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This is probably my favorite Cloven Hoof release. It would unquestionably reign supreme (and let's get this out of the way right now) if the damn production weren't so godawful! Pretty much everything except the vocals and the guitar solos are just totally crippled. It's as if you're standing with Russ North next to you, and the rest of the band is in another room; Andy Wood ducks in for the solos (and not the leads, strangely enough). This really hurts, because if you really pay attention to the riffs, they're really good.
Now, that said, this isn't nearly as bad as it could have been, because the vocals that the production brings way to the fore are just great. Russ North is a top-notch singer, with a good mid- and high-range; the verses are interesting, and the choruses are just totally anthemic, usually involving the requisite really high notes and/or multi-tracking that are expected from such things. These choruses are often more subtle than you might guess, too. For example, in the opening track "Rising Up", there's a multi-tracked line that sings harmony in the background; with each repetition of the chorus, it gets slightly louder and jumps up in pitch, going from non-existent on the first "Rising Up!", to quiet and mid-range on the second, to almost the same volume as the main voice and super-high in the third and final one. It's a neat touch that counters the boredom that the chorus might otherwise cause if it were just repeated exactly the same each time.
You may have noticed that this album has a sci-fi theme; they've even suborned "Road of Eagles", which was originally from their 1982 demo for this purpose, with the lyrics altered from their original medieval theme to fit Dominator's. Now, I'm not sure if this is actually a product of the music itself, or just some subconscious side-effect that comes from knowing what the lyrics are about, but somehow this whole album has this sci-fi atmosphere to it. Any discussion of an album's atmosphere is going to be fairly subjective, but I'll try to explain this as objectively as I can; a possible musical explanation would be the combination of high-pitched, often minor-key vocals, with the galloping guitars, blazing solos, and generally epic vibe the songs give off. To me, it combines the exultant, wondrous feel of being in the glorious far-future where man reigns across the stars and wields the nigh god-like power of technology (best represented in "Rising Up"), with the depressive edge that comes with the realization that things still generally crappy and death and destruction are still parts of everyday life (best represented in the title track). The world of Dominator is no utopia, with the desperate rebels fighting back against the oppressive rule of the Dominator. It's hardly an original theme in science fiction, but the album really conveys that feel through the music, with the epic final track describing the climactic final battle (raze the empire to the ground!), the outcome of which is left up to the imagination of the listener. Another album that has a similar effect would be Scanner's Hypertrace; a little like Star Wars meets Conan.
But enough about the "feel" of the album, what about the music itself? Well, by this time Cloven Hoof really aren't sounding nearly as classically "NWOBHM" as they used to. Dominator came out in 1988, and by then the original NWOBHM scene had pretty much played itself out. Diamond Head had already shot its load, Angel Witch's latest album was crap, Saxon's 1988 album was the worst of their career, etc. ad nauseam. Even the mighty Iron Maiden released its last good album in 1988, and the sound on Seventh Son of a Seventh Son is hardly what comes to mind when you think of NWOBHM. Most of the NWOBHM bands that survived this long were either coasting along on previous success or had been forced to adapt. Cloven Hoof was certainly one of the latter, and Dominator sounds almost like early power metal; at rare times it even reminds me of Manilla Road, with their penchant for tricking you with unusual song structures (sometimes just when a song is about to end and you think it's shown you everything, a new melody or section comes out of nowhere right before it ends, as in "Nova Battlestar"). Yes, it's that epic. The blatant dual-guitar harmonies are almost absent on this album, except for the final track, which as I mentioned before is from their 1982 album anyway. There are also these cool march bits, like in the middle of "Nova Battlestar" and at the beginning of "Road of Eagles". As for the rock elements that still shine through in most NWOBHM, they're all but gone here, and the requisite hard rock single (see "Crack the Whip" on the band's first album) is mercifully absent on Dominator.
