January 12, 2008
By Wade O'Neill
July 14, 2005
"SKYCLAD are the perfect example of what's wrong with the music industry. One of the greatest bands in world, yet they remain relatively obscure because they don't fit some record companies' marketing plan. If you want great music, not trends or hype, check out SKYCLAD. You won't be disappointed."|
Mark Briody, guitarist of JAG PANZER
Remember the 80s? When bands would crank out great album after great album, every year, and still manage to shoehorn a world tour between releases? Then came the 90s, and bands started taking years before releasing their next CD. Why have things changed? Perhaps record labels need more time to promote albums, whereas in the glory days, bands seemed to promote themselves by constantly releasing music. MAIDEN was undeniably the band of the 80s, releasing a string of seven classic albums, and one of the greatest live albums of all time. But even the MAIDEN machine switched to a slower gear in the 90s. MANOWAR released their first (and many would say best) four albums in a three year span (1982-84); nowadays, fans are lucky to get a new album every four years. There was one band, however, that took the 90s by its horns, but unfortunately arrived when metal was already uncool. Had SKYCLAD emerged a decade earlier, everyone would be talking about them today.
Hell, there wouldn't even be a need for this article.
The Greatness of SKYCLAD
Where to begin? Not only do SKYCLAD have the best lyrics in metal, but even their song titles are a treat: "Little Miss Take", "Land Of The Rising Slum", "Thinking Allowed?", "The Disenchanted Forest" - the list goes on. Martin Walkyier's lyrics contain Shakespeare allusions, Oscar Wilde quotes, puns aplenty, and some of the greatest lines in history:
- "Here lie the bones of some poor homeless vagrant. He died as he lived: in the shit on the pavement."
- "This one's for the teachers, who want to be preachers. Will God keep you warm when you're cold? You put those wracked by malnutrition, straight onto your diet of superstition."
- "Hereís a real beggars banquet, a brace of rats in a blood stained blanket. Meanwhile, gentlefolk high in their chateau, dip silver spoons into black forest gateau."
- "I placed you on a pedestal - you tossed me in the gutter. It seems your lies were like those thighs - spread easier than butter."
- "If life is sweet, then I'm diabetic. The future looks rosy? I just went color blind."
Walkyier is a man with something to say, but more importantly, he knows how to say it. But even the above lyrics would sound dumb with a generic death metal vocalist on the mic. Walkyier might not have any vocal training, but his style is unique and he has the passion to pull it off. He doesn't hold notes, so much as he barks out syllables in bitter staccato fashion.
Musically, SKYCLAD are equally unique, having pioneered the "folk metal" genre, influencing artists like ELVENKING. But have no fear, as most SKYCLAD albums are undeniably metal. Sure, they have a fiddle player, but consider the fiddle an added bonus, like the cherry on a slice of Black Forrest cake. Steve Ramsey is the greatest songwriter this side of Steve Harris. From 1991-2000, SKYCLAD churned out ten full-length albums, but even more astounding is the fact that each album sounds different...that so much growth could occur in so short a time. The SKYCLAD discography contains folk-rock, thrash metal, and everything in between. From the perspective of a potential new fan, it may be difficult to know where to start. So here's a brief rundown:
Wayward Sons Of Mother Earth (1991) - SKYCLAD's first album was thrash, but of a more melodic, less chaotic variety than SABBAT. At this point, Walkyier is cramming as many syllables into a vocal line as possible. His lyrics are anti-human, and seem primitive only when compared to his later work. Only one track hints at things to come. On the "Widdershin's Jig", the violin was brought in as an experiment, and it worked marvelously. Never before could one dance to something so heavy. (8.5/10)
Burnt Offering For The Bone Idol (1992) - More melodic. Fritha Jenkins comes aboard as a full-time fiddle player, and the violin becomes a more frequent element of the band's sound - don't worry, this album is still heavier than a hippopotamus with a high-carb diet. The lyrics cover everything from Saddam Hussein, to AIDS, to child abuse. Walkyier's machine gun bark is slowed down, without losing any of its bite. A classic...that's sadly out of print. (9.5/10)
