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Everyone lets you down... except Skyclad! - 85%

Darth_Roxor, August 28th, 2009

It's been five long years since Skyclad's last long-play release (Semblance of Normality), and the fathers of folk metal return with another 40 minutes of goodness in the form of 'In The... All Together'. How does it compare to the previous releases? Well, to put it shortly, it's 'just another Skyclad album', but I believe every fan of the band should be overjoyed by such a statement, because everything that makes the music great is still present.

Let's start with the most noticeable 'innovation' the CD introduces. You see, Kevin Ridley phoned, and he said he's had about enough of you saying how he's inferior to Martin Walkyier, and boy oh boy, is he pissed off, and you can hear it at the very beginning when he starts shouting out the first verses of the opening track (Words Upon the Street). Indeed, his vocal range has improved a lot, and he uses 'harsher' vocals throughout the album (to get an idea about how they sound, one can also listen to the last minutes of 'Semblance''s 'Hybrid Blues', but I digress). But that is not to say that his 'calmer' clean vocals like the ones you could hear on 'Semblance' are not present - you can still hear them often in songs such as 'The Well-Travelled Man' or 'Which is Why'.

While listening to the album, you'll probably get a lot of 'deja-vus', because many tracks sound familiar to some of the previous songs, but they still manage to feel fresh, different, and definitely aren't recycled or ripped-off (because after all, it's Skyclad we're talking about and not Alestorm). For example, 'Which is Why' sounds a bit like 'No Deposit, No Return' and 'Modern Minds' has a 'Building A Ruin'-ish vibe to it. Also, almost every song holds 'a little something' that makes it feel special. 'Well-Travelled Man' is a great 'half-ballad' resembling a Romanticist's biography lyrically, and it holds non-overdriven, aggressive chords (how's that even possible?) and a very strong violin line, through which Skyclad again shows that this instrument can be used for more than just overly jolly 'Fiddly-fiddly-fiddles'. 'Superculture' has a middle-eastern feel to it, but it's an up-tempo track, unlike 'Semblance''s 'Ballad for the Disenchanted' which was, well, a ballad. 'Hit List' has an absolutely mesmerising acoustic interlude, and 'Modern Minds', for me, is an instant classic, with a wonderful leading riff, a very 'jazzy' guitar solo in the middle, overall memorable and shifting song structure, and lyrics about how humanity trusts in science and politics too much.

Another welcome come-back is made by the violins, which are again very dominant, but played from start to finish by Georgina Biddle (unlike the previous CD, where the Royal Orchestra dominated the field), and to be honest, you can *really* hear the difference between the violins here, which are, well, more 'personal' and mostly in the foreground, unlike in Semblance, where they were mostly in the background, and somehow 'detached' from the overall compositions.

The balance between faster and slower tracks is well-preserved, with some songs shifting tempoes in mid-play. The 'fast' tracks are first and foremost 'Black Summer Rain', which is very 'thrashy', with no violins whatsoever; the opening 'Words Upon The Street'; 'Still Small Beer'; 'Superculture'; 'Modern Minds' and the closing title track. 'Babakoto' and 'Which is Why' are slower, with the first being a very gloomy and ominous track, a bit resembling a hundred times slowed down 'Polkageist' in atmosphere, and the second being a 'typical Skyclad ballad', similar to 'No Deposit, No Return', as I said earlier. 'Well-Travelled Man' starts and ends like a ballad, but gets faster in the middle, 'Hit List' starts fast, then goes through a soothing interlude, and ends like a completely different song, which also shows that the band is not afraid of 'derailing' their song structures.

However, as with everything, there are also downsides. The biggest one is 'Babakoto'. Now, it's not a 'typical' Skyclad song, and I appreciate that they experiment with different sounds, but here we have pretty much, the first Skyclad song that is bad (which is somehow an achievement, I suppose), and that is not really because of the instrumental aspect, but because of Kevin's performance. In the chorus, he hits an almost 'shrieking' high note that has the force of shattering glass, and each time I listen to this song, it just makes me cringe, unfortunately. Second, Still Small Beer. It's another drinking song, but not Anotherdrinkingsong, and I find it to be completely misplaced, because while Anotherdrinkingsong fit the band's style, with its 'Irish' sound, this one sounds like taken straight from one of the Finnish folk metal bands. Please keep your Korpiklaani out of my Skyclad. Third, the title track. While not a bad track per se, (because it is actually quite good) is a very weak closer. I wouldn't mind it at all, if it was somewhere in the middle of the album, but after the brilliant 'Modern Minds', it's a bit of a disappointment, since it's just 'ok'. And lastly, but this is a minor complaint, and perhaps even a bit of nitpicking, the lyrics sometimes make little sense ('If I flatter to deceive, how come it feels like I never lived' - what?) and they have a bit of word repetition in themselves ('Can you find you' in Hit List or 'Hurt myself (...) abuse myself' in Modern Minds).

So in the end, there are 40 minutes of another Skyclad album, which is reasonably filler-less, because even the 'iffy' songs are somewhat interesting, and they definitely can't be accused of being boring or forced, and after the last notes of 'In The... All Together!' you're left with a hunger for more and keep repeating this CD's highlights (Well-Travelled Man, Hit List, Superculture, Modern Minds) again... and again... and again...

