Review Summary: The pioneers of folk metal drop their signature vocalist and the metal, and rerecord some old favorites with a lighter, more accessible, “Irish pub” sound. The result is a more ordinary and more enjoyable album, complete with classic Skyclad lyrics.
On this re-recording album, Skyclad adopted a new sound, and the result is much more accessible than their previous work. Though the song construction is still metal, the instrumentation would probably be best described as folk rock. I would describe this album as folk metal without the metal. The band describes it as an “Irish pub album.” Whatever you call it, it’s a good album.
When former Sabbat vocalist Martin Walkyier and Satan/Pariah guitarist Steve Ramsey set out in 1990 to form the “ultimate pagan metal band,” they could have had no idea what they were starting. Their audacious combination of heavy metal and folk music was crazy enough to work, and when they released their groundbreaking first album, The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth
, listeners of all genres of music eagerly ignored it. But a few musicians noticed, and several other folk metal bands were subsequently formed. The genre evolved and diversified, and folk metal has recently exploded in popularity, to the point that it’s difficult for many of us to remember how bizarre the idea sounded the first time we heard it. Though other bands eventually came along and took the lead in the development of folk metal, Skyclad is still remembered as the first.
In 2001, frontman Martin Walkyier departed from Skyclad, for reasons that I won’t even try to sort out. He was replaced on vocals by band guitarist and producer Kevin Ridley. To many, Martin Walkyier was what made Skyclad the band it was. While he was with them, the band released ten albums in as many years. His pun-laden lyrics were clever enough that only the most devoted of pun-haters could groan at them. And he certainly had a unique singing style. His fans say Skyclad isn’t the same without his voice, and they’re right--but it’s up for debate whether that’s a bad thing.
The voices of Walkyier and Ridley are polar opposites. Walkyier’s voice was thoroughly unique; Ridley’s is thoroughly ordinary. Walkyier generally employed a harsh vocal style that only somewhat obscured the fact that he had a poor singing voice (and a lisp). Ridley uses clean vocals, which showcase his vocal skills. Walkyier had a habit of spitting out lyrics in a way that convinced the listener that he really meant what he was saying; when he sang, there was an exclamation point after every line, if not every word. When Ridley sings, it is often unemotional; most sentences end in a period (see Land of the Rising Slum
--he honestly just sounds bored). Ridley’s voice is technically better and certainly sounds good, but Walkyier’s was so full of passion that many prefer his vocals.
So anyway, for better or for worse, Skyclad and Walkyier parted ways, and, ready to move on into a new era, Skyclad looked backward and re-recorded ten of their earlier songs. Only, this time, they used Ridley’s clean vocals, and lighter, more acoustic, more folky instrumentation. Electric guitars aren’t entirely absent, but they do not dominate. Instrumentally, this is not a metal album. (Skyclad returned to metal--albeit with clean vocals--in their next album, A Semblance of Normality
This clean style does not sound the same as the old Skyclad, but again, it’s debatable whether that’s a bad thing. The band has scrubbed the dirt off some old favorites, and they have found some melodic gems. Metal fans might miss the bite of the old versions, but I for one am glad they decided to stop biting me. Skyclad’s version of metal was more harsh than headbangable, and in my humble opinion, I think they gained more than they lost with this new sound. They have brought out the melody on some of Skyclad’s best numbers. Many of the newer versions even have more energy than the old ones, acoustic guitars notwithstanding (particularly in the acoustic-dominated Spinning Jenny
). This album may be easy to listen to, but it is not
And also, as a re-recording album, Ridley sings Walkyier’s lyrics--and this time around, we can understand them. This is a good thing, quite a good thing. Walkyier’s lyrics really are excellent. The puns range from obvious, as in the song title “Land of the Rising Slum”, to quite subtle, like the line in the anti-pop track Penny Dreadful
: “Painted faces in a circus, images that come to mind”--in reference to the rock magazines Circus and The Face (both of which are now out of business). You simply won’t notice all the puns.
But it’s not just puns that make the lyrics so great, or they wouldn’t be getting three paragraphs. There are also some wonderful metaphors (which are usually intermingled with wordplay). For instance, in Penny Dreadful
, on why they’d rather complain than sell out, Walkyier wrote, “I’d rather be called sour and bitter than be deemed the flavor of the week.” And in the environmental The Cry of the Land
, which is told from the Earth’s point of view, he says, “Mine is the green and gold wealth without end.”
Poetic devices aside, most songs’ lyrics have a passionately-felt meaning. As a highly unsuccessful band for many years, the songs about living in poverty and hunger (for example, Inequality Street
) draw from personal experience. Other themes include environmentalism (The Cry of the Land
), urban decay (Land of the Rising Slum
), political apathy (History Lessons
), sexual temptation (Sins of Emission
), and pop music (Penny Dreadful
The instrumentation is pretty much the same throughout the album--acoustic guitar, violin, usually an electric guitar, and clean vocals--but there is nevertheless a decent amount of variation, from the fast (Land of the Rising Slum
) to the slow (The Cry of the Land
), from the folky melodies (The Widdershins Jig
) to the more rock-oriented (Single Phial
) to the catchy (Spinning Jenny
), from the lyrically obscure (Widdershins Jig
) to the relatively straightforward (Penny Dreadful
I feel I should mention the rest of the band, though there’s not a whole lot to say. They all do their jobs. Guitarist Steve Ramsey and violinist Georgina Biddle each do short, to-the-point solos; they don’t try to dazzle us with technicality, but rather try to add something to the music. Graeme English plays both acoustic guitar and bass; acoustic guitar dominates much of the album, though bass is sometimes hardly audible. On drums, Arron Walton doesn’t let things get boring, providing a reminder that this is, after all, a metal band (he has a particularly interesting performance in History Lessons
This album is worth a listen for anyone with an interest in folk metal or folk rock. For one thing, it just sounds good; it’s also accessible, catchy, and thoroughly enjoyable. It takes a little longer to get into than a lot of catchy music, but it’s definitely rewarding once you’re caught.
Accessible, listenable, enjoyable.
Ridley’s voice: it just sounds good.
Some songs take a while to grow on you
Ridley’s voice--where’s the passion?