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rough edges rubbed off - 88%

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

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.