Cloven Hoof – A Sultan’s Ransom (1989)
Ever had one of those moments where you listen to an album and decide you absolutely must have it? When I first listened to A Sultan’s Ransom some months ago, my brain demanded I acquire it, and since a person is pretty hard to distinguish from their brain at the best of times, I followed through.
Metaphysics (metalphysics?) aside, Cloven Hoof apparently began their life as part of the influential New Wave of British Heavy Metal, before making their way into the vaguely proggy power metal territory of A Sultan’s Ransom. Iron Maiden arguably evolved in a similar fashion during the 1980s, although at a generally lower level of aggression and speed. Any influence shines through mostly in the vocals of Russ North, which very much resemble Bruce Dickinson’s overall style. Russ seems to rely on his lower frequencies a bit more, but he pulls out most of the same tricks. The guitarist (Andy Wood), meanwhile, does much to establish this album’s identity, mixing melodic, melodramatic leads and passages with more intense but sparser strums and chugs (i.e the typical speed-thrash approach). To be fair, lots of bands were doing this at the time, and lots of bands still are since it’s a fairly common trope in this subgenre, but this album came out early enough that it probably played a role in popularizing such an approach.
Okay, fine, maybe they’re not winning points for originality. On A Sultan’s Ransom, Cloven Hoof performs in a genre that was already well established in 1989, and as you can probably tell from the fact I drew connections to Iron Maiden, I’m sensing quite a bit of similarity of approach. On the other hand, Cloven Hoof executes it consistently better than Iron Maiden does, probably because Iron Maiden only really shines when they extend their songwriting, elaborate on their ideas, and in general release Somewhere in Time. This album successfully packs some of these extended songwriting techniques into assuredly shorter songs, and that gives even more obviously verse-chorus driven tracks like “Highlander” a sense of momentum and purpose that they otherwise would lack. Cloven Hoof doesn’t push as far into these territories as some of their contemporaries, but based on what I hear here, they would’ve succeeded if they tried.
To put it bluntly, albums like A Sultan’s Ransom built up enough following for this band over the years that some members tried to reform it in the mid-2000s. I’ve read that these efforts involved all sorts of unfamiliar musicians and resulted in work of varying quality, but whatever your opinion on those works (if any) may be, you probably wouldn’t have them if it weren’t for this album.
Highlights: “Forgotten Heroes”, “1001 Nights”, “Notre Dame”, “Highlander”