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Skyclad > The Answer Machine? > Reviews
Skyclad - The Answer Machine?

A process of delamination - 84%

robotiq, May 5th, 2020

Skyclad's eighth album ("The Answer Machine?") is their gentlest, quietest and most contemplative record, and easily their best since "Prince of the Poverty Line". The music here is folk-influenced rock music with the slightest hint of metal. It is easier to appreciate as an adult. I never had much time for it when I was a metal-obsessed teenager. Reviewing it now though, this is complex, precise, high quality music that should be shown the respect it deserves.

No-one will be surprised by the direction they have taken here. This continues into the softer territory explored on "Oui Avant-garde á Chance", with hardly any distortion and sung (as opposed to barked) vocals throughout. The feel of this record is different to its predecessor though. There isn't much irreverent humour, there are fewer puns and (thankfully) no stupid covers of "Come on Eileen". The tone of "The Answer Machine?" is dark and serious. Producer Kevin Ridley is equal to the task, treating all the different instruments with care (listen to the break from 3:30 of "The Thread of Evermore" for example). Duncan Storr's artwork may be his best for the band. Most importantly, the song writing is good (and sometimes great).

Non-metal reference points are needed to describe this music. Imagine the muscular folk-rock of Fairport Convention with some of Pentangle's light, progressive tendencies. Then add some of Steely Dan's attention to detail and song writing acumen, then (maybe) the lushness of later Talk Talk albums. Granted, "The Answer Machine?" is not as good as such a description suggests, but it is good enough to warrant these comparisons in the first place. This is unique music, a record that could not have been made by any other band. It feels like a labour of love by a veteran band with an established line-up and a shared vision.

Let's start with Martin Walkyier, always the band's wildcard, always the person with the biggest influence on whether a song soars or flops. He gives his strongest vocal performance on this album. He's never been a great singer in terms of range, but he sings with confidence and his vocals sound earthy and genuine throughout. Lyrically, the guy has always been a genius, certainly the most talented in metal (if not the most consistent). His rhymes had become stale in previous years, the constant puns detracted from the messages and sometimes the songs didn't even make sense. On “The Answer Machine?” he sounds serious again. His approach has changed, he is more introspective, cryptic, and less angry (for example, "I have walked the earth so many times before your birth, today is only yesterday's tomorrow"). He gives the impression of someone who has been through hard times, of depression and self-doubt, and who may see light at the end of the tunnel.

We get fantastic performances from the musicians here. Steve Ramsey sounds better than ever. He is at his best when understated, such as the solo in "Isle of Jura" (at 2:45). He also uses a broader range of guitar tones and effects on this album. George Biddle sounds great in Skyclad now, so much so that it is impossible to think of the band without her. Her fiddle wanders around wherever she takes it, but she never forgets the folk essence underpinning the songs. Graeme English is less obvious on bass than on some other Skyclad records, but he has plenty of other instruments to play here. New drummer (Paul Kinson) is astounding. This guy played session drums on the more energetic songs from "Oui Avant-garde á Chance". He can do the lot, he throws complex polyrhythms in but also has a tough, basic sound when needed. There is even a bit of double-kick if you listen closely. It is a shame he wasn’t on more Skyclad records.

There are some great songs. The opening pair of "A Clown of Thorns" and "Building a Ruin" are effectively one long song, the former segueing into the latter as the mournful mood moves into self-loathing and bitterness. Lines like "I'm walking my personal Calvary mile to a do-it-yourself crucifixion" and "I won't be content 'til I see me in Hell" have stayed with me over the years. The album's other masterpiece is the aforementioned "Isle of Jura", a simple song, but probably the most perfect and universal song Skyclad ever wrote. To call this the ultimate Skyclad ballad would be doing it a disservice. It builds on the promise of ballads from the past (such as "Jumping My Shadow" and "Constance Eternal") but adds speed and energy to prevent sappiness. Any rock band in the world would have been pleased if they had written this one.

Of the other songs, I like the more aggressive "Worn Out Sole to Heel", the menacing "Single Phial" (with a wonderful intro) and the upbeat "Helium". I also like "The Thread of Evermore", which introduces Eastern folk melodies more effectively than the band had ever done before. "Troublesometimes" is good too (the intro sounds like Ugly Kid Joe's version of "Cats in the Cradle", but that is fine with me). "Catherine at the Wheel" is a murder ballad (or should I say a 'murderer ballad'), any decent folk album should have one of these. The lighthearted folk/thrash fusion of "Dead Angels on Ice" is (mainly) instrumental. This technical, manic tune closes the album out and provides welcome relief from all the seriousness.

