When taking a quick look at the bill at Brofest, Saracen might seem a little bit misplaced. These metal progrockers from Matlock, Derbyshire widely used keyboard as part of their sound from the very beginning and the approach is much more melodic than your usual NWOBHM band. The songs have a slight proggy touch but are very melodic and catchy. The Saracen gig was one of the anticipated highlights for me personally at Brofest. The band released two albums in the early 1980´s – with two completely different outcomes. The debut album Heroes, Saints and Fools from way back in 1981 has by now achieved an almost legendary status and I would guess the band feel compelled to play almost that album in it´s entirety at every show. When the follow up arrived in 1984 the band mastermind and main songwriter Rob Bendelow had left the band being replaced by Haydn Conway (later in Oliver/Dawson Saxon and Son Of A Bitch). As I found out later doing an interview with the guys some members felt the sound of that album became too “Americanized” and commercial to the point that they contest it even being a Saracen album! If you are a fan you will have some trouble even finding a vinyl copy that is getting rare nowadays and may have to pay a lot of £ acquiring it. There isn´t even a proper CD reissue of the album of today. After splitting up soon after the band reformed in the year 2000 when the UK label Now & Then Records, run by Bruce Mee, approached Rob Bendelow asking if there would be a possibility of a new Saracen album. Three years later Red Sky was released seeing three original members back in the fold; lead vocalist extraordinaire Steve Bettney, guitarist and songwriter Rob Bendelow and keyboard player Richard Lowe. When there was a question of playing live shows Paul Bradder stepped in for Lowe on keyboards soon after the albums release.
In 2006 the excellent concept album Vox in Excelsio came out. It was based the story of the Knights Templar which had always fascinated Rob Bendelow. This was followed in 2011 by another concept album called Marilyn based on Marilyn Monroe’s life. It was originally supposed to touch the subject of the JFK assassination. This is my least favourite album with a less heavy sound and less guitars than usual. And there is of course that saxophone that is not for me…. In 2014 the excellent and heavy Redemption album came out. This means that there is a lot of recent material to choose from. In the end all songs except one came from the debut album (well a 7″ as well – “We Have Arrived”) and Red Sky contributed with one song.
When the band hit the stage for their 40 minute set there is one thing that immediately strikes me. Where is Rob Bendelow? There is just one guitar and the mike stand on the extreme right from my point of view has no one standing behind it. I have to check the the band´s Facebook page one more time. Yes – he is listed as a band member. As I would find out later Rob is not so keen on live shows. This took my attention off the stage for the first couple of songs. They announce “We Have Arrived” literrally by playing that song and it´s an excellent opener. I remember my friend Graham talking about the video for this song and some famous boobs. As it turns out I forget to ask a question about that when I meet the guys later on. Without wasting a minute of pointless talking they start “Rock of Ages” and it sounds incredibly good. The band is really tight and Steve´s voice has not lost one piece of it´s warmth and range. What you get here is one anthem and classic song after another. When they start “Horsemen of the Apocalypse” I feel chills up my spine and emotion is coming over me. This is excelllent – this is really, really good, I remember thinking. There is a complexivity and an intriguing texture of the Saracen songs that few have. To those who are not familiar with this great band – first of all you have missed out on something and secondly I would say this is maybe how Queensryche would have sounded if they had played been more AOR oriented and sported a keyboard player. Simon Daniels pounds out the riffs like the riffmaster he is and after a while I forget about Rob´s abscence and concentrate completely on the show. Saracen really stands out from the crowd by the way they approach the songwriting and among all these complicated riffs and tempos there is a melody and a hook that is never far away. It´s in fact just around the corner. They never get to proggy from my taste and still they challenge your mind with thoughtful and intriguing lyrics.
Most of the songs are about 6-7 minutes long and in a 40 minute set there is only room for so many songs. Red Sky is up next and it is an unusually straight forward song for being Saracen. It is also the only song written in the 2000´´s in todays set. We go on with two completely timeless classics from the debut album. First the title track completely blows me away and I would say the gig peaks here. Steve Bettney‘s´ fantastic vocal performance has been mentioned before and this is a song he really shines on and he screams are there like it was 1981. We go on with one of their most known songs called “Crusader” which is the opening track on the debut album and the fist is in the air! When they finish the song Brofest go “Saracen, Saracen Saracen”. I chant along having goosebumps all over. The crowd is really paying tribute to this great band that rarely play live, The place goes nuts when they announce that they only have one song left and they leave the stage with “Ready to Fly”.
All in all it was a too short set and it leaves you yearning for more. There are so many great new songs on Vox in Excelsio and Redemption that deserve a live treatment. Personally I think in particular on Redemption the mighty opener “Rockamadour” which is well up to par with their old material. And the whole album goes on like that. I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to catch them live and look forward to getting more into their history and future plans in the forthcoming interview. Stay tuned for some Saracen audio coming up and hear them telling the story of their career from way back in 1976 when they were called Lammergier! Don´t ask me to pronunce that. And by the way, I think you should rethink that decision about Change of Heart. Although not a conventional Saracen record in all senses of the word it is a shame having it collect dust on the shelf. There are some good songs on it. A proper CD reissue is long overdue.