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A prodigal classic - 95%

naverhtrad, August 11th, 2011

No point in not being straight-up here in my own review. A few years ago, the Wayward Sons crossed my path at a point where I had not yet acquired a taste for thrash metal; as a result, when I first listened to Skyclad’s debut (introduced to me as a must-listen metal classic), I felt it was disjointed, schizophrenic and hard to listen to. And now, as a more well-listened and (I hope) more erudite metalhead… well, I still think it sounds disjointed and schizophrenic at points, but I’ve come to a solid appreciation both of how much arse it truly kicks, and of how groundbreaking it truly was; now it certainly ranks among my favourite metal albums.

The first thing that strikes one about this album is that, unlike the broad swath of the rest of its contemporary thrash metal work, the instrumentation is not generally there to throw a barrage of aggressive downtuned riffs in your face and let the headbanging commence – not just yet, anyway! – but rather to provide atmosphere. This strikes one from the very opening notes of ‘The Sky Beneath My Feet’ – the deceptively-simple falling guitar rondo backed by gentle cymbal strokes, joined in harmony by the bass, provides a sense of breadth to the music, like stepping into a mist-filled grove, that hints at an epic undertaking in the making; once Martin Walkyier begins singing, it becomes clear – Skyclad is daring to state outright the hinted aspirations of metal going all the way back to its roots, hearkening back to a past that never was. Martin sings in the voice of the Pied Piper, of the Pagan Man, of the King under the Mountain:

I'll sing to you of days departed,
Times when men proud and stout-hearted
Carved their names on history’s bloody page;
The corpse of chivalry long-dead
Is turning in his loamy bed,
Indignant at your new ‘enlightened’ age!

The difficulty, though, is that with a few notable exceptions Martin’s own performance often finds itself at odds with the ancient immensity of the message it is attempting to convey, the prophet in an imagined bygone England’s green wilderness railing at the self-destruction, the greed, the hubris and the shallow philosophical dualisms of the Forces of Progress. The very few and far-between places on this album where he uses clean vocals or even spoken words in place of his habitual gruff then come off as that much more powerful: as in ‘Intro: Pagan Man’, ‘Moongleam and Meadowsweet’ and even in a few stretches of spoken-word musing and clean-vocal lamentation on ‘Terminus’. That said, even in gruff vocals the mastery of verse demonstrated amply at every turn was able (even on my lukewarm first listening of this album) to induce my awe.

Actually, this album takes several startling turns throughout – the first being between the driving, distorted-to-proper-effect rhythms of ‘The Sky Beneath My Feet’ and ‘Trance Dance (a Dreamtime Walkabout)’ and the acoustic serenade ‘A Minute’s Piece’, followed by the only true folk-metal song on this album (‘The Widdershins Jig’)… before going straight back into full-bore thrash with ‘Our Dying Island’ (complete with gang shouts). It can be confusing for a listener unfamiliar with them, but there is still, all the same, that otherworldly thread binding them all together.

There is one final break, though, before ‘The Cradle Will Fall’, which is certainly one of the high points of the album (along with ‘The Widdershins Jig’ and ‘Moongleam and Meadowsweet’, though obviously for highly different reasons). This song is the crunchingly-heavy, breakneck and outraged apex of the jeremiad which is The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth, which ought in its own right to be considered a thrash classic. Steve (particularly with that Out of Reach-worthy guitar solo five minutes in!) and Graeme are at the tops of their games here, as is Martin, to tell the truth – highly disciplined verse lyrics (complete with Walkyier’s signature puns which would become part-and-parcel of Skyclad’s image) delivered with machine-gun force atop a wicked bass riff, punctuated with roars of ‘I am human!’ This same brilliant runaway momentum is carried through into ‘Skyclad’, which manages to transition into another sweet-and-peaceful interlude with a mournful mandolin coda… that interlude being, of course, the patriotic ballad ‘Moongleam and Meadowsweet’. This song really reminds me of Ralph McTell – the slow, melancholy acoustic instrumentation, the echoing vocals evoking a lost past… I note that this love-song to England has some interesting parallels with ‘The Girl from the Hiring Fair’.

‘Terminus’ is an incredibly odd song, for lack of a better word; I rather consider it to be a microcosm of The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth as a whole: starting with deceptively-simple atmospheric guitar-work, rapid transitions between calm and frenzy, mournful and enraged by turns, given to sudden stops and reversals… but there are some truly epic moments in the thrashier segments – ‘I hear sirens screaming; see lightning rip the sky!’

I tend to think of The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth as a deep river, running over some very uneven terrain. The sheer talent Skyclad have running here is unfathomable; at times, it is put to use in some rich and understated ways, and one might easily mistake the calm of the river for lack of movement. But as the river approaches its waterfalls, it picks up speed and comes crashing down with an inexorable, thundering force. The result is something that, indeed, sounds very inconsistent, but which at the same time had a unique direction and aim. As we have seen over these past one-and-a-half decades, the influence of Skyclad hasn’t dried up yet, or anything close to it. Folk metal has flourished, and Skyclad themselves are still going strong, such that even their weaker albums (like Folkémon) are listenable and enjoyable.

Myself, though, I enjoy hiking upstream back to the source. My initial judgment of The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth sadly lacked perspective; despite its inconsistencies – or perhaps because of them – it is an album that very much deserves its place among the must-listen metal classics.

19 / 20