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Give it a second chance - 83%

Sean16, April 17th, 2009

1996 had been a busy year for Skyclad. Barely ten months had passed since the release of the now classic Irrational Anthems that they put out some kind of throwaway work, this Oui Avant-Garde à Chance. Disguised EP, patchwork, or futile game with a mediocre cover and idiotic title – this pun on We haven’t got a chance is objectively more than far-fetched, while it doesn’t mean anything in French (literally, Yes Avant-Garde to Luck): what a strange, controversial monster, what a hunch-backed hydra and, well, what a good album it is...

Just ignore the construction. There isn’t any. In this awkward crucible fast songs melt with ballads in random order, brand new tunes with covers and remixes, humour with bitterness and emotion. And while the result is certainly unequal, let’s remember the ‘Clad has yet to record a perfect, homogeneous, harmonious release (they got close with A Semblance of Normality, but this isn’t “classic” Skyclad anymore). The two covers are indeed disposable, being initially non-metal songs (why not) covered in a non-metal fashion (still nothing wrong here) which in the end still don’t sound anything like Skyclad (this, contrariwise, being totally inept on a Skyclad record). However, they still aren’t worse than some genuine Skyclad songs from other albums given these guys, alongside their unquestionable and numerous sparks of genius, have always had a special way of writing incredibly lackluster, tedious, boring tunes.

The remixes are another question. There are two as well, and while re-recording old tunes isn’t an uncommon, and sometimes welcomed practice, recording new versions of less than one-year-old songs has always smelt a bit too much of easy record-filling. Of course, Penny Dreadful is still Penny Dreadful, a bouncy monster of a track, improved by a new arrangement over the dryer Irrational Anthems version. Some may object the backing accordion only serves to add a both cornier and more commercial edge; but we’re talking about the self-dubbed “full shilling mix” of a song against, precisely, the perverted music business here so this is no surprise. Coming to History Lessens it’s never been my favourite ‘Clad track, and this slightly altered version failed on changing my mind on the topic. Case closed, I guess.

Now, it’s obvious those who can’t get into the softer side of Skyclad won’t fully appreciate this release. Agreed, the originators of folk metal aren’t usually very good at writing slow songs, most falling into the above-mentioned lackluster, tedious and boring category, but those featured here are of pretty good quality, not a bad thing as there are lot of them. The Constance Eternal, Postcard from Planet Earth and Jumping my Shadow triptych first, all ballads, all very emotional songs – I hear the word in a positive meaning. Constance Eternal is probably the strongest (okay, I’ll also admit Jumping my Shadow and its story of failed relationship has been recently growing on me a lot); first it shows Martin Walkier, the misanthrope Martin Walkier, is also able to write very personal, touching lyrics, this time about a deceased relative, then the combination between the fiddle and the acoustic guitars works simply wonderfully and the track never falls into mellowness – which unfortunately isn’t the case of its follower, one of the weakest pieces of work here in spite of an interesting psychedelic vibe.

Granted, Bombjour! is another slow song, but that time we’re fully back into the bitter, cynical, politically committed Skyclad to denounce the French nuclear tests of 1995. Alright being French myself the lyrics are likely to touch me more than some others; however the sad, melancholic, ambiguous violin doesn’t know any nationality, neither do the cringing rhythm guitar or Martin Walkier’s desperate, hopeless voice. If Walkier, one of the best metal lyricists ever, has otherwise never been my favourite singer, his performance here is for once near to flawless. No anger in this song, only resignation facing eternal human stupidity, topping an irrepressible doomsday feel; while Constance Eternal was sad, Bombjour! is almost frightening. The anecdotal coda, the instrumental version of the song – Bombed Out – can be looked at in two ways. Base level useless filler, will say some. Another nail in the coffin of humanity, with a slice of sick flute and even more ominous violin, say I. Did I mention Frau Schmidt from Subway to Sally fame was playing here? Another guarantee this release can’t get wrong, hey.

And, the last but not least guarantee, this couple of opening high-paced anthems (which titles alone are a program by themselves – I mean, GREAT BLOW FOR A DAY JOB!), just to burst in the face of those who still haven’t understood folk metal bears metal in it. Listening to the musically as well as lyrically crazy, furious Great Blow... one might for instance even forget it’s another totally acoustic song! And what can be said about the resolutely anti-Christian If I Die Laughing it Would be an Act of God with its storming intro, bouncing drumming, spiteful, sometimes almost thrashy singing? Wait, it’s folk metal, it can’t be anti-Christian, it must be about beer – alright, you failed.

It’s indeed ironical that what may look at first glance like a collection of B-sides ends up being overall more enjoyable than the presumably more serious Irrational Anthems that, in spite of its high reputation, has always sounded slightly dull to me. Let’s bet our beloved British ever-disillusioned quintet must love this kind of puzzling paradoxes.

Highlights: If I Die Laughing..., Great Blow for a Day Job, Constance Eternal, Bombjour!, Penny Dreadful (Full Shilling Mix)