There a couple of duffers. I dislike "Fainting by Numbers" intensely. This is a tatty pub-rock song with zero subtlety and some bullshit lyrics about counting. It could be the most contrived Skyclad song ever, and has no business following "Isle of Jura". I don't rate "Eirenarch" either, the metallic concessions don't fit the sombre mood of the album. I skip "My Naked I”, it has some nice Allman Brothers-esque leads, but it sounds too ‘happy’ and too similar to the Levellers for my liking (the Levellers are OK, but I don't want to be reminded of them here). The listener can delete these songs of course, but I wish Skyclad had edited the album because 53 minutes is too long.

All things considered, "The Answer Machine?" is a worthy record and one of the band's strongest. It perfectly indicates why Skyclad are special, and why they will always be a cult band. This is a band that requires the listener to decode their secrets. The more work you put in as a listener, the more you get out. This album shows this principle more clearly than any other in Skyclad's history.

rough edges rubbed off - 88%

amelanchier, October 20th, 2017
Written based on this version: 1997, CD, Swanlake Records

The Answer Machine? came after the eclectic folk rock album Oui Avant-Garde a Chance, and it seemed for a moment that atmospheric folk hard rock might be Skyclad's new direction. In the end, they went back to metal with Vintage Whine and Folkemon, but I for one would not have minded had they continued in the direction of The Answer Machine?.

You can tell immediately on the start of the album that something different is afoot. A melancholy, multitracked violin harmony undulates percussionlessly beneath Martin Walkiyer's clean vocals, shorn of all gruffness ("A Clown of Thorns"), then breaks continuously into the up-tempo rocker "Building a Ruin." The guitar riffs are clean-shaven too, yet firm and robust enough to qualify this as hard rock. There are plenty of guitar leads on the album, many of them quite good, but they're melodic, not atonal or dirty. Acoustic chordage wafts its way across several of these tracks. Keyboards shade in the edges. This is Skyclad's attempt at making an accessible album, while still refusing quarter to the grunge, punk, and alternative trends of the 1990s, and it actually works.

At the same time, there's something unsettling about The Answer Machine?. Somehow the softer tones deepen the contrast with the dark lyrics and give them freer play. The vocals have the upper hand on most of these songs. Even the up-tempo, major-key songs like "Helium" don't shake a sense of unease, even an unease at life in general. "Helium" itself is about a Wall Street trading leaping to his demise, with inimitable lines like "Fly like a rock from the roof to the basement/The last thing to go through my mind was the pavement/Falling out of love with life," and the one song that could easily pass for a ballad, the introspective and melodic "Isle of Jura," deploys lines like "I am lonely - I am lost/Inside my private holocaust" to keep the mood somewhere between "moody" and "morose." Wrapping the album up is a deliciously incongruous, foot-tapping bluegrass-rocker about teen drivers splattering themselves on dashboards ("Dead Angels on Ice").

This is a subtle album that doesn't leave you. While more polished than most of Skyclad's other output, it's far from sedate or dull - there's plenty of driving rock'n'roll on the aforementioned "Building a Ruin," "Helium," and "Dead Angels on Ice," as well as "Painting by Numbers," but there's also just too much emotional depth here to be dismissed or readily forgotten. The production values are also among the best ever to grace a Skyclad album. It isn't quite prog, but we're a long way from the scruffy thrash of the early 90s.

There are times when I think The Answer Machine? might be the best thing Skyclad ever made, but it is a bit uneven, with several songs eminently skippable - "Worn Out Sole to Heel" (despite the incredible pun in the title), "The Thread of Evermore," and "Catherine at the Wheel" among them. Still, this is the beginning of what was a three-album climax in the quality of Skyclad's work, ending in Martin Walkiyer's last album with the band, Folkemon.

Subtle Riddles - 72%

Sean16, April 19th, 2009

The Answer Machine is a release which took me pretty long to get into, having always looked like a somehow dull interlude between its much brighter predecessor and successor. Agreed, it’s a “soft”, lower-tempo Skyclad album, but after all Oui Avant-Garde à Chance also featured a good load of soft, acoustic songs, and still managed to remain attention-grabbing enough. Could it be a matter of production, then? Everything sounds indeed a bit lackluster here; the violin doesn’t shine as well as on other ‘Clad releases from the same era while the electric guitars are muffled down and in desperate need of fresh air – giving the impression of a predominantly acoustic album, what is in fact blatantly false (there’s electric guitar on almost each of the 13 tracks). And yes, all things considered, the songwriting might be blamable as well.

