Getting Into: Skyclad
Skyclad formed in 1990 by Martin Walkyier (then ex-Sabbat, now again a member) and guitarist Steve Ramsey (Satan, ex-Pariah), with the goal of creating the “ultimate pagan metal band”. Of course, pagan metal now means something quite different, but here is ostensibly where it all began. The band name itself is a term from the Wicca religion, meaning “clad in the sky”, i.e. ritual nudity, and at the beginning, their themes revolved a lot about pagan traditions, while becoming more overtly political as time went by.
There are many things to love about Skyclad; their highly extensive discography and the highly varied music on offer between their albums, their trendsetting and influence by introducing a violinist and soon more overt folk elements to what was originally more or less a straight-up thrash metal outfit, and Martin Walkyier’s thoughtful, clever, funny and poetic lyrics. Martin Walkyier left the band in 2010, and they’ve released three albums since, and musically the albums do hold a candle to the old output, but it simply wasn’t the same without his dry, melodramatic wit to carry the songs. So, this article will obviously contain a bunch of lyric snippets, but also a wide overview of the multifaceted world of Skyclad for you to get into.
1991 - The Wayward Sons Of Mother Earth
“O come ye young of Hamlyn, you who know my tune so well,
Where it beckons you must follow, be it Heaven, be it Hell.
Forget your mothers grieving as I pipe you down the street,
With a shilling in my pocket and the sky beneath my feet.”
After this short speech, Skyclad make themselves known with a fast thrash riff supported by a violin tremolo, and we’re off to a good start. The Wayward Sons Of Mother Earth is first and foremost a thrash metal album, which is evident from the beginning. As to be expected, there is a heavy Sabbat and Satan influence here, with hyperlapse riffs and snarling, very wordy singing. The amount of words Martin Walkyier manages to fit into a single line is nothing short of impressive, and Steve Ramsey’s leads and rhythms flow by in no time at all. Graeme English’s (Satan, ex-Pariah) bass is slightly too inaudible, but it’s fine for an album from this era, and Keith Baxter’s drums are tight in their fast paces while not being overly original. “The Widdershins Jig” is the first example of what Skyclad would evolve into, with its slower pace, folksy dance melody, and Mike Evans’ fiddle creating what is possibly the first ever folk metal song. There’s a few more thrash cuts on here, such as the self-titled “Skyclad” and “Terminus”, and there’s the beautiful folk ballad “Moongleam And Meadowsweet”, but “The Widdershins Jig” is by far the most notable song on The Wayward Sons Of Mother Earth, and would go on to become a staple song in their setlist for over a decade.
1992 - A Burnt Offering For The Bone Idol
“No gold, no frankincense or myrrh we bring,
Just faith and this ‘burnt offering’.
So raise your voice with mine and sing
A hymn to long-lost causes.”
Skyclad’s second album is an improvement in all aspects over their debut, while staying more or less true to the folksy thrash style they had established a year earlier. It is simultaneously a much darker, grimmer, yet catchier and more memorable album, and contains several of my personal favourite Skyclad songs. For this album, they had recruited Dave Pugh on additional guitars and added Fritha Jenkins as a permanent member on violin, mandolin, keyboards and backing vocals. An ominous intro leads into the thrash number “A Broken Promised Land”, and “Karmageddon (The Suffering Silence)” creates an atmosphere of dread with its dramatic violins and warmongering lyrics.
However, it’s the second half of the album that stands out for me. After the cosy interlude that’s “Ring Stone Round”, we get an unflinching thrash song, and then the three-strike-punch of the final songs, which all are among Skyclad’s best. “R’Vannith” is a powerful and dramatic retelling of a tribe being invaded by Romans (the song title is a Celtic word for ‘Romans’), and “The Declaration Of Indifference” is an obnoxiously catchy thrash cut with tongue-in-cheek lyrics about drug dealers and capitalism. Finally, “Alone In Death’s Shadow” is a slow-paced, doomy, experimental song with reverberating, mellow singing that goes through an ambient section that erupts into pseudo-black metal screaming about the hopelessness and hypocrisy of the war on drugs: “Are you so cold and heartless you can feel no shame / That we allow a human life to become a death ‘in vein’?” A Burnt Offering For The Bone Idol is a terrific album, and recommended to fans of thrash and folk alike.
