ALBUM REVIEW: Biff Byford – School of Hard Knocks
Biff Byford is one of the most well-known singers in heavy metal, fronting New Wave of British Heavy Metal legends Saxon. After more than four decades of singing with the band, and now two years since their last release, 2018’s Thunderbolt, he decided it was the right time for him to release his debut solo album, School of Hard Knocks. Joining him are Opeth and ex-Arch Enemy axeman Fredrik Åkesson, Gus Macricostas on bass (which Byford himself plays a little of on the record too), and Christian Lundqvist on drums.
The two recent singles from the album are the opening tracks, Welcome to the Show and the eponymous School of Hard Knocks. While the former speaks about the excitement of being in a band and on the road, the latter details the singer’s life and upbringing in Northern England. What these two songs have in common is the ease with which they could have fit onto one of Saxon’s early records, such as Wings of Steel.
The spoken-word and classical-guitar-filled Inquisitor serves as an intro for one of the two seven-minute long tracks, The Pit and the Pendulum. The intro sees Byford reciting part of the opening paragraph of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story of the same name, while the song itself is certainly the most progressive on the album. Here, Åkesson’s prog-rock/metal colours shine through, with some intricate guitar leads, backed by the circus-like Hammond organ throughout the track, perhaps courtesy of Wayward Sons keyboard player Dave Kemp, one of the guests who pop up along the way.
Worlds Collide and Pedal to the Metal are definitely the fastest and most intense songs on offer, with heavy riffs and chugs, steady bass and drums, and some high screamed vocals from the legendary singer, which prove that he is still going strong, despite just having turned 69 years old. Hearts of Steel can be considered a “power metal” moment, with its shredding guitar solos and title reminiscent of Manowar’s classic song.
One of two covers, Scarborough Fair is a new arrangement of the Simon and Garfunkel cover of an old Yorkshire folk song, courtesy of Byford and Åkesson. Putting their creative minds together, they breathe new life into this song, giving it a “heavier” sound from the halfway point, and finishing with an ending just made to be chanted by whole crowds. The second cover found on the album is of the Wishbone Ash song Throw Down the Sword. With its twin-guitar medieval-sounding intro, this is one of the more “subdued” moments of the record, which is sure to appeal to heavy metal fans everywhere thanks to its signature NWOBHM composition and sound.
This would not be a Biff Byford record without a ballad, and sure enough, it is found in the form of Me and You. One of the most sensitive and introspective songs on offer, it also offers the most unexpected moment of the eleven-track package: a saxophone solo. Rounding things up is album closer Black and White, with its chorus-and-flanger-laden guitar intro, this song ends the record on a positive note: “This is your life, live it free!”
Featuring guest appearances from Motörhead guitarist Phil Campbell, Saxon’s Nibbs Carter, Alex Holzwarth of Turilli / Lione Rhapsody and formerly Rhapsody of Fire, Nick Barker of Voices and formerly Cradle of Filth, and the aforementioned Dave Kemp, School of Hard Knocks proves that Biff Byford intends to continue being the heavy metal legend that he has been since 1979. If you can, go see one of his upcoming shows, it’ll surely be worth it!
Standout Tracks: Welcome to the Show, The Pit and the Pendulum, Scarborough Fair, Throw Down the Sword
For Fans Of: Saxon, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden
Written by: Florin Petrut