However, while not the best ever, this album is like a good wine which takes some time to be fully appreciated. The music may be subtle, the lyrics far from immediate, still both wouldn’t be explored in vain. It’s significant I’d long considered the 2002 version of Single Phial (with Kevin Ridley on vocals) as superior to the original, while it’s actually the original only which carries this true, unmatched melancholy vibe, let alone the magnificent violin intro. Intrinsically weak tracks are a minority, I mean first the closer Dead Angels on Ice which sounds way more punk folk than metal, a fairly poorly executed and out-of-place jam if you ask me (it may well have been the band’s purpose though), then the flat and obviously too long Thread of Evermore. If introducing mid-eastern singing and melodies could sound at first like a cool idea, unfortunately it’s the only good thing there.

Now even if I’ve learnt to appreciate the remaining material, some moments still remain remarkably irksome. The ‘Clad has never been renowned for writing all-singing, all-dancing catchy choruses (though, let’s admit... The Silver Cloud’s Dark Lining... but it’s a whole different story), that’s a fact, and it isn’t asked to do so, however in everything there’s a line which shouldn’t be crossed for fear of disastrous consequences. Take a song like Fainting by Numbers: a strong opening riff, great lyrics, the violin shines as often, when suddenly everything is ruined by the obnoxious, nerve-breaking COUNT ME OUT! COUNT ME OUT! chorus. I don’t know who’s in backing vocals duty here (Ridley wasn’t in the band at that time, ‘must be Ramsey or English) but the guy seriously fucked up. Granted, this is by far the most extreme example, nonetheless this song isn’t the only one to feature an either annoying or uninspired chorus (Helium, Eirenarch, Troublesometimes...).

This remark set aside, top songs don’t have anything to envy to other Skyclad outputs. Take this couple of bizarre tracks, like the “aborted opener” A Clown of Thorns seeming to end at the very moment it’s really begun, interestingly on the strongly emphasized name of Jesus (so this album, like its predecessor, starts with a direct attack against religion(s)); or, farther, the strange, both crystalline and sick Catherine at the Wheel with the unusual use of piano, backing female vocals or lyrics about murder, all ingredients otherwise pretty scarce in Skyclad. More standard, but in no way less good, is the unjustly overlooked anthem Building a Ruin which extends A Clown of Thorns in an altogether majestic, bouncy and cynical fashion; another killer here. Eventually, it may sound ironical an album which is often dismissed as soft reaches its pinnacle in the softest, quietest, most melodious track with its atmosphere of patient, appeased resignation – I’m talking about this mysterious Isle of Jura of course, the song forever lost somewhere between Heaven and Earth (if one can come with a definitive interpretation of the lyrics, tell me – no, a plane crash is just too simple and silly).

Every Skyclad chapter is different. The Answer Machine may not be the most unforgettable, but it’s nonetheless a recommended listen, and not only for completists. And if, according to Martin Walkyier himself, its loose concept truly deals with the questions we've all asked ourselves at some point (hence the title), trying to get a definitive opinion on it sounds indeed bitterly futile...

Highlights: Building up a Ruin, Single Phial, Isle of Jura

Lacks the usual energy - 65%

morbert, October 11th, 2007

Let’s get to the conclusion at once here: together with “Prince of the Poverty Line” this is one of the least interesting Walkyier-era Skyclad albums. There are several reasons for this.

Mostly this is because of the song material. Most songs sound a bit tired and uninspired. The average pace of the album is too low and session drums by Paul A.T. Kinson (who actually did do some good work on their previous album “Oui Avant-Garde A Chance”) seriously lacks some energy at times. If you compare this to the tempi and overall energy of other Skyclad albums this becomes more obvious.

Opener ‘Building a Ruin’ does have some good ideas and this goes for most other songs as well. There are good ideas here and there but they don’t seem to have fully matured yet and sound tired. Two songs are above average here, being ‘Eirenarch’ and ‘Isle of Jura’.

Eirenach is quite a powerful tune but the foggy guitar sound slightly damages the song. Also the bassguitar is mixed in way too quiet. This is very obvious on the verses.

‘Isle Of Jura’ is a quite beautiful song with good use of guitars and the drums sound pretty good here. Same goes for the vocal lines and the very beautiful chorus. ‘Steel angel please carry me. Fly me to my love. From cold Earth far beneath me to the Heavens high above.’
is the melodic highlight on the album.

There are other Skyclad albums on which I have a few favourite tracks just like here but on ‘The Answer Machine’ all the other songs never grab my attention and are nothing more than nice background Skyclad tunes. Fortunately their next album would prove to be one of their strongest ever!

Very high quality album - 95%

FuzzyLogic, July 5th, 2005

Well, we all know that Claddies are one of the best metal bands ever existed. All of their albums are extremely listenable, although there are some better and some worse among them... "The Answer Machine?" is, in my opinion, their best. The most interesting thing about this album is that it is NOT metal at all. It is definitely a folk-rock album, but who cares?..

