Originally written by Chris Chellis.
After treading in safe territory for far too long, NWOBHM legends Saxon surprised many with the undeniably heavy and modern-sounding Lionheart in 2004. Sure the production could have used more grit to match the vitriolic feel of the guitars, but this was a new, improved and inspired quintet. The fact that the band was recently documented for British television goes to show you how far this previously criminally ignored band had come since its 90s draught. So it was with high hopes and a renewed trust in these rock & roll geezers that I approached The Inner Sanctum. Unfortunately, I think my hopes were a little too high, because while this is certainly no Destiny, it’s neither as powerful nor as memorable as Lionheart. It is, however, a more diverse collection of songs.
If you like Saxon loose, playful, rocking and tongue-in-cheek, The Inner Sanctum will be kind to you. “Need for Speed” and “I’ve Got to Rock (To Stay Alive)” are the two greatest examples of the band’s return to a more traditional rock & roll sound after the balls-to-the-wall feel of Lionheart. I am sure the reason behind the move is genuine. Biff (vocals) probably wanted to take a breather and rock out. After all, the band has never been entirely predictable (or reliable), so it’s fitting that after something as heavy as Lionheart, they write a few rock anthems and embrace their more melodic side.
Something within me wants to really like The Inner Sanctum a lot because the album does actually have a lot going for it. While he doesn’t sound as hungry as he did just a few years ago, Biff is still one of my favorite vocalists. His devotion to the spirit of metal is obvious, and he can still write catchy, ball-busting hooks with the best of ’em. Some riffs are absolutely outstanding. As borderline cheesy as “I’ve Got to Rock (To Stay Alive)” is, the driving riff is so catchy and irresistible I immediately thought of AC/DC. “If I Was You”‘s hook is straight syrup.
In and of themselves, these songs are great, but as a collective whole the effort does not sound as inspired or as urgent as Lionheart. As much as I wanted to like the album, I kept coming to the conclusion that I much prefer Saxon’s heavier, more immediate sound to its rock-oriented melodic vibe. There’s something too safe, predictable and cliche about these more mature bands that decide to follow-up a well-received album with another that sounds like a dense collection of the band’s entire discography. Even Biff sometimes sounds like he’s just going through the rounds. However, the bottom line is…this is the one and only Saxon. You’re only going to hear this sound done this well under the Saxon name. With just enough attitude to make up for the modern, lifeless production, The Inner Sanctum is a positive but underwhelming contribution to Saxon’s 30-year career.