1993 - Jonah’s Ark
“The few who see me through my disguise abhor, deplore, hate and despise me
I care not what you perceive, fall unto your knees
Jack the Ripper went to Sunday school with his best friend Mack the Knife
And the blue-eyed boy who lives next door, he's a junkie Jesus Christ.”
Okay, so releasing three albums in three years seems like a not so good idea, judging from what happened with Jonah’s Ark (obviously a play on “Noah’s Ark”, but who the hell is Jonah? I never figured that out). Here, Skyclad veer away quite drastically from their thrash metal origins and create something of a mix between folk rock and hard rock (with some thrash left for good measure). The lyrics are as good as ever: “I’m just thinking aloud / Isn’t thinking allowed? / Why is nobody thinking?”, but the music leaves a bit to be desired, especially when compared to the two beastly albums that stand side by side with this one (you’ll see what I mean soon). “Cry Of The Land” would go on to become more successful in the post-Walkyier unplugged album of 2002, and in “A Near Life Experience”, Walkyier comes close to rapping the lyrics, with mixed results. The best song, by far, is “Earth Mother, The Sun And The Furious Host”, where the folk and the rock come together splendidly, telling the tale of a boy who goes to a religious school and ends up a pagan. However, this is but a quick slump in their discography, because…
1994 - Prince Of The Poverty Line
“The ‘whether man’ says that the outlook's not great,
A few outbreaks of murder, with some isolated rape.
I ask my doctor his advice, this is what he says,
‘Get yourself some cancer, boy, before you die of AIDS.’”
…here is the true masterpiece of Skyclad’s early 90s era. It seems that releasing an album each year was actually perfectly doable for this band (and they would go on to become even more prolific later in the 90s, believe it or not). Prince Of The Poverty Line is part thrash, part folk, but most of all, for the first time in the band’s history, it’s all Skyclad, and no longer sounds like just an amalgamation of styles, but a true style in and of itself. Fritha Jenkins was replaced by Cath Howell on violin and keyboards, and these instruments do blend in much better with the rest of the instruments here than ever before. The music has changed from the past fast-paced thrash into something a bit more mid-paced yet much heavier, the folk elements blend perfectly into the metal, Walkyier’s singing has got better (he was never the best singer, to be honest, but his thrash snarl is iconic), and the lyrical themes have switched from paganism and nature to mostly social commentary. A very cynical commentary on post-Thatcher Britain, where he paints a picture of civil war dances, street crime, subway heroinists, and lost futures. Assorted shouts and an iconic drum beat open up “Civil War Dance”, where we are suggested to “Take your partner for a civil war dance / Open season on the underworked and overpaid / Erase the constitution, a bloody revolution / The simplest solution to the problems that they have made”.
Skyclad never shied away from being open about their leftist leanings, and it becomes more and more obvious as we trace the band through their discography. “Cardboard City” is a catchy hard rock song, and “Land Of The Rising Slum” is a classic, with the most cynical lyrics you can imagine (such as the quote you see above). “The One Piece Puzzle” is a beautiful and sombre power ballad, while the second half of the album is a bit more experimental but nonetheless equally memorable. It all ends with the anthem “The Truth Famine”, which will make you want to replay the album over and over again. If you’re looking to get into Skyclad, Prince Of The Poverty Line is (one of) the best place(s) to start. However, there is a lot more to come.
1995 - The Silent Whales Of Lunar Sea
“He's a tinpot Hitler gone berserk,
A self-made man from another man's work,
More tongue in cheek than a French kiss from Judas Iscariot.
His name goes hand in hand with notoriety,
Bigot of the highly illegitimate variety.
I'm sick of eating shit, can I try another flavour?”
