" is thus either mandatory or not, depending upon how deep your SAXON section runs on your shelf.
Frankly, the recent trend of hard rock and heavy metal legacy acts re-recording their best-known catalog as bonus albums is irksome, as annoying as the rock 'n roll and doo-wop heroes of the fifties re-recording their songs in piss-poor fashion during the seventies and early Eighties. Thankfully, "Heavy Metal Thunder" in this package is hardly piss-poor, but it is by all means, annoying. SAXON has been riding tall for numerous albums straight now. "Unplugged and Strung Up" is a gimmick, let's face the facts. Those who have yet to dig into its material are hardly going to cry foul but nevertheless, this package was hardly needed.