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Second-generation occult NWOBHM; a classic - 91%

failsafeman, March 27th, 2008

Cloven Hoof are one of those few bands that changes in style and still stays good; they even switch singers, and though very different from each other, both men are some of the best at what they do. Before I jump into the actual musical description, first I feel I must really address an important aspect of this album: it’s second-generation NWOBHM. What does that mean, exactly? Well, on the surface it obviously means that this is a band that came after the progenitors of the genre, who kicked things off back around 1980; I’m talking of course about Angel Witch, Diamond Head, Iron Maiden, and Saxon (others too, but those are the big four). Those four bands were all groundbreaking in slightly different areas; Angel Witch focused on the occult feel that Mercyful Fate and the French heavy metal scene would pick up a few years later, while Saxon was more straight-ahead blue collar rock, which Swedish bands would add an epic flair to, and so on. Anyway, the second generation of NWOBHM started where the earlier bands left off, and often expanded somewhat upon their predecessors’ work; they weren’t nearly as far removed from the originals as most of the other scenes of the mid-80s, but still these second generation bands were often markedly heavier, more complex, and more focused than their predecessors. Avenger would be a quintessential example of a second-generation NWOBHM band; catchy and consistent, unspectacular but solid. They and similar bands had seen enough of the older generation to know what was a good direction and what was a dead end; even though the original inspiration that sparked the creative explosion was dying out, there was still some refinement going on.

A major problem with the metal scene, however, is its blatant ancestor-worship; bands that were innovative or influential are often elevated to a godhood they don’t deserve, and as such their usually very real innovation and influence, not to mention quality, get blown way out of proportion. It is very important for us metalheads to attempt to view this sort of band with a skeptical eye, and stop glossing over their flaws and simplifying their scenes to such a degree that it seems these “gods” are the entire extent of them, rather than just a part. NWOBHM is easily one of the most important metal scenes of all time, right up there with bay area thrash and Norwegian black metal, yet the average metalhead can probably only name Iron Maiden, if he even knows what NWOBHM really is in the first place. (As a quick aside, people always seem to love pointing out Iron Maiden influence in 80s heavy/power/speed metal bands, as if it’s some stunning revelation; never mind the fact that most often these later bands take that influence and use the compositional elements to make something with a completely different mood and atmosphere. Identifying that influence is about as useful to getting a handle on a band’s sound as saying a car was influenced by whatever caveman invented the wheel, and this is even ignoring the many other NWOBHM bands that were also influential, which may easily have had more of an impact on certain bands.) Now, I’m no Iron Maiden detractor, and I’ll be the first to admit they’re a great and highly influential band, but they don’t deserve nearly the acclaim they get; I wouldn’t even call them the best NWOBHM had to offer. Influence alone is in no way necessarily indicative of quality, and just because a band is more influential than another does not at all mean it’s better (the oft-imitated Helloween is a good example of a shitty yet influential band). In short, just because Cloven Hoof didn’t drastically shape the NWOBHM landscape and inspire countless imitators should not adversely affect your opinion of this album. The sooner metal gets away from this ignorant ancestor-worshipping bullshit and historical oversimplification the better.

With that editorial over with, I’ll get on with the review. Cloven Hoof take the occult feel of Angel Witch and combine it with a more muscular, aggressive approach; think Satan on steroids (the fallen angel, not the band), or maybe a more complex Sweet Savage. The songs and riffs especially are also light-years ahead of the first-generation stuff, both in terms of complexity and heaviness. With a few exceptions, the rock influence has also been scaled back in favor of a purer metal feel. David Potter, in direct contrast with Hoof’s later frontman Russ North, is a quintessential NWOBHM-style bellower. He’s also in my opinion the very best at the style; his energy and charisma are just unmatched, and the ragged edge to his voice just makes him all the better. Where North is clearly the master of the more epic, power metal style stuff complete with frequent multi-tracked harmonization, and his rendition of “Road of Eagles” is far superior to the original, Potter is indisputably the king of the occult. I couldn’t imagine the title track to this album with any other singer, and he totally steals the show with his vigorous entreaties to Satan (not the NWOBHM Satan). The double-guitar leads are some of the best in all of NWOBHM, and deftly avoid going on for too long, a trap the technique is prone to. Two things which obviously set Cloven Hoof’s debut apart from many of its fellows is its penchant for longer songs and their use of backing choirs in certain sections, both with great result. The guitars have a slightly twangy, tinny tone to them, but rather than being detrimental, it totally enhances the atmosphere to such an extent that I cannot imagine them any other way. The mix is great, with the guitars right up front; Potter and the drums are clearly audible but not overbearing (whatever the fuck happened to the production on Dominator didn’t happen here, thank Satan, and I don’t mean the band). In fact, the only fault I can find with this album is a bit of inconsistency in the songs; “Nightstalker” and “Laying Down the Law” are solid, but don’t live up to the longer numbers, and “Crack the Whip” is probably a single attempt. It’s not horrible, and manages to be catchy, but is only barely worth the time it takes to listen to.