Say the album title out loudly, and you’ll get the pun. Yeah, “The Silent Wails Of Lunacy”, indeed. More tongue-in-cheek humour from nobody’s best friend Martin. The Silent Whales Of Lunar Sea is Skyclad’s most experimental album to date (and of all time), and with this comes both pros and cons. It is not nearly as hard-hitting and memorable as Prince Of The Poverty Line, nor as easy-going and accessible as some of the albums to follow, but stands out a bit like a sore thumb. Also, they have a new violinist again, this time Georgina “George” Biddle (Biddle on the fiddle, eh?), who remains with the band to this day. The production somehow turned out not so great, which is surprising considering the previous album sounded excellent. Not sure what happened there, as they were both produced by Kevin Ridley (as were all the previous albums). Perhaps the heavy use of synths and ambience was too much to handle, and the metal suffered as a result.
There is a lot to like on this album still, however. “Just What Nobody Wanted” is a sort of avant-garde folk rock song with a memorable rhythm and cheeky lyrics, where the drums get to shine in their playful simplicity: “If life is sweet, then I’m diabetic / The future looks rosy, I just went colour-blind”. “Brimstone Ballet” and “Turncoat Rebellion” are both great folk metal songs, and “The Present Imperfect”, apart from having an excellent title, closes out the album in the same anthemic fashion as “The Truth Famine” did on Prince Of The Poverty Line. The best song, however, is “Another Fine Mess”, which went on to become a staple song for the band. Not the best place to start, and quite unrepresentative of the band as a whole, but mandatory listening for when you want to see the non-standard face of Skyclad.
1996 - Irrational Anthems
“The Law of Relativity - Life's relative misery.
The Law of Probability - It's probably contrived.
Newton's Law of Gravity - We face a grave reality.
The Law that runs the jungle - Only the strong survive.”
Veering further and further from their metal origins and towards pure folk rock, if The Silent Whales Of Lunar Sea was Skyclad’s experimental album, then Irrational Anthems is their transitional album between folk/thrash metal and the pure folk rock to follow for two albums afterwards. It opens with “Inequality Street”, which is a true classic as far as Skyclad songs go. With the iconic a cappella opening, a super catchy riff, bouncy drums and bass, and hard rocking guitars topped off by stellar lyrics: “Come lords and ladies, raise glasses in toast to the ‘other-half’ dying to eat / ‘Cause they who receive feast deserve it the most, it’s a literal dead-end ‘Inequality Street’”.
After this gate-bursting opener, however, Skyclad wanders in many different directions trying to find their footing and not always succeeding. Several of the songs on Irrational Anthems are sadly forgettable since they play with vocal rhythms and strange pop fashions that don’t work out so well for this band, especially not when something as excellent as “Inequality Street” sets the bar. Where it does succeed, however, it does so brilliantly, as on the catchy singer-songwriter-ish “Penny Dreadful”, where Walkyier complains about “Commercial suicide’s appealing after ten years on this losing streak / ‘Cause I’d rather be called sour and bitter than be deemed the flavour of the week”. “History Lessens” is another gem, and closer “Quantity Time” puts a sombre and reflective end to the album. It works by far the best when it leans closer to folk rock than anything else, though, which the band obviously realised as later the same year they’d release their first truly non-metal album.
1996 - Oui Avant-Garde Á Chance
“I know there is a price I must pay for my thirty years misspent,
When my satanic manager recoups my soul 100%.
I'll meet him at the crossroads, midnight chimes, my time has come
To party with the porno queens down by the shores of Acheron.”
Another Skyclad album, another pun. Obviously, if you pronounce this in English, it becomes “We Haven’t Got A Chance”. Yeah, Skyclad was never the most commercially successful band, and it is well known that Walkyier had fallen on hard times, but at least they stand up for themselves and do what they want to. Oui Avant-Garde Á Chance is the first album where Skyclad goes all-in folk rock mode, drops any pretence of metal, and just churns out a bunch of mostly fun (and a few depressive) folk songs.
“Great Blow For A Day Job”, apart from having arguably the best title of all time, is a super-catchy “British pub”-style song telling a hilarious story of a dude selling his soul to the Devil for a highly conspicuous reason: “I have put my pen to paper and eternally am damned / I’ve squandered my immortal soul by singing in a fiddle band”. “Postcard From Planet Earth” is a very memorable ballad supported by synths, about how “Planet Earth is great to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there”, and “Bombjour!” is an energetic, drum-driven piece about France’s nuclear policies. In between the fun-loving songs are the really depressing “Jumping My Shadow” and “A Badtime Story”, the latter of which borders on metal but is mostly heavy in atmosphere. All in all, I’d still call this another transition album, because what would follow crystallises this new folk rock style into its best essence.
