Friday 1 May 2020

Cloven Hoof - Age of Steel (2020)

Country: UK
Style: Heavy/Power Metal
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2020
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I'm always up for a new Cloven Hoof album, even if the band has had trouble keeping any semblance of consistency over a lot of years. This is only their seventh studio album in a career spanning over forty years, yet those seven albums feature five different lead vocalists. Sure, they split up for ten of those forty, but still. George Call here becomes just the second lead singer to make it to a second album and he's only been with the band since 2015.

The changes this time are to introduce new fish Ash Baker on lead guitar and Mark Bristow on drums. Both joined last year, recently enough that Wikipedia hasn't added them to the band's timeline yet, but they fit well. Chris Coss has stuck around since 2011 on rhythm guitar, which may make him the longest serving member except for Lee Payne, who co-founded the band in 1979 and has been a constant on bass ever since.

So how good are the new Cloven Hoof? Pretty damn good, I'd say, even if I'm not as enthused by this as a Facebook friend who pronounced it the album of the decade. I haven't heard them this good since Dominator in 1988, though I have to admit that I haven't heard anything since the band reformed in 2001. There's a lot here, ten songs over fifty minutes, and all of them are catchy on a first listen but deep enough to get better on further runs through.

The most obvious comparison here is to Iron Maiden. Alderley Edge (hey, I've been there) is very Maiden, as if they'd recorded Seventh Son of a Seventh Son a few years earlier without guitar synths. Call does a pretty good Bruce Dickinson impression, right down to the intonation, and there's some gallop behind him too that's straight out of the Maiden songbook, especially on the drums.

There's also a solid European power metal influence, though, of course, that mostly originated with Maiden too, but is distinguishable. Gods of War has a Helloween sound and there's ambition in the songwriting, if not as much as I remember on Keeper of the Seven Keys. There's a lot of twin guitarwork here between Baker and Coss, but not always in the way that Maiden do it. There's harmonic layering too that sounds really cool in ways I haven't heard a lot since Crimson Glory.

If there's an American influence, it's in the vocals. There are points where Call channels Eric Adams for a scream or Ronnie James Dio for more resonant moments, like on the title track, which oddly is my least favourite song on the album, even though it's still pretty solid. I don't hear much at all in the music that might be American; it's all European, from Maiden and Priest on in time.

Perhaps most importantly, there's a lot of character in the performance. The band aren't just recording music here, they're performing songs, and each of them finds its own groove within the broader defined sound. Bedlam is surely the most obviously theatrical song this time out, with a fantastic layering of vocals to highlight how Bedlam was a mental instution. Call does a great job at both singing a song and giving us the impression that he's suffering from schizophrenia at the same time. Alderley Edge isn't far behind in that theatrical style either.

I like this a lot. Maybe the drums are a little crisp in the mix, but that's nothing to do with the drummer and it hardly spoils the effect of the album. I'll be listening to this a few more times before I move on to something new because it's that good. No, not album of the decade level of good, but good enough to make my Highly Recommended List with an 8/10. Now, let's just keep this line-up in place for the next album to allow this band to achieve some of the success they've been due for decades.

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