Of course, the real meat of the album lies in the longer songs, the first of which is the title track. This is, simply put, one of the greatest songs to ever come out of the NWOBHM scene. It’s a fucking monster, just dripping with joyous blasphemy and evil glee; the song describes the ritual performed to summon Satan (no, not the band), and captures the atmosphere perfectly. After a bit of a drum intro and an unusual, punkish opening riff (which never reappears), the main riff charges out with Potter’s proclamation of sacrilege riding on top. “THE HOUSE OF GOD HAS BEEN…VIOLATED!” Surely that’s one of the absolute best album-opening lines in all of metal. “CROSS UPTURNED, ALTAR…DESECRATED!” Sorry, I’ll stop now. Then comes a little interlude complete with spoken invocation, and the song builds up again with the choirs I mentioned earlier enhancing the evil atmosphere wonderfully. More chanting follows (that “eko eko” part is actually a “real” incantation called the Witch’s Rune), and after a heavy bit another interlude with more choral parts; finally the song builds back up into a massive crushing finish, in which the summoning is successful and the summoner carried off to hell. Did I mention the riffs? They’re all great, except maybe that slightly weird opening one, but it’s not bad and easily forgivable. Oh, and the whole thing is musically structured along with the narrative, which totally works.

“March of the Damned” is a little instrumental which leads into “The Gates of Gehenna”, another epic in the same vein as the title track; not quite as good, though Potter does bust out a rare falsetto and multi-track harmony to great effect. The mood of this one is slightly different from the title track, in that it’s more of a Dante’s Inferno than a Faust. Still works incredibly well, though, and has a similarly non-recursive song structure (though some riffs and motifs do return). Also, choir + harmonized guitar lead = great. Cloven Hoof were one of the few metal bands who totally nailed the right way to use a background choir (early Manowar and Dark Wizard were two others). That means not just using a choir as some background harmonic layer of fluff to artificially enlarge the sound on the choruses (or all over the place, as some bands do), but actually giving it a good melody and making it an element essential to the composition.

“Return of Passover” is the third and final epic monster of the album, and I’d rate it second behind the title track, but ahead of “The Gates of Gehenna”. It’s also by far the longest, clocking in at nine and a half minutes; you might think it would get dull or boring, but you’d be dead fucking wrong. We’re talking “Satan’s Fall” level of greatness here, or (dare I say?) even slightly better, as “Satan’s Fall” has that somewhat boring section in the middle which “Return of Passover” thankfully lacks. It also has what’s probably the best double-guitar lead of the whole album; right smack in the middle of the song, that ascending one is just great. God, and that final section where the great riff is then overlaid by the great solo, which builds into the great double-guitar lead, which is then backed by the great choir…the way it starts out simple and builds in complexity and atmosphere until the grand finale is just, well, great! For a style as usually unsubtle as NWOBHM is, being able to build tension so well for a whole two minutes without changing the riff is just jaw-dropping; it brings to mind that fantastic section in “Phantom of the Opera” (you know the one), and I couldn’t think of a better way to end the album.

A quick aside in regards to the bonus tracks: skip ‘em. It’s just extra versions of the two worst tracks of the album, and “Road of Eagles”, which is good, but Potter’s rendition simply isn’t one-tenth the song Russ North’s is on Dominator. It just doesn’t fit his style at all, not to mention between then and 1988 they polish up a lot of other aspects (check my review of Dominator for more info).

Anyway, this album is only slightly held back by a few weaker tracks, and in my opinion is a tiny bit better than Dominator, mostly because that album has such a horrendous production. Still, Cloven Hoof is a second-generation NWOBHM masterpiece, right up there with Gypsy Roller from the underrated Chasar and Court in the Act by Satan (and I don’t mean the band…oh wait, I do).