1997 - The Answer Machine?
“Cleanse the bloodline, start the cull,
Nazi roulette, six chambers full.
Fail to read the warning signs,
Find yourself in ‘Troublesometimes’.”
If you want to get into Skyclad from the folk-end rather than the metal-end, then this is the album for you. The Answer Machine? is absolutely excellent from start to finish, managing to combine the “British pub” songs of the previous album with some of the more experimental sides of its predecessors, creating a long-lasting and unique experience in the process. It’s hard to pick favourite Skyclad albums, but this one is definitely among their best. And it’s not even metal! What gives?
What gives is that no matter if it’s light and accessible folk rock most of the time, the songs are so masterfully written, the lyrics as always both thoughtful and hilarious, and the production crisp as a rainy British summer day. “Building A Ruin” is on the same level as “Inequality Street” in terms of catchiness, and dare I say it even more memorable with its slight twists and turns. Next follows two ballads, the first of which, “Worn Out Sole To Heel” (have a drink every time a pun pops up, and you’ll be drunk ten minutes ago) is even somewhat progressive (sort of like “A Stranger In The Garden” off The Silent Whales Of Lunar Sea, but executed much better), and “Single Phial” a singer-songwriter ballad that would reappear on the unplugged album. “Helium” is an instant classic folk rock gem about a man jumping from a building: “Fly like a rock from the roof to the basement / The last thing to go through my mind was the pavement”, and “Troublesometimes” a quite sing-along friendly semi-acoustic power ballad about the Yugoslavian wars. The Answer Machine? is an excellent album, and not a bad place to start. You’ll just have to imagine this sound with some metal in it to get the full picture, or simply listen to…
1999 - Vintage Whine
“I'll play Bacchus for the evening, pray, be seated, take your places.
Should my ‘manna’ seem displeasing, offend your airs and graces.
I've a list long as your arm, the connoisseur's selection.
Such bitter whines, a quaff of qualms, awaiting your inspections.”
…this album. This time, long-time producer Kevin Ridley steps in on guitar and backing vocals duties, and he would later replace Walkyier as main vocalist in the band. Again injecting some metal into their previous folk rock style, on Vintage Whine (yes, that’s a pun about alcohol, drink up) Skyclad successfully reconnects their present with their past. While it is not all the way back to their thrash metal roots, it is a neat mix of the The Answer Machine? sound and Prince Of The Poverty Line, though it is at the same time both more jovial as it is introspective compared to those two albums. The title track is an instant classic, with a bouncy, folksy main riff, heavy bass and drums, crisp fiddle and lyrics overswarming with alcohol puns: “Non-cordial, it’s bile bouquet / Laments ferment, the patience ‘schnapps’”. A couple more of faster folk metal cuts follow, before the influence of preceding folk rock albums makes itself known on the rock ballad “A Well Beside The River” and singer-songwriter ballad “No Strings Attached”.
It would seem Walkyier had bad luck with a woman or two at this point, as fast-paced folk metal cuts such as “Bury Me” and “Little Miss Take” (well, duh) deal with “fickle passions” and betrayal. “Cancer Of The Heart” is a fantastic song with an instantly memorable chorus on how human nature lacks for empathy, and the album closes out with a short but sweet little piano piece. If you want a good snapshot of all of Skyclad’s various stages, Vintage Whine is a great place to start, as it contains both the earlier heaviness and the later-found folkiness of the band.
2000 - Folkémon
“Siamese Twins who were joined at the heart.
Love's an affliction without a known remedy.
Blunt-bladed fate deemed to cleave us apart;
Emotional surgery pays no indemnity.
Some seek release with effete anaesthesia,
others adapt to the role of sworn enemy.
You found nepenthe in cheap, sweet amnesia;
It was far easier losing my memory.”
