Before the 2000's gave us an infusion of trollish folk metal bands, one of the first true hybrids between heavy metal and folk music existed in the form of England's veteran troupe Skyclad. Having busily released twelve studio albums since forming in 1990, their career is usually divided up in a before and after fashion by the loss of founding vocalist Martin Walkyier (The Clan Destined, Sabbat), whose gruff voice and stiletto-sharp lyrics helped define them. Turning the mic over to producer Kevin Ridley, the latter day incarnation of the band is a bit cleaner, if for no other reason than that Ridley's clear, bardic tone never drops into the 'growled' territory.
Earlier this year on April 28th, the low profile band released their thirteenth studio album entitled Forward Into The Past, on Listenable Records. This being the third album with Ridley on vocals, the core of guitarists Dave Pugh and Steve Ramsey (Satan) are held down by Graeme English (Satan) on bass guitar and Aaron Walton on drums. Of course, it wouldn't be Skyclad without the lilting, ever-present violin of Georgina Biddle.
While its not uncommon to here the post-Walkyier material derided as inferior, the two albums preceding this new one were actually quite good. Could the third album with Ridley on the mic maintain the quality and hunger after about eight years between albums? If Forward Into The Past immediately differs from prior effort, that being 2009's In The. . .All Together, its in the production. The new album features a bit more of a punk-rock sound on the guitars, where the prior effort had a decidedly more metallic crunch. That being said, the guitar work between Pugh and Ramsay reflects their pedigrees, with excellent riffing and solo work immediately evident in opening song 'State of the Union Now.'
'Change is Coming' starts off like a punk rock anthem, though Biddle's violin follows the guitars like a shadow. Ridley sounds determined as usual, the socially conscious lyrics demanding the same answers from the greedy establishment they always have. Punchy and defiant, the tune is vintage Skyclad, mixing their recipe of catchy melodies and smartly engaging lyrics. 'Starstruck,' on the other hand, begins well enough but suffers from a one-dimensional chorus that keeps the song from climbing to heights it might have reached with a more climactic bridge/chorus section. Nevertheless, Biddle's parts are so smooth and melodious the song winds up growing on the listener.
One way in which the Ridley era of Skyclad has shined as bright as their earlier period is when they pen a ballad. Just look at No Daylights Nor Heeltaps, the 2004 reworking of some of their classics. 'Words Fail Me' reaches for, and mostly attains, the brooding contemplative gravitas the band has so often engendered in the past. Biddle's violin as Ridley repeats the title in the chorus creates an absorbing atmosphere. The soloing is suitably majestic, and all in all this one of the finest tracks on the album. It also features one of the best bible bashing lyrics in a while: 'cause its not all bad, some of its worse. some of it even comes chapter and verse. from a holy book that doesn't help me at all, better things written on a factory wall.
For shout-along, fist in the air defiance, the title track does the trick. English's bass tone comes through nicely here, the old-school vets exhorting the listener that 'the world sounds better in analog.' Skyclad has never cared much for popularity or commercialism, and this boisterous stomp features some NWOBHM flair in its punk-rock aesthetic.
Despite the myriad of influences peeking in, Skyclad is a folk-metal band. The cover of Forward Into The Past features a very pagan green man aesthetic, and 'The Queen of the Moors' is delightfully folk, fitting the fireside singalong mood in a far less silly way than some bands who try that approach. Biddle again gets some spotlight along with the guitarists, the two instruments playfully sharing space as they have for nearly three decades now.
Skyclad throws the listener a curve ball with the unconventional 'Last Summer's Rain,' with a bit of off-time drumming and a distinct synth sound in the background. After a few listens it comes together in a good way, and leads right into the under 3 minute jaunt known as 'The Measure.' The album draws down with 'Borderline,' again showing Ridley's ability to sing with clear emotion. Skyclad shows the true rock-n-roll heart of its six stringers with this emotive number. As Ramsay is simply soaring with his other band Satan these days, its nice to see he and Pugh sounding so fresh and energized. Their playing through the song is superb and tease Ridley's verses with just the right amount of electricity.
Forward Into The Past may not be quite as immediately edgy or catchy as efforts past, but after it has had time to ruminate within the skull of the listener, it grows some solid roots. The intro and outro should be mentioned as well, for the bardic poems they are. A little bit pagan / folk metal, a little bit punk, with a nice shot of NWOBHM adrenaline, fans looking for this particular sonic alchemy will rarely find a band this adept. Forward Into The Past holds its own, even if it doesn't quite raise the bar.