20 Years In the **** And Still Alive! - 75%

Sean16, June 17th, 2009

While every fart from washed-up bands a la Metallica seems to have to be carefully dissected and discussed thoroughly here and there, the so-called originators of folk metal release their twelfth full-length album in an almost complete indifference. Musicians, follow your own path and don’t compromise: after a five years absence be sure you’ll end up being completely forgotten. Now I seriously wish this was the ultimate Skyclad record, just to throw it in the face of everything trendy those days, including most of the folk metal genre they contributed to create. However I’ll be honest. This isn’t the best Skyclad. Can it still kill though? Yes it can, and more than once.

First there’s no Skyclad record without a great opener, and to this respect Words Upon the Streets lives up to any expectancy. Once the first thirty seconds of awkward computer sounds have elapsed, what follows is in the pure tradition of the ‘Clad’s most direct, uncompromising first tracks in the lines of Thinking Allowed or Civil War Dance. Indeed, that’s what may be the most striking: though the production has been updated to keep in touch with the style of the day, the song in itself doesn’t really differ from typical 90’s Skyclad. And perhaps what’s the most significant, KEVIN RIDLEY SINGS IN HARSH VOCALS. Of course harsh shouldn’t be understood as growls or anything of the genre, and even in his later days Martin Walkyier most of time still sounded more aggressive. But now think about the following: even on the heaviest tracks of A Semblance of Normality (let’s say, Ten Little Kingdoms) Ridley’s voice stayed perfectly clean. This is all but anecdotal.

Still I don’t think there’s any conscious will from the British band to return to its roots or anything. First, a complete return to the roots would imply Skyclad playing thrash again, and this will most probably never happen. Second there wasn’t any valuable reason for such a return to begin with as A Semblance of Normality (note the highly ironic title), while different from the rest, was nonetheless one of the ‘Clad’s best albums. But with its overall slower tempo, its additional orchestra and the lesser importance given to folk elements, it now appears to have been nothing but a dead end. Who knows, perhaps had it been intended as such from the beginning? Now with the disappearance of the orchestra and the violin coming back to the front of the scene as a direct consequence, with the return of the harsh vocals and the folk elements, the story begins again where it had stopped – before A Semblance of Normality. Alright, they’re now singing about cell phones and laptops. So what? In 1996 they were singing about French nuclear tests. We’re no longer in 1996, we’re in 2009, France is no longer testing its nuclear arsenal, and new technologies have invaded our lives. Let’s sing about new technologies. The title says it all, times might have changed but we’re still in the same **** all together.

And Skyclad, as well, is still the same. At its best moments this release can compete with almost anything from the old material. Still Small Beer is an upbeat number showing the typical folk punk vibe the band regularly adopts, as well as another highlight. The Well-Travelled Man has to be reminded as one of the few slow ‘Clad tracks which does NOT suck (the mandatory this is still no Isle of Jura tag has to be inserted here), gently beginning as an acoustic ballad to progressively build up into a more ambitious, majestic number. And yes, Ridley is using his rough voice again. Insisting on this may sound childish to the outsider; but for someone who’d heard the Ridley-fronted Skyclad so far, that’s just INCREDIBLE. By contrast the following Black Summer Rain has to be the heaviest track here though probably not the most interesting, a bit too modern-sounding for my taste, but a solid song nonetheless. Eventually for something completely different there’s the highly swinging Babakoto, a dark, haunting track which doesn’t find much equivalent in the whole Skyclad discography (now tell me, who the fuck is that guy, assuming it’s a guy?).

But wait, it’s Skyclad. A Semblance of Normality was a very consistent album but, as stated before, it was an exception. It wasn’t really Skyclad. Skyclad is THE inconsistent band by essence, the band who dared recording A Well Beside the River alongside The Silver Cloud’s Dark Lining, or The One Piece Puzzle alongside Cardboard City – and now Modern Minds alongside Words Upon the Street. Indeed, with the exception of the somehow twisted, broken title track, the second half of the album is offering little worth a sustained attention. Not to say there isn’t anything salvageable. Again it’s Skyclad so it can’t get complete **** (the Outrageous Fourtunes EP doesn’t count); still this album reminds me of Irrational Anthems, slowly running out of steam after a pretty strong debut. If Hit List shows a nice acoustic break, the rest of the song isn’t really noticeable. Superculture may hint to Mid-Eastern music but it doesn’t prevent it from sounding, well, dumb (Superculture we’re living under! Superculture we’re going under! Superculture we’re living under! Superculture we’re going under! Wait...). Which is Why is a slow track with strong Irish influences, but - it’s a slow track by Skyclad, here’s the problem. Eventually, Modern Minds is nothing but the band’s latest addition to its alas a tad too lengthy fillers list. Nothing surprising, in fact.

Yes, it’s a frustrating release, there’s no need to prevaricate. Would have it been recorded at the height of Skyclad’s productivity boost there wouldn’t have been anything to complain against as first it still carries its load of excellent songs, then another album would have been following the year after anyway. Here we’ve waited for five years for those mere forty minutes of alas unequal music, and maybe we’ll have to wait for another five years for the sequel now. But what? This album just provided me with what I wanted. Meaning, some genuine music from MY Skyclad. I’m a happy man.

Highlights: Words Upon the Street, Still Small Beer, Babakoto