As for highlights, the whole damn album is a highlight. Ok, ok, I'll give some examples. The minor-key verse melody in "Nova Battlestar" is fantastic; the classic buildup in "Warrior of the Wasteland" is phenomenal (the last command!); the chorus in "The Fugitive" is fabulous, and brings fond memories of the one in Maiden's "The Prisoner"; the lyrics in "Dominator" (the song) bring a smile to my face with images of evil space-Nazis. Really, this album is like a "greatest hits", except it's somehow simultaneously a concept album. Not one song drags, and every chorus is an anthem. But oh boy, did they save the best for last. Surprised that a song they wrote for their 1982 demo is the best track on here? Well, I've heard both versions, and the one from Dominator just shits from a great height all over the previous one. They gave it some serious re-writing, with mostly new lyrics, and Russ North turns the vocals from what were originally a weakness into the best part of the song (David Potter, though a fine mid-ranger, was not at all cut out for a high-pitched epic sound). The chorus is just about as epic as it gets, too:
Lift the banner of freedom on high,
raze the empire to the ground.
Let arrow fly, let warning sound,
as free men we choose to die.
They also re-worked the dual-guitar-harmony section, which was good but went on for too long on the original version; there's now a nice riff underneath, which helps to move things along and not get boring. The solo afterwards was totally re-written, and is much, much better. The original also went on for a full minute, and tended to drag, while this one only lasts for about forty seconds and never gets old. But after that, holy crap, comes the spoken-word section. On the first version they used a pitch-shifter on it to make the voice really deep and it just served to ruin it with cheesiness (and not the cool kind of cheesiness, like on Saxon's "Crusader"), but here Russ North's voice is thankfully untouched, and the epic words are uncheesed:
"Our kinsmen's bodies' litter
foreign fields of death.
Only the prophets may know
what the future may bring.
Brother against brother
cursing with his last dying breath...
The king is dead!
Long live the King!"
And then it just EXPLODES into a totally new vocal melody, which on the original was mediocre, but here, thanks to a great singer and the addition of a multi-tracked vocal harmony, it turns into the best part of the song: "MUST THE HANDS OF MAN BE STAINED FOREVER?" Wow, what a winner. The only other instance of a spoken word section being used to such great effect I can think of is, oddly enough, on "Exiled Archangels" from Rotting Christ's Thy Mighty Contract. The song slows down for the spoken word bit, then there's that great line "I NAME YOU UNDER OUR CULT!" and the song explodes into...well, into a great melodic riff rather than a vocal harmony, but aside from that small discrepancy it's the exact same effect within the song. Really, the band might as well have written "Road of Eagles" in 1988 for Dominator, because it's almost a completely different song.
This is just a classic album, and if they were to remaster this one I could easily see myself coming back here and bumping up the review's percentage. That's really the only thing holding it back, and if you're a fan of epic heavy metal and can get past that, you'll love Dominator.
Bringing in drummer Jon Brown from nowhere, guitarist Andy Wood and star vocalist Russ North from Tredegar as well as a bit of said band’s epic style and crescendo-style choruses (though the rhythmic excellency of, for example, Duma was left behind), Lee Payne made a very successful investment, though most of the profit came a bit later.
Dominator shows the A Sultan’s Ransom line-up when they hadn’t yet quite figured out how to do what they wanted done, so don’t expect another stellar masterpiece. While this album centers about outlandish sci-fi themes it understandably doesn’t quite have the same level of quality.
Kept are the rocking parts of Fighting Back, but combined with Russ North – and bam, do we have a winner! The Fugitive for example, fits him much better than Rob Hendrick. Then again, what doesn’t? Also included is quite a foretaste of the epic and melodic qualities they would perfect on A Sultan’s Ransom. They tend to lose energy a bit every now and then, especially in Nova Battlestar and the two closing tracks, but while this is imperfection it certainly isn’t a problem.
The production, however, is problematic. This is the kind of album that needs a healthy dose of remastering, sooner rather than later. Hopefully it will get just that in the planned reissue. The massive underproduction restricts and takes away a lot of the could have been-Dominator, leaving the holes in the composition-wise mostly great songs exposed. If you want to hear a weaker Hoof band with unenthusiastic guitar tone, or, more likely, want to hear all their albums, go ahead right away.