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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