Skyclad – Prince of the Poverty Line (1994)
Skyclad is often considered the first ‘folk metal’ band, and this seems to be reasonably accurate. On the other hand, their debut (The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth) really isn’t that great. Sure, it’s clearly got the elements that supposedly define the genre, but they’re kind of underwhelming in their execution. On the other hand, Prince of the Poverty Line isn’t as obviously metallic, but the songwriting is significantly more memorable. Some sources call this the band’s best album; if I had the reference set to agree or disagree, I could comment on that… but I don’t.
You see, I really don’t listen to a lot of music that could be called “folk music”, or even “folk metal” for that matter. Even then, I’m willing to make the claim that what sets Skyclad apart from the throngs of bands they influenced is that they take their folk influence from modern folk music, as opposed to older traditions. Think Bob Dylan or Johnny Cash, but amplified. Considering that even those musicians were influenced by earlier forms of folk, this might not be a significant statement, but it’s still worth noting.
Much of my appraisal of Skyclad as being influenced by “modern” folk music came from the lyrics, anyways. Martin Walkyier is a skilled wordsmith, using all sorts of metaphors and figurative language to construct these songs’ meanings. One of the side effects of this is that he has an predilection for groan-worthy puns, but sometimes that’s just unavoidable. The other significant aspect of these lyrics is that they discuss social topics, like poverty (no way!), morality, racism, politics, etc. That’s a common thing in many forms of music, but combined with the narrative/fantastic approach of the lyrics it makes for an interesting effect. In contrast to the elaborate lyrics, the backing band is actually quite simple and stripped down. There are frequent passages of violin and keyboards, but they play basic stuff – even when it elaborates on the ‘metal’ side of the band (and it frequently does) it’s never particularly technical or flashy. The riffs tend to have a hard rock/traditional metal feel to them, with plenty of consonant, crowd pleasing melody. As a result, Skyclad often relies on tempo, tonality and rhythm, and lyrics to distinguish songs on this album – in that regard, they succeed, but the musical backing on this album is rarely anything profound or special, even when it works.
Considering that Skyclad works under the pretense of playing “folk metal”, it’s probably an acceptable thing that they play relatively simple music. On the other hand, the members of this band have a history of doing more – The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth was usually faster and more complex, and even that had very little on Walkyier’s earlier band Sabbat (which featured production king Andy Sneap on guitar). Later albums by Skyclad allegedly play up the folk aspects even more; if true, this basically means that they’ve been simplifying their sound since 1990; that is a long time to be doing such a thing. Skyclad is still going somewhat strong with a new vocalist (and an inferior lyricist), but they may just be cruising off their legacy. It’s a reasonable legacy, to be sure, since many of the folk metal bands that are popular today wouldn’t exist without them. To be fair, I shouldn’t place all of that genre’s existence on Skyclad alone; even in the early-mid ’90s there were many metal bands experimenting with their locales’ traditional music; Moonspell and Orphaned Land come to mind. Still, this band is worth noting, because at least for a while, they put out some good content.
Highlights: “Cardboard City”, “Sins of Emission”, “A Bellyful of Emptiness”, “Gammadion Seed”