SKYCLAD – IN THE… ALL TOGETHER (SCARLET RECORDS 2009)

REVIEW BY KASSU KORTELAINEN / SEPTEMBER 2009

The quintessential folk metal band Skyclad haven’t gotten their engines rolling on full throttle since the departure of vocalist/lyricist Martin Walkyier after 2000’s ‘Folkémon’ album. The remake album ‘No Daylights… Nor Heeltaps’ (2002) offered interestingly arranged, but lame remakes of the band’s old tunes and first proper studio album with new singer Kevin Ridley, ‘A Semblance Of Normality’ (2004) was riddled with inconsistent songwriting and performance. Replacing a key member of the group is not an easy thing for any band, and though the absence of Walkyier shows on Skyclad’s recent efforts, it’s both unfair and pointless to keep pouring the blame solely on the change in personnel. After all, the slump in creativity was already starting to show on ‘Folkémon’ and the fact that the band had put forth a long line of high quality albums one after another in less than a decade is as rare an event as it is remarkable.

From the furious thrash menace of Skyclad debut ‘The Wayward Sons Of Mother Earth’ in 1991 to the mellower folk hard rock on later nineties ‘Oui Avant-Garde á Chance’ and ‘The Answer Machine?’ and again back to the heavier sound, Skyclad’s discography is a formidable selection on music that is characterized by some of metal’s most ingenious lyrics, clever songwriting and the ability to mould folk elements to heavy music. The band is usually regarded as the inventors of the whole folk metal genre, and quite justifiably so. A folk metal band that says they’re not influenced by these brits, is either lying or playing something completely else.

With a brand new album out in the stores, Skyclad takes another attempt to reclaim their old glory. And for any reviewer, it’s only fair for the band that ‘In The… All Together’ should be viewed objectively as it is, without whining about the loss of Walkyier (currently with thrash legends Sabbat). So, with that in mind, let us turn our view on the new Skyclad album.

The album starts with an odd mixture of electronic beat and phone dial beeps, as fitting to Skyclad’s style to present things in unexpected ways. Soon enough the metal drive kicks in, and the opening song ‘Words Upon The Street’ blasts forth as an recognizable Skyclad tune. Solid riffs, Georgina Biddle’s prominent fiddle, a tempo that grabs the listener straight in… the opener turns out to be a good introduction to the new album. Notable improvement to the previous album can be heard in Kevin Ridley’s voice, as the singer shows a much tougher side of himself right from the start. Compared to ‘Semblance’, Ridley doesn’t stick to the sort of a monotonic state he was caught on the previous album, but instead approaches the delivery of ‘Words Upon The Street’ with some true metal guts. His voice feels a bit strained as he shouts the verses with a coarse sounding throat but the emotion is there and it’s just what Skyclad tunes need. After all, Walkyier didn’t have what you’d call a beautiful or most technically skilled voice either, but he set the songs on fire by belting out his lyrics with very strong feeling. Way better than before, Ridley seems to have acquired that approach at last, and in music where the lyrics are more complex than your average ‘kill the dragon’ or ‘I love you baby’ the ability to make the listener buy everything you say, it’s extremely important.

As the couple of next songs play on, the album starts to sound like a very positive surprise and a potential return to form. Track number two ‘Still Small Beer’ continues the drinking song theme that is not very ‘skycladish’, but has followed the band through the 2000’s. The song’s not amongst the band’s finest, but provides a good party tune and lets the band play like possessed. The approach is fast, almost punky, and actually sounds more like something bands like Flogging Molly or Dropkick Murphys would come up with. But it’s true moshpit material that’s bound to cause the more intoxicated audience knock down a bar table or two.

‘The Well-Travelled Man’ is up next, and definitely worth a closer look, as it’s not only the best song on the album but an excellent track counting in band’s whole discography. Beginning and ending – as if bound in a three part book – with enchantingly adhesive, sorrowful beauty, the song offers some very emotional strings and guitars to set the mood to go with the lyrics. In the middle it proves to be a much more complex piece – a very well written song that features all the key Skyclad elements from unexpected solutions to Steve Ramsey’s juicy guitars, pounding aggression hailing from the thrash side of the band, and well-built melodies. As the real hook, the song sinks in it’s powerful chorus that stays firm in your mind. To top it all, Kevin Ridley is excellent. He transforms himself from the tranquil storyteller of the prologue & epilogue parts into a roaring crowd-rouser who launches the verses from his lungs with full force. Now here’s something that should silence the people longing after Walkyier for a while!

So, three songs and things are only getting better. After the aforementioned highlight track, the expectations were rocketing through the roof. But then, something happened.

Album’s fourth track ‘Black Summer Rain’ still works. Though stepping out of the traditional Skyclad bounds – this kinda grimy heavy rock is usually expected from bands like Motörhead and such – the track sounds pretty good. But then, unfortunately, ‘In The… All Together’ starts to go downhill.

On the remaining songs, there are some good moments but none of them manages to salvage the tracks from their flaws. The main problem is inconsistency within and between the songs. ‘Which Is Why’, for example, has a well working ‘Answer Machine?’ -era feel but is crippled by an unattractive chorus that manages to knock the wind out of the track. ‘Babakoto’ is a weird psychedelic journey to nowhere and ‘Hit List’ gets lost in it’s own multi-dimensionality. At some point it feels like the pressure to include Skyclad-style meaningful, deep lyrics has filled the songs with overly long phrases that won’t give the song any room to breathe. The lyrics on the album are good, but in the past they locked into the songs with uncanny ease. On other occasions the going gets cacophonic when all the instruments follow different paths and vocals are clouded by all sorts of moans and wails. Also Ridley becomes caught in the inconsistency – on many songs the emotion so well present on f.ex. ‘The Well-Travelled Man’ is completely gone and – to quote a friend – he sounds like reciting a shopping list. The difference is huge and it’s a mystery why – because at the beginning of the album the guy showed he can do so much better.

‘In The… All Together’ is a mixed bag of tricks. The best parts work brilliantly and the good songs lure the listener back to them again and again. The other side are the tired and confused songs that pile up towards the end, making the listening session droop. If Skyclad would add some more punch to the songs, would maintain the fury and fire that’s present at the first half of the album, and keep the pace consistent, the next album could hopefully get it all really together.

2k

skyclad_itat

1. Words Upon The Street
2. Still Small Beer
3. The Well-Travelled Man
4. Black Summer Rain
5. Babakoto
6. Hit List
7. Superculture
8. Which Is Why
9. Modern Minds
10. In The… All Together

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About Kassu Kortelainen