Folkémon was the first album I heard by Skyclad and so it holds a special place for me, but in hindsight, it’s not their best yet is far from their worst. I guess I should explain the album title: you see, the band had read in a newspaper about how more British children were able to recognise Pikachu than the Prime Minister, and so this album about political conspiracies, environmentalism, and heartbreak lists the members as “Folkémon trailers” in the liner notes. Also, the artwork depicts a shoddy-looking Pikachu-cat-something with a fiddle and a beer bottle, so that’s that.
Skyclad doesn’t deal with train robberies, but “The Great Brain Robbery”; a fast and heavy song that could easily have fit on Vintage Whine or even earlier albums. “Polkageist!” is the album’s go-to pub folk song, with some so-dumb-it's-clever lyrics: “Juice of fruits beyond forbidden dripping slowly from her fingers / She took my hand and led me to that place where ‘cunning lingers’”. The album does lose momentum in the middle part, with “Crux Of The Message” being too focused on retelling some poem somebody liked, and “The Disenchanted Forest” being an admirable attempt at proggy storytelling that ultimately ends up too long for its own good. However, the latter half of the album has the beautiful power ballad “You Lost My Memory” and the up-tempo “Déjà-Vu Ain’t What It Used To Be”, both containing some of Skyclad’s best music and lyrics to date. To sum up, Folkémon might have been my entry point into this band, but I would recommend some previously mentioned albums if you’re just getting started.
After Folkémon, Martin Walkyier and Skyclad parted ways, apparently owing to his “acerbic personality”, but who knows. The band would continue on without him, but they lost a lot of the productivity; note that they released 10 albums between 1991-2000, and only four albums since. Anyway, let’s check out what this new era has to offer.
2002 - No Daylights… Nor Heeltaps
“Will I drown in the sweat of this chemical dream,
With far too much blood in my alcohol stream?
When Mr. Jack Daniels has read my last rights,
His friend 'Billy Whizz' comes to turn on the lights.”
A nice little diversion back into folk rock territory, and with Kevin Ridley replacing Martin Walkyier on vocals, No Daylights… Nor Heeltaps consists of more or less unplugged versions of earlier Skyclad classics spanning most of their discography, from the debut album to Oui Avant-Garde Á Chance. Many of their best songs return here in more of a folksy pub style shape, and songs such as “Inequality Street”, “Spinning Jenny”, “Another Fine Mess”, “The Widdershins Jig”, and “The Land Of The Rising Slum” sound as good as, if not better, than their original versions. The loss of Martin Walkyier wouldn’t become apparent until the following album, where the band again writes original music, and Kevin Ridley is honestly a better singer than Martin ever was, even if he lacks his iconic snarl and mostly sings in a smoother style. Not the best place to start, but well worth checking out once you’ve become familiar with the band’s earlier output.
2004 - A Semblance Of Normality
“Armed with this liberal knowledge, I set off to London town
To see 'the seat of wisdom' and hear justice handed down.
Not 'a semblance of normality', an assembly of insanity,
I'll not become a member of this parliament most foul.”
Four years after Martin’s departure, the band is back with their few offering of original music since. The style is… the same, but different; there are more overt hard rock and even blues influences, and the fiddle isn’t as omnipresent as it used to be. It seems Skyclad want to shake off their past and forge a new path, with mostly good results. The band does its best to make up for Martin’s absence, and while Kevin still doesn’t reach the same aggressivity in vocals, his singing fits the music very well. The lyrics clearly aren’t written by Martin any more, but they aren’t half-bad, even though they at some points obviously try to recreate past wit with limited results.
“Do They Mean Us?” opens the album in a so-so fashion with a just-decent hard rock number about English stereotypes, but “A Good Day To Bury Bad News” is a “good song to bury bad pasts”, and propels Skyclad in sort-of new directions by expanding on the former singer-songwriter vibes. “Anotherdrinkingsong” is one of the most memorable songs on A Semblance Of Normality, with its pub crawl vibes clearly inspired by the previous unplugged album, and “The Parliament Of Fools” uses a cappella singing and clever lyrics to create music that rivals the previous era. There are a couple of missteps and failed experiments on the album, most notably “Ten Little Kingdoms” (which might have been good with Martin’s “acerbic” snarl, but fails to hit home as it is), but ends on a good note with the epic “Hybrid Blues”. Don’t check this album out first, or you’ll miss out on what made the band so iconic, but do leave it for later to see what you think about the differences between this and their 90s era.