Prince Of The Poverty Line (1994) - As the title suggests, the main focus of this album is poverty. The guitars are heavy, the sound primal, and dirty, as if it were recorded in the gutter. The violin is used often, but is far from being a pervasive element in the band's sound. The album's two strongest tracks - "Womb Of The Worm" and "Land Of The Rising Slum" - contain zero violin, relying instead on powerful, pavement cracking riffs. (10/10)
The Silent Whales Of Lunar Sea (1995) - Sandwiched between superior albums, "Silent Whales" is one of the more overlooked albums in my SKYCLAD collection. Music teacher, Georgina Biddle, steps in as SKYCLAD's new fiddle player, and the band starts using the violin more than ever. However, the heavy vocals and production hold "Silent Whales" back from the direction it wants to go. Still, a worthwhile listen. (7.5/10)
Irrational Anthems (1996) - Some would call this album "more commercial", but I would say "more accessible". "Irrational Anthems" is the most middle of the road between the band's folk and metal incarnations. The production is clean, and had the promotion been there, songs like "Penny Dreadful" and "Inequality Street" would've been hit singles. A great starting point, but for some reason, the lyrics aren't printed in the booklet. (9.5/10)
Oui Avant-Garde A Chance (1996) - SKYCLAD tone down the metal with this folk-rock release and the results are mixed. Tracks like "A Great Blow For A Day Job" and "If I Die Laughing" stand among the band's best, but with two forgettable covers (Come on Eileen?), an instrumental version of a song already on the album, and two alternate versions of songs from "Irrational Anthems", "Oui Avant-Garde a Chance" feels more like an overlong EP than a legitimate full-length. (6.5/10)
The Answer Machine? (1997) - Even mellower than its predecessor, but more focused. "The Answer Machine?" contains all original material, and for the most part it works. SKYCLAD have totally shifted to the folk-side of the spectrum, with only "Eirenarch" and "Fainting By Numbers" hinting at their metal past. Walkyier speak-sings his way through varied lyrical themes. Although "The Answer Machine?" is a few songs too long, nothing on here is weak. (8.5/10)
Vintage Whine (1999) - This is the album that best exemplifies the term "folk metal". Producer Kevin Ridley joins Ramsey on the guitar, and the result is a triumphant return to metal. Unlike their past metal releases where the fiddle steps in, says "hi" and leaves, on "Vintage Whine" the fiddle is as constant an element as the drums, bass, and guitar. (10/10)
Folkemon (2000) - The last album with Martin Walkyier, and the singer goes out with his most inspired vocal performance to date. In terms of heaviness, "Folkemon" picks up right where "Vintage Whine" left off, but in terms of quality, it's a step down. The albums has its share of classics ("Polkageist", "The Disenchanted Forest"), but it also has a couple sleeping pills ("Crux Of The Message", "Any Old Irony"). (8/10)
Now, if you're already a SKYCLAD fan, you may have already typed the following e-mail:
What kind of poser fan are you? How could you forget SKYCLAD's 1993 opus, 'Jonah Ark'? Iíve always considered myself an opponent of the death penalty, but your shoddy journalism proves that some people really do deserve to die."
Before you hit "Send", let me say that I didn't forget the album. How could I? "Jonah's Ark" is one of the greatest metal albums of all time - easily the best non-MAIDEN album of all timeóand without the benefit of childhood nostalgia. No short blurb could've done this album justice...and I'm not sure this longer blurb does either:
Jonah's Ark (1993) - On their third album, SKYCLAD shed what remains of their thrash roots. Although the violin is used more often, "Jonah's Ark" is still metal. A lot of the heaviness comes from the bass, which is high in the mix, unlike many albums where you have to literally squint with your ears to hear the bass. "Cry Of The Land" is a single person duet, with Walkyier's clean and heavy voices trading off. It's something the band should have tried more often, but works marvelously here. "Schadenfreude" is 100% folk-free, opening with a riff that's heavier than the former WWF tag-team of Earthquake and Typhoon. The keyboards add an otherworldly ambience, as do the female backing vocals come chorus-time. "Earth Mother, The Sun, And The Furious Host" is the folk metal song by which all other folk metal songs are judged. The bass rolls underneath the verses, with the fiddle kicking in on cue. "The Ilk Of Human Blindness" makes listeners feel as if the world is crumbling around them.
