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Skyclad's "Happy" Hour - 80%

Sean16, May 10th, 2009

When I decided to write a review for every Skyclad album, picking each of them more or less randomly had been part of the game; however I’d known since the beginning I’d finish on Vintage Whine. Why? The album which introduced you to a band, especially a band with such a lengthy discography, necessarily has to always retain its particular niche in your heart. Not to say it’s my favourite by any mean. The Silent Whales of Lunar Sea would easily win the prize, and I always had a special inclination for the unfairly overlooked “extended EP” Oui Avant-Garde à Chance. But in retrospect, Vintage Whine was probably the best introduction to our best-loved British misanthropes.

Coming after the controversial The Answer Machine, it appears like an unexpected spark of light. I don’t hold any serious grievance against The Answer Machine but it’s nonetheless a tame, quiet, probably too subtle, slightly frustrating, slightly annoying album. By contrast Vintage Whine, launched by its ironically triumphant brass intro of course not devoid of hidden mockery (Kiss my Sweet... Brass), a unique occurrence of brass instruments in the whole ‘Clad history, sounds all bright, clear and shining. It’s easily their album boasting the highest number of bouncing, lively, upbeat, rockish tracks, alongside The Silent Whales of Lunar Sea, at first giving the false impression of an overall happy band, more in the lines of what newcomers usually associate with the infamous folk metal tag. Hell, The Silver Cloud’s Dark Lining is almost a dancing tune! Though, put in perspective with the complete Skyclad works, this one seems to lack of really immortal songs. It’s fast, it’s at first catchy, but it undoubtedly lacks a bit of staying power.

The reason may be simple. It’s no coincidence the title track sounds like a watered-down version of Building Up a Ruin, the only really lively track on The Answer Machine, and indeed it seems like – maybe unconsciously, maybe in a deliberate way of denying the accusations of having turned soft - the band just wished to write a full album of sequels of the aforementioned song. Not to say it was a bad idea; Building Up a Ruin is a top Skyclad number, and there’s a good deal of excellent tracks from this vein here: On With Their Heads, The Silver Cloud’s Dark Lining, Cancer of the Heart or Little Miss Take are all contributing to what is eventually still one of the strongest Skyclad releases. The process just appears a bit too mechanical and, while The Answer Machine was probably too subtle, Vintage Whine isn’t subtle enough. I’m unfortunately still not familiar enough with the entirety of Martin Walkyier’s great lyrics, but somewhere amongst the 150 ‘Clad songs there must well be one about people who can’t be pleased whatsoever!

Thus the best track might well be one a tad less immediate, a tad less shining, I’m talking about, let’s say, Bury Me. It’s not exactly the title which will first come to the lips of a Skyclad fan, and it’s a pity. It may first be because of the couple of mediocre tracks immediately preceding it, which don’t really put the listener into good dispositions for a cleverer, ingenious piece of work. C’mon, we all know there’s no 'Clad album totally devoid of any filler, but a song like A Well Beside the River, never beginning, never ending, with Walkyier speaking rather than really singing, the violin only repeating the same poor, deliquescent line over and over, not mentioning the elementary guitars, is simply scandalous (No Strings Attached, while almost equally bad, is less surprising – just the usual crappy acoustic ballad the guys put out once in a while). Bury Me, on the contrary, should at least be singled out for its incredible middle section where, for once, the band plays with backing vocals in a rather tasteful fashion. Backing vocals never were Skyclad’s strongest point, often sounding pretty idiotic, but here the duet between the angry, spiteful, disdainful Walkyier and the backing choral litany of Bury Me! Bury Me! Come on and Bury Me! is of a tragically comic effect. No politics for once, but another of the numerous moments dedicated to this special brand of voracious women Walkyier seems to have a particular (dis)taste for.

The production is worth a word as well. It’s a tad more polished than on previous releases, probably reinforcing the overall “bright” effect, with a particular emphasis put on bass (e.g. Cancer of the Heart) which only other equivalent in the whole ‘Clad discography might be on Prince of the Poverty Line (I said, might, well it’s not that easy to carry an extended and objective comparison of ELEVEN albums). Eventually it must be the album where the characteristic use of the uninterrupted, wandering violin lines is put to its paroxysm – but don’t forget it’s Skyclad, the ultimately ironical band: after a totally violin-driven release Georgie Biddle just remembers she’s also supposed to be the act's resident keyboardist and writes a short piano conclusion, a process which isn’t without similarities with the fact of sticking a pipes intro before the otherwise un-folkish A Semblance of Normality album.

Indeed, Vintage Whine must be the Skyclad release which is the easiest to get into. Could I do anything but recommend it to anyone new with the originators of folk metal? Granted, it may not be the very best, but it’s nonetheless a pretty solid album, and at least people wouldn’t be disappointed when checking their other works. And why should they? If the reviewer has to be picky, the fan doesn’t have to. The fan doesn’t have to be rational. Understand this, each of the eleven Skyclad full-lengths is great. Now on these ultimate words of wisdom my series comes to an end.

Highlights: On With their Heads!, The Silver Cloud’s Dark Lining, Bury Me, Little Miss Take