Skyclad: Jonah’s Ark (CD, 1993)

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skyclad-jonahs-arkBy the time British folk metallers Skyclad had come to their third album, the thrash roots of the band were but a memory, whilst the initially sparsely used folk elements were rising to ever greater prominence in the sound; they had even added a full time violin/keyboard player to the line-up. So now the band had become what they are most famous as: one of the, if not the first folk metal band in the world.

In other aspects the band had also matured to be what they are most known and loved as; for one, vocalist Martin Walkyier’s lyrics tackled more directly socio-political themes with his trademark acerbic wit and clever wordplay. One cannot really stress how integral the intelligent and witty yet also memorable and catchy lyrics are/were to the charm of Skyclad. And all delivered with Walkyier’s equally trademark hoarse, slightly lisping voice, although the shouted thrash stylings were a thing of the past here.

However, as with quite many of their albums, Skyclad have padded the good songs with fillers and far less interesting tracks, and on Jonah’s Ark, there’s a filler for every memorable track, and as such it has no place among their best albums. Still, when Skyclad hit the sweet spot, like on opener Thinking Allowed and the hight point of the album, Earth Mother, The Sun And The Furious Host, the results are nothing short of classic.

A decent album, but one that pales in comparison to what would follow in the next years…

Skyclad: The Wayward Sons Of Mother Earth (CD, 1991)

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skyclad-wayward-sons-of-mother-earthSkyclad, a sadly overlooked band if there ever was one, was born from the ashes of British thrash band Sabbat and took the thrash metal sound of that band, infused it with some folk elements and went on to become one of the first (if not the first) folk metal band of all time. However, on this, their debut, thrash is still the name of the game and what folk-y elements there are, are just spices on a thrash stew.

Comparing Sabbat’s sound to this album, it is quite obvious that Skyclad started out as a progression of what Sabbat was before vocalist Martin Walkyier left the band after their second album, to a large extent at least. And of course, Walkyier’s hoarse vocals and noticeable lisp were trademarks of both bands.

Although the band would later evolve to greater levels of excellence and ambition (and abandon thrash in favour of a folky take on heavy metal), Wayward Sons Of Mother Earth is far from a simplistic, dime-a-dozen take on thrash metal. Already here the ambition of the band is obvious, and the highlights of the album, which include opener The Sky Beneath My Feet, Trance Dance (A Dreamtime Walkabout) and the folkiest tune of the album, The Widdershins Jig, are masterful pieces combining thrash ferocity with well-wrought lyrics and the occasional moment of folk-instrumentation. However, apart from these moments of excellence, there is too much material that just isn’t particularly memorable, in the same way Sabbat wasn’t very memorable.

Whilst not one of the high points in their career, Skyclad’s debut is a solid foundation from which the band continued to evolve in quick succession to become one of the best metal bands of the 90’s.

Skullhead: Return To Thunder (CD, 2002)

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skullhead-return-to-thunderAfter Skullhead split up in the 90’s, former vocalist and front man Kev Turner made the rounds as a techno DJ under the moniker of DJ Techno T, but was eventually outed and, perhaps as a result of this or entirely unrelated to it, Skullhead was reformed and recorded a new album, Return To Thunder.

In contrast to the old albums, the production is quite clear and good, if not quite amazing by any standard. But the music is the same kind of straightforward RAC… suffice to say, Skullhead sounds like Skullhead. The ten or so years spent away from vocal duties hadn’t affected Turner’s singing much, and he still sounds like the same bloke on the old albums, just a bit older. All in all, Return To Thunder is a more than passable return with adequate, catchy songs that do not make any radical departures from the established sound of the band. The material isn’t perhaps up there with their best, but it is still solid through and through.

Some things had, however, changed: the political themes of the songs have been seriously toned down, and apparently Turner and hence the reformed Skullhead saw themselves as a non-political band… how that goes together with performing the old songs live is a bit of a conundrum, but whatever. But it’s not a question of a 180 degree turn, rather the lyrics take a more non-political and personal approach.

Perhaps it’s understandable that some old fans would object to the changes in lyrical approach, but that notwithstanding, Return To Thunder is a fine album and a worthy addition to Skullhead’s discography.

Skullhead: Ragnorok (CD, 1995)

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skullhead-ragnorokHere’s an odd release. Nowhere on the CD or covers is the name Skullhead actually written. The spine only says Ragnorok and Victory. But of course, this is an expanded CD version of Skullhead’s Victory Or Valhalla mini-LP on Rebelles Européens. One reason I’ve heard for this is that supposedly ISD Records released this CD without permission from the band. Who knows.

Apart from the five tracks that constitute the original mini-LP, there are 11 additional tracks on the CD, culled from various singles and split releases from the 80’s. Therefore, even if one happens to own the original release, this is a more than worthwhile addition to any collection.

