Album of the Week 06-2013: Cloven Hoof – A Sultan’s Ransom

Spectacular US Power Metal from the UK. It’s a reality. Cloven Hoof already carved their name in the annals of the darker side of NWOBHM with their fantastic self-titled debut in 1984, but what the band did in the late eighties on ‘Dominator’ and especially ‘A Sultan’s Ransom’ with the amazing lead vocals of Russ North is downright breathtaking. This is classy, epic Power Metal that is high on melody and quite obviously a product of the eighties, but that is hardly ever a problem when it comes to Metal.

Closer in style to the more melodic of the American Power Metal bands of the time – maybe a slightly more progressive take on what Leatherwolf was doing at the time would be a good reference – it seems that bassist and main songwriter Lee Payne really found his niche here. Part of that is the musicians he’s working with. This really wouldn’t have worked with the raw vocals that Dave Potter provided on their debut; Russ North’s semi-operatic and somewhat theatrical tenor suits the general atmosphere on this album very well and guitarist Andy Wood is able like no other to display both fireworks and restraint when the compositions ask for it. Session man Paul Hodgson’s keyboards are a subtle, but indispensible touch that add to the epic feel as well as the eighties gloss of the album.

There are quite a lot of highlights on ‘A Sultan’s Ransom’, but if I were to name one specific track to start with, it would be opening track ‘Astral Rider’. The song just sums up the album perfectly. Loads of changes in rhythm and mood to make every section stand out, North’s fantastic vocals (double layered in the amazing chorus!), subtly atsompheric keyboards and blazing guitar work. This really sets the scene for the album and – as we say in Dutch – it tastes like more.

Being a big fan of ‘One Thousand And One Nights’,  it’s always a pro when bands I like tackle the fantastic frame story of queen Sheherazade. Cloven Hoof’s ‘1001 Nights’ is no exception. It’s clearly the most progressive song of the album with the most abrupt changes, although closing track ‘Mistress Of The Forest’ – a fantastic song, although I have trouble getting over the fake harpsichord in the intro – and the outcast anthem ‘Notre Dame’ come close. ‘D.V.R.’ is, quite appropriately, a faster track, while not quite touching Thrash, and the midtempo ‘Jekyll And Hyde’ is, despite its cliché-ridden subject matter, a very well-written tune as well.

Procution-wise, ‘A Sultan’s Ransom’ as all the sheen and gloss of an eighties Power Metal record and as such, is a success sound-wise. However, the sound could have used a little more bottom, making the album somewhat unpleasant to listen to on headphones. Spectacular otherwise.

Miles away from the occult NWOBHM stylings of their debut, Cloven Hoof struck gold with ‘A Sultan’s Ransom’. The album may appear somewhat dated to some people, but to yours truly, this is timeless music. Anyone with a love for eighties American Power Metal should give ‘A Sultan’s Ransom’ a listen and enjoy the vibe.

Recommended tracks: ‘Astral Rider’, ‘1001 Nights’, ‘Forgotten Heroes’

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