Anyway, it is an extremely good record, featuring a number of excellent songs and a number of simply good ones. It begins with A Clown of Thorns - beautiful acoustic folkish melody. The next two tracks, Building A Ruin and Worn Up Sole To Heel, are much more faster and heavier while still featuring the same melancholy mood. Single Phial and Helium are not so good as previous three, but they are good enough to fascinate listeners. The highest point of the album is The Thread of Evermore - terrific song influenced by East melodies and rhythms. Troublesometimes, with its quirky melody and catchy rhythm, resembles A Stranger In The Garden from "The Silent Whales of Lunar Sea". Isle Of Jura is also great, especially its chorus ("O' steel angel please carry me - fly me to my love" etc.) And, of course, we must not forget about My Naked I. This song sounds like it is written by Alice Cooper in his "Welcome To My Nightmare" period when he was at his very best. Catherine At The Wheel is very notable due to its misanthropic feel and poppy, untrivial rhythmical pattern. Unfortunately, the rest of the album (Eirenarch, Fainting By Numbers and Dead Angels On Ice) is not worthwhile. That's why I gave to "The Answer Machine?" only 95 %.

If you like Skyclad or just wanna listen to good and not uninteresting folk-rock, "The Answer Machine?" is a very good choice.

Another quality album - 86%

yeentrancemperium, February 15th, 2005

Skyclad's 1997 album features a number of excellent tracks with a few less great ones.

The album is pretty much standard Skyclad, perhaps a bit more emphasis on the folk part compared to their previous efforts, this is definitely the case. The first 4-5 tracks stand out for me with Helium being the favorite here, despite its upbeat catchy tempo and sound. Building a ruin is also an outstanding number here, notable for its lyrical effort. Worn Out Sole to Heel and Single Phial are also deserving of mention.

The thread of Evermore, My Naked I and Catherine at the Wheel are not as good as the beginning of the disc.

The summary is thus: not much new stuff by the Claddies, but if you're a fan of theirs this is certainly worth picking up for at least 6-7 outstanding tracks. Or if you're just looking for unconventional witty folky metal.

Skyclad's Best Album - 90%

Messiah_X, October 31st, 2003

This is my favorite album from Skyclad (Wayward Sons of Mother Earth would be a close second for its thrash value). In my opinion, this is where the band found a balanced sound in which the folk and the metal were both symmetrically represented. The thing keeping this review from 100% is the song "Fainting By Numbers" which is by far one of Skyclad's worst songs to date. However, with that exception, this is a near-perfect album. As far as the songs, the highlights of this album are Building a Ruin (my favorite Skyclad song), Worn Out Sole to Heel, Single Phial, and Helium. As with all of Skyclad's work (until recently when he left the band), Martin Walkyier has written some of the wittiest satirical lyrics of any metal band. Through a combination of play on words, sarcasm, irony, and a bit of nihilism, Walkyier has quickly become one of my favorite lyricists for any metal band. This album unfortunately doesn't represent this facet of Skyclad's mastery as well as some others (Prince of the Poverty Line in particular), but still manages to provide some of those lyrics that can make you laugh and think about the futile efforts of the doomed human race all at the same time. As far as the music itself, like I said earlier, this album balances out the folk and metal evenly and effectively. Some songs are heavy and show that Skyclad is undeniably a metal band (Eirenarch), while others show the more mellow, folkish sound that Skyclad is known for (Single Phial). Some songs are very upbeat and happy (Helium), while others can be slower moody songs (Isle of Jura). Then there are the perfect songs like Building A Ruin which prove that Skyclad is at the top of the Folk Metal food chain. There are many who would complain that this isn't metal enough, but for those who can take a break from some of the more traditional extreme metal bands, Skyclad's "The Answer Machine?" is the album to pick up.

Extremely Listenable! - 85%

sand, January 22nd, 2003

This is, perhaps, Skyclad's best work. Not their most metal, admittedly, but with great melodies, wonderful lyrics and lots of catchiness, who could ask for more?

I suppose I should go into a bit more detail, so here goes: The album, as a whole is relatively mellow, though un-metal folk may find it too noisy (but who are they to know?). Also most of it has a certain melancholy feel to it (A Clown Of Thorns, Single Phial, Thread of Evermore). And while the other end of the spectrum is also represented (Helium, for example is the closest to jumping for joy skyclad will ever come) it usually has a bittersweet tinge to it, both lyrically and musically.
I could go through the entire album this way, heaping praise on each and every song, but I won't since I think you've gotten my point already.

All in all, if you like melodic, catchy, folk-rock/metal then this one is for you!
Also, it is a great album for when you're not in headbanging mode, but still up for swilling beer (which incidentally, is what I am doing right now).