Victory Or Valhalla, which would be the last release by Skullhead before reforming in 2001 or thereabout, is also the best Skullhead material ever. Tightly played, reasonably well produced and equipped with some absolutely killer songs. And vocalist Kev Turner never sounded better! Where Odin’s Law falls short just because of mediocre songs, Victory Or Valhalla is basically 100% RAC classics. The song Wish The Lads Were Here – ironically originally demoed by Red London, a band with polar opposite political views – is the iconic track, but none of the others are any worse. Lyrically too Kev Turner is at his best, writing lyrics that refuse to compromise, but are still far from simplistic hatemongering or childish provocation. It’s a shame this turned out to be the final release, because to me it sounds like Skullhead had truly found their own thing here, with straightforward Oi!-based RAC that still has a definite epic edge to it.

The tracks from older releases are something of a mixed bag. Look Ahead and Rock Band are absolute classics, truly impressive tracks, whilst others such as Gillbridge Blues and Yuletide, and the mandatory awkward RAC-ballad Memories, aren’t all that good. Still, most of these tracks are at least as good if not better than, say, what’s on Odin’s Law; classic RAC with a hard edge and none of that bluesy southern rock element that Brutal Attack and Skrewdriver, and even No Remorse on occasion toyed with.

If you feel you only need one Skullhead album in your collection, then without a doubt, this is it.

Skullhead: Odin’s Law (CD, 1991)

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skullhead-odins-lawAlthough undeniably one of the classic acts of the original UK RAC scene, Skullhead doesn’t seem to enjoy quite the same amount of respect and adoration that contemporaries such as Skrewdriver, No Remorse and Brutal Attack do. And listening to this, their second album, it’s quite obvious why.

The cover is, as was par for the course with RAC on Rock-O-Rama, pretty horrible. The production is also quite deplorable, being thin and quite weak, with especially the guitars sounding very flat and powerless. The vocals are also a tad too loud in the mix. This does not in any way benefit the album, which also suffers from rather forgettable songwriting; the entire album is passable, but not memorable in any way. It’s just your run-of-the-mill 80’s Oi!-influenced RAC. To top it all off, there’s a far superior version Last Chance to be found on the Ragnorok-compilation.

Definitely not an RAC essential for average fans of the genre, but one for completists and collectors.

Satyricon: Rebel Extravaganza (CD, 1999)

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satyricon-rebel-extravaganzaThis is where Satyricon started going wrong in my opinion, or at least taking a path that diverged from my tastes. Newer Satyricon with their rocking black metal does not pique my interest in the least, and this is the album where they totally forsook all of the nature mysticism and shall we say traditional black metal imagery. Well, honestly, Rebel Extravaganza has certainly stood the test of time better than some “experimental” albums by established black metal acts that came out during this time – however, at the time of release I didn’t think this was better than average, and my opinion hasn’t changed a lot in the years since then.

Where old Satyricon was all about the dark beauty of nature and such, Rebel Extravaganza is about filth, ugliness and a sort of urban decay. It feels like living in filth, eating muck with decayed teeth and hearing the endless grinding of polluting machinery destroy everything beautiful and pure. It’s not industrial by any means, but there is a strong sense of industrialized dehumanization permeating the album, emphasized by Frosts’ razor-sharp drumwork and the distorted spoken-growled vocals of Satyr. Gone is every hint of epic majesty, gone are the acoustic guitars and synths. This is filth grinding ugliness and decay.

The atmosphere works, though it feels thoroughly un-Satyricon to me. I also like the visual side, which pretty much fits into how I described the sound above. Where Rebel Extravaganza fails to grip me is the songs. They’re not just particularly interesting. I can certainly dig the bands’ attempt to reinvent themselves, and think that in large parts they did a pretty good job, but when one of the parts where they missed the spot are the songs, getting most other stuff nailed just isn’t enough.

Sadly, things went even more downhill from here, at least as far as I am concerned.

Satyricon/Enslaved: The Forest Is My Throne/Yggdrasill (CD, 1996)

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satyricon-forest-is-my-throneIn some ways, it feels like Enslaveds’ contribution to this split, featuring their Yggdrasill-demo originally released in 1992, is mere padding or a footnote. It is Satyricon who are featured on the front cover of the digipak (whilst Enslaved does, admittedly, occupy the entire back cover) and it is Satyricon who take up four of the five panels of the digipak, featuring lyrics and a short bio of the band, whilst Enslaved only have a measly half panel to them – the other half being taken up by label info.

Musically, too, there is no doubt in my mind that Satyricon is the reason why one should own this release. And one should, period. So let’s start with Enslaved, who take up the latter part of the disc, and almost double the playing time that Satyricon does (41 minutes to Satyricons’ 24 minutes). Enslaved, later evolving into the greatest (Norwegian) viking black metal band and then going on to ever more progressive and genre-defying pastures, began their career as a pretty standard Norwegian black metal band. Eerie, haunting synths, agonized screaming vocals, tinny shredding guitars, blasting drums and some atmospheric inclusions in the form of acoustic guitars. The whole ten yards. Of course, back in ’92 “norsecore” wasn’t a thing yet, so Enslaved were there among the bands that laid the foundation for the whole sound and imagery for the derivative copycats to follow. Graced with an acceptable but rattling, hollow sound, the Yggdrasill-demo is an interesting curiosity especially for fans of the band, but objectively speaking far from a classic piece of black metal music when removed from context and viewed purely as music.