2009 - In The… All Together
“Seems so many years now since he set off all alone
To see the wonders of this world, prove the stories he'd been sold
Seeks the ‘milk of human kindness’ and he takes it where he can
From the yachts of Monte Carlo to a teahouse in Japan
But now, he sits forsaken with a beer glass in his hand
Won't anybody listen to the well-travelled man?”
Five years after A Semblance Of Normality, the guys and gal in Skyclad awaken from their slumber to show the world they’re still In The… All Together, with mixed results. On the one hand, Kevin’s singing is better than ever, as he has developed a sort of heavy metal, not-quite-thrash snarly edge to his voice that was missing on the previous album. On the other hand, the production is way too loud and “modern” (in the bad sense of the word) and removes a lot of the organic quality Skyclad’s music used to have.
Some keyboard clicking (the computer kind, not the instrument) starts off “Words Upon The Street”, and it’s a good enough song in a slightly modernised restyling of the sound on the previous album. “Still Small Beer” should be a classic at this point; it’s a fun-loving, fast-paced folk metal song which sounds sort of like Korpiklaani, only more inspired, and “The Well-Travelled Man” is an epic journey through acoustic guitars, hard-hitting heavy metal, folk melodies, and great storytelling to boot. It is only after this three-in-a-row punch that the problems of In The… All Together become apparent. There’s a memorable chorus on “Modern Minds”, and the drums on “Babakoto” are great, but overall there is simply not that much here that is catchy or memorable. This would be fine if it were instead atmospheric or emotional or… you get it, any other thing one would look for in music, but it clearly aims to be hard rocking and catchy, and rarely lives up to that promise. Skyclad’s future after this would be uncertain, however…
2017 - Forward Into The Past
…a whooping eight years later, the band somehow comes to life again, having re-recruited guitarist Dave Pugh (who played with them in the early 90s) and setting out to compose an album for the 2010s. “Forward Into The Past” is a promising title, but it turns out that the only past it is going forward into is the most recent past, and not any of the 90s stuff. I mean, that is all well and good as long as there is some great music on here, but apart from opener “State Of The Union Now”, it mostly sounds like a retreading of In The… All Together, which wasn’t that great to begin with. No, Skyclad was at its best when it could release 10 albums in 9 years, because at least back then they had plenty of opportunity to correct any missteps. Now, having released 3 albums in 13 years, you’d expect quality over quantity, and that is sadly not to be found here.
So, I have to leave this discography walkthrough on a bit of a sour note, but that doesn’t mean there is plenty for you to find in their back catalogue.
Whatever kind of folk metal you are currently listening to, here’s the well-agreed-upon origin of it. Sure, you could argue that folk metal would have been invented regardless of Skyclad’s decision to include a violinist in their ranks, but there’s so much more to them than a simple gimmick. As you will have realised after reading this, Skyclad hasn’t only played folksy thrash metal, but even went more or less full acoustic folk rock for a couple of albums, and continue to blend British and other kinds of folk music into their particular brand of metal, which remains quite unique to this day. As you might have noticed, for me, a lot of the enjoyment comes from the clever lyrics (even though the music stands tall on its own, make no mistake), so if you’re the kind that doesn’t care about lyrics, maybe something will get lost on the way.
However, I guarantee you that Skyclad’s music is by far good enough on its own, and their influence on literally the entire metal scene cannot be denied. Without this band, who knows when, where, and how folk metal would have originated, and how it would sound today. Skyclad has a varied discography, many classics, many hidden gems, and simply lots for you to discover, so fire up Prince Of The Poverty Line, The Answer Machine?, or Vintage Whine right now if you haven’t already, or just check out this best-of Spotify playlist I’ve curated for the purpose of… Getting Into: Skyclad.
||Written on 04.05.2023 by 100% objective opinions.|
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