Retrospective: Saracen – Heroes, Saints, and Fools (1981)

One wonders whether the NWOBHM can be tied down to a specific style of playing or if it is more a statement of attitude and energy that separates it from run-of-the-mill rock ‘n roll. More likely than any such clear-cut distinction is that both aspects informed the genre’s sound: the intricacy and ambition of progressive rock attenuated through the attack of punk, stripped of fat, focused for maximal musical-adrenal impact. The genre’s fondness for a rousing lyric and a good time also meant that it was never altogether averse to falling on the other side of metal’s increasing self-seriousness; flights of maudlin sentimentality, jarring under most conditions of sobriety, were commonplace, but a healthy dose of retrospective teaches one to appreciate if not enjoy this for what it is: that bands from this era were utterly unafraid of wearing their hearts on their sleeves, heedless of what might or mightn’t be interpreted as cool by some panhandling critic, meant that the same bouts of emotional excess, stars aligning, could also lead to the kind of panoramic grandeur that heavy metal simply hadn’t known till then.

Forty years on from the release of Saracen‘s Heroes, Saints, and Fools, it is hard to find the same strut and swagger on a modern record; this despite heavy metal revival becoming such a lucrative industry in the last ten years. Bands excel at parceling out singular aspects of various original bands and creating the mirage of a sound around them, but the composite spirit of the past is the one thing they cannot quite reproduce. A writer views the world as words and the musician hears it as song, and neither form of apprehension can be faked, at least not to any meaningful extent beyond a faithful replica of the original. Even the most devoted copy is only life lived through another’s senses, and while it can be appreciated as a token of genuine admiration, it is missing the individuality that makes any piece of art truly human.

Soundwise, Heroes, Saints, and Fools lies somewhere roughly between early Iron Maiden and Saxon, and the John Lawton/Peter Goalby-fronted Uriah Heep albums. Throw in rather more than a dash of Pilgrimage/Argus-era Wishbone Ash, and you begin to get an idea of what to expect here: narratively rich songs in the old storytelling tradition, immersed in a sea of classy hooks, celebrating life and young attitude but also rife with the kind of unrestrained emotional expression that gets labeled gauche by the passage of time. There’s poetry here to bring a spring to the stodgiest step and a lump to the throat of the most reckless heart and, truth be told, a traversal through a range of moods almost completely lost to heavy metal after the ’70s. No texture is left unturned in achieving this, the synthesizer in particular contributing many supporting as well as defining motifs, but as strong an ensemble work as Heroes, Saints, and Fools is, ultimately the name on the marquee belongs to guitarist Rob Bendelow. A master craftsman at heavy guitar, fit to be ranked alongside any you care to name, Bendelow provides a clinic on restraint, inflection, and absolutely tearing up the fretboard when the opportunity comes. But this isn’t just base shredding, you see; it is a cathedral of pentatonic architecture after the style of another great, Buck Dharma, raised on hallowed ground where mindfulness meets naked intuition to lead the listener in the pews through genuine out-of-body revelation.

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