Legendary Saxon front man Biff Byford is like a hundred (actually he recently turned 69) and still releasing uncompromising metal. If he’s not busy releasing new albums or touring with his main act (which have only gotten better with age) then it’ll be under his own moniker. Gathering musicians from Opeth and Battleroar he releases his first ever solo album, School of Hard Knocks. More of a hard rock approach than his main act, the album unleashes a barrage of traditional metal and hard rock fit for any ‘70s and ‘80s nostalgic. Blending old and new, the album is tailor made for fans of old school Saxon not happy with the slight turns they’ve taken in the recent decade. School of Hard Knocks pick influences from bands like Motörhead, AC/DC, Judas Priest and - obviously - classic Saxon itself in the more hard rock based tracks, with catchy, flashy guitars and rich bass tones brooding over the production.
Musically speaking we’re not treading a whole lot of unfamiliar territory here, with the majority of the material mostly fitting snugly into the nostalgic feel with ‘80s riffing and classic metal vibes. Pedal to the Metal and Hearts of Steel are those two thundering give-no-fucks highway rockers while The Pit and the Pendulum brings more depth and flow to the album. It changes things up with a bunch of interesting guitar revelry, tossing in a folk element to Fredrik Åkesson’s (Opeth) guitars. The soloing is likely the best on the album. Åkesson lends his talents and while he doesn’t get to blaze the frets a whole lot, mostly sticking to groovy riffing and some melodic pieces here and there, the job is sufficiently done to let the obvious main man himself shine. Byford is a very recognizable gentleman and while his vocals have never been near the likes of his bigger NWOBHM compatriots he’s still got all the balls of his younger days and lots of charm added through the years.
The album is not spectacular by any stretch, but there are still a few genuinely awesome moments and a couple of massive songs that need their replays. The storytelling of The Pit and the Pendulum might be the biggest highlight - especially with that atmospheric intro - but the dramatic touch added to Worlds Collide, one of the heaviest hitters on the album, make it more than any old metal song. Byford’s voice and style has never lent itself well to balladry, which is why it’s so very confusing that the album houses not one, not two, but three sappy ballads – neither of which are excusable. Ok, keeping Scarborough Fair would be understandable as it does its job of dividing the two halves of the album and changing the pace and flow, but the second half of the album is massively dragged down by eleven consecutive minutes of balladry. Cut away these two songs and the album would have benefited, but School of Hard Knocks is nevertheless a fine album on its own merits with several great, rollicking moments, and one that goes to show Byford’s many qualities; more than an ordinary man.
Standout tracks: The Pit and the Pendulum, Worlds Collide