"Bewilderbeast" has the band experimenting with a more Spanish flavor, and its lyrics will resonate with those who think bullfighting is bull. "It Wasn't Meant To End This Way" is exactly how an album of this magnitude should end: with a sense of doom, and the best clean singing of Walkyier's career. I could go on forever about this album, but I'd much rather listen to it. Few albums before and no album since has proven a match for "Jonahís Ark". (15/10)
The End of an Era
"Folkemon" was the first SKYCLAD release on Nuclear Blast, but the major labor signing proved to be a false omen. Nuclear Blast did little to support the band, and after the weak sales of the album, Walkyier announced that he was leaving. The ground then fell out from under the Blast deal, and SKYCLAD found themselves without a home. It would have been nice to end the era with a two-disc commemorative best of, or better yet, a career-encompassing live album, but SKYCLAD fans received neither.
Massacre Records released "History Lessens: An Introduction To The Artist", which includes a song selection the label probably pulled out of a hat. Not only does it ignore "Folkemon" and the first three albums, but songs like "Jumping My Shadow" would have been more at home on "Folking Crap: The Worst Of Skyclad". And to top it off, there are no lyrics in the booklet. If you want an introduction to SKYCLAD, you'd be better off buying ANY of the albums...at least the individual albums have some degree of continuity. The collection gets a big fat zero out of ten...as opposed to those small, skinny zeroes most reviewers give out.
The first release on SKYCLAD's new label, Demolition, was "Another Fine Mess". Instead of a career spanning live release, we get only seven live tracks from all the way back in 1995 - at the time of the release of "Another Fine Mess", the tracks were already 6-years-stale. To make matters worse, four of the seven live tracks come from the "Silent Whales" album, which makes "Another Fine Mess" a far from balanced offering. To the band's credit, the live tracks do justice to the studio versions, but the only reason to buy this collection would be for the four bonus tracks, taken from the rare, out-of-print "Outrageous Fourtunes EP". The EP was originally handed out with promo copies of "The Answer Machine?" and features four SKYCLAD classics redone in the mellower "The Answer Machine?" style. If you're a fan, these four bonus tracks make the collection a solid 7/10, but "Another Fine Mess" could have been so much more.
The Live Album That Should Have Been
01. The Great Brain Robbery
02. A Great Blow For A Day Job
05. Land Of The Rising Slum
06. Brimstone Ballet
08. Vintage Whine
09. The Disenchanted Forest
10. Spinning Jenny
11. Womb Of The Worm
01. Crown Of Thorns
02. Building A Ruin
03. Earth Mother, The Sun And The Furious Host
06. I Dubious
07. Penny Dreadful
08. Little Miss Take
09. The Widdershin's Jig
11. It Wasn't Meant To End This Way
So what is SKYCLAD's legacy in the new millennium? A small label means a shoestring budget, so it's unlikely that we'll see a new album every year. As far as their popularity is concerned, the band's Demolition releases are only available via the web, so older fans who aren't as comp-savvy don't even know that SKYCLAD are still going. In 2002, SKYCLAD released a bunch of old songs, with their new singer, Kevin Ridley, reworked in an Irish-pub style. It was a good, 7/10, introduction to Ridley's voice, but it would take until 2004 for an album of new material to be released. "A Semblance of Normality" (read review) proves that SKYCLAD are capable of surviving, even without Martin. Although I'm excited to hear what SKYCLAD will come up with in the future, I wish there was something better to honor their past. [FIN]
» Official SKYCLAD Website