Satyricons’ The Forest Is My Throne is, however, of a totally different ilk. The three tracks that make up the original demo are pure classics. Taking cues from contemporaries such as Darkthrone, already on this, their second demo, Satyricon had a strong identity of their own and weaved images of cold wintry mountains, snowstorms and heavy grey skies like no other band. Compared to the might of Dark Medieval Times (see previous post), The Forest Is My Throne is still embryonic in some ways. One can more clearly hear from which bands Satyr, joined by Frost as a session member at this stage, has taken influence, but already his songwriting shows an innate skill for building atmospheres and combining majesty with furious rawness. Soundwise, the demo is nothing short of excellent; the drum sound is a bit flat, but the guitars are sharp, thin and vicious, and Satyrs’ croaking voice is superbly malignant.

Included on Satyricons’ side is a bonus track recorded in ’95 called Night Of The Triumphator, which according to the liner notes by Satyr is a “tribute to some of those old bands” who laid the foundation to the genre black metal. A crudely thrashing song with crudely explicit lyrics is a fitting tribute where second wave black metal meets the thrashing of first wave bands like Venom, Sodom, Poison, Bathory etc.

All in all, The Forest Is My Throne/Yggdrasill is an essential piece of Norwegian black metal history. It is Satyricons’ part which makes this a great release removed from that context, but both parts of the disc are an integral part of the history of the genre.

Satyricon: Dark Medieval Times (CD, 1993)

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satyricon-dark-medieval-timesNorwegian Satyricons’ debut is smack in the middle of classic Norwegian black metal, a genuine classic that remains one of the finest things to come out of that scene and period in time. After two demos, of which the first, All Evil, I once had on a bootleg CD and which was, as I recall, rather uninteresting, and the second, The Forest Is My Throne, was very good and will be dealt with later, Satyricon released their debut on head honcho Satyrs’ own label, Moonfog.

Whereas a lot of their contemporaries dealt with satanic themes, on Dark Medieval Times Satyricon seem to predominantly deal with dark nature romanticism infused with a strong yearning for mythological “better” dark ages of the past. Of course, with no lyrics in the booklet, it’s hard to exactly say what Satyr is croaking. The music, which alternates between furious rawness and middle-paced moments of majestic atmospheres, reflects these themes marvellously. Acoustic guitars and subtle keyboards complement the thin, tinny and sharp electric guitars, whilst hammerman Frosts’ powerful pounding has often a suitably echoing and cavernous sound. Satyrs vocals are a vicious croaking, and instead of blasting away with all they’ve got, the band keep the pace at a steady gallop a lot of the time, Frost getting to show he is a capable man behind the drumset. Clichéd atmospheric whispering and samples of the wind blowing add additional focus to the later rather overused wintry thematics… but Satyricon make it work, not only because they did it before most, but also because their vision is so strong and the execution excellent.

Containing several lengthy tracks, two of which approach the nine minute mark, Dark Medieval Times is in many ways a majestic and epic album. It weaves visions of dark spruce forests, blowing wintry storm winds, barren mountains and a glorious age of barbarism. I know most regard Satyricons’ second album, The Shadowthrone, as their greatest moment, but to me, nothing Satyricon ever did comes close to the excellence of Dark Medieval Times, which is definitely in my Top-10 black metal albums of all time.

Sam & Dave: Hold On, I’m Coming + Double Dynamite & Soul Men + I Thank You (CD, 2012)

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sam-dave-edsel-twoferLike I’m sure many people of my age, who were born after the soul duo Sam & Dave split, I was introduced to their music via the movie The Blues Brothers. In my mind, that scene where Elwood and Jake drive at night and listen to Sam & Dave is nothing short of iconic in a minor way. Long before I knew what soul was or who sang it, I loved the song based on that short excerpt.

Edsel Records released a two-volume set containing four albums from the duos’ heyday. Here are basically all of their hits and additional single-only bonus tracks and such. These are no budget releases, either, so included are thick booklets with plenty of photos and informative liner notes, both volumes containing separate 4000-word essays. In every way, these are companion releases that are meant to be enjoyed together.

The music is soul at its best; all right, I admit I’m no kind of expert on soul, but still, I’ve yet to encounter a soul artist I like better. Especially the classics, such as Soul ManHold On, I’m Coming and Soothe Me are essential, but there’s plenty of other awesome songs here, such as Soul Sister, Brown Sugar from the bonus tracks off the second volume.

I don’t think there’s much point in dissecting the music since everything that’s to be said about Sam & Dave has already been said by wiser people than me. All I’m going to say in conclusion is,  that as full-price anthologies go, these are definitely worth the money in every way.

And check those moves in the video below…