(High Roller 2017)
Cloven Hoof are rightfully revered as a legendary NWOBHM band. Over three magical albums and an EP released in the 1980s, Cloven Hoof created a legacy of speed and power, majesty and might that ensured their status as heroes of the underground for all time. But bassist/founder Lee Payne wasn’t finished. He re-launched the band in 2001 and spent the next decade-plus reliving the glories of the past while seeking a path forward. To say that Cloven Hoof has been plagued with lineup instability would be like saying that Arizona has been plagued with warm weather this summer. Aside from mainstay Payne, Metal Archives lists more than two dozen ex-members of Cloven Hoof. But Payne persisted. He refused to give up, and last year the ultimate Hoof lineup took shape. In addition to rhythm guitarist Chris Coss (who has been in the band since 2011), Payne welcomed to the fold a young lead guitar phenom named Luke Hatton, plus two Texans, vocalist George Call and drummer Danny White, both veterans of the metal scene known for their many years of work together in ASKA, as well as an ill-fated tour of duty with Omen. I had the honor of witnessing this lineup’s first (and, to date, only) live performance at the HRH NWOBHM festival in Sheffield, England, last December. The band played an absolute blinder of a gig, after which Call pulled me aside and confided that the forthcoming Cloven Hoof record was one of the best things he’d ever been involved with. He wasn’t exaggerating.
Let’s not mince words: Who Mourns for the Morning Star should be mandatory listening for fans of traditional heavy metal. It’s a pleasure to listen to this record because all of the ingredients coalesce so brilliantly. Payne has always been a gifted songwriter, and on these nine songs, he moves from strength to strength, penning some of the finest tunes of his illustrious career. Indeed, by my reckoning, at least five cuts on Who Mourns for the Morning Star ought to go down as all-time Cloven Hoof classics. Then there is George Call. The guy’s one of the best singers in the world, and he displays his full arsenal on this album, from the Halford-esque screams that punctuate “Star Rider” through the Conklin-style whispers that usher in “Bannockburn,” to everything in between. Through the emotion and power it conveys, Call’s voice elevates even mediocre material to greatness. And this material is anything but mediocre. Special mention also must be made of Luke Hatton’s guitar solos. The kid does incredible work here, with leads that are flashy and tasteful but, more importantly, make every single song better. Of course, the other players are no slouches either. Every member does his part at a high level, and skilled producer Patrick Engel stitches it all together with a full, punchy, contemporary production that allows each musician to shine.
I suppose the convenient thing to do would be to classify Who Mourns for the Morning Star under the NWOBHM heading, but there’s a lot more going on here than that. Even on albums like Dominator and A Sultan’s Ransom, Cloven Hoof showed a penchant for speed and power that owed as much to U.S. power metal (think Jag Panzer or Omen) as it did to early-Dickinson period Iron Maiden. The same holds true on Who Mourns for the Morning Star. There’s an impressive versatility in the material, even as it all remains firmly under the old-school metal banner. “Time to Burn” is a bona fide speedster, and “Go Tell the Spartans” transitions seamlessly from mid-tempo melodic verses to a ripping, breathless “On your feet / On your knees” chorus. Opener “Star Rider” has an almost Priest-like swagger and wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the last couple of ASKA albums, and is perhaps a faint lyrical tip of the hat to past Hoof space-themed openers “Astral Rider” and “Nova Battlestar.” “I Talk to the Dead” is a darker, haunting number with an eerie melody in the chorus and an anguished vocal performance. But my favorite tracks are two epics, “Morning Star” and “Bannockburn,” with Payne channeling his inner Steve Harris to simply devastating effect. Both “Morning Star” and especially “Bannockburn” are 6-7 minute masterpieces with dazzling tempo changes, big mood swings, fantastic lyrics, and massively memorable melodies, yet without an ounce of fat or filler. This is how you write an epic heavy metal song that captures the hearts and minds of the faithful. Indeed, the only songs on the whole record that don’t quite hit the mark for me are the simple hard-rock biker anthem “Neon Angels” and the overly chuggy/modern “Mindmaster.” Neither is bad, to be sure, and I applaud the band for trying different things and expanding on their core sound, but these two songs are perhaps a half-step to either extreme outside the box of where Cloven Hoof thrives the most. Also, for the benefit of my lyrics-obsessed friends (you know who you are), it bears noting that the lyrics printed in the booklet don’t quite match the songs. They’re close, but there are many minor additions and deletions in the words actually sung. I wonder if the printed texts were Payne’s drafts that don’t reflect modifications by Call in the studio. Not a big deal, but an interesting oddity nonetheless.
In the nearly two months since its release, Who Mourns for the Mourning Star has garnered rave reviews from around the world. Deservedly so. I can’t imagine any fan of Cloven Hoof, ASKA or well-executed classic metal in general not being enthralled by this record. Hell, “Bannockburn” just might be the greatest song I’ve heard in 2017. Cloven Hoof are back. Let’s hope this lineup remains intact for many years to come, because this album is proof positive that they have much left to offer the heavy metal universe. Lee Payne and Cloven Hoof, I salute you!
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~