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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