My goodness but I’ve had a tortured journey with this release.
It’s hard to pin down why, but I just struggled with it so much.
That shouldn’t have been necessary. One shouldn’t have to struggle with Solstice, whose obvious pedigree needs no restating round these parts.
It’s just that being brutally honest, I think its something to do with a creeping feeling that their best days are behind them. It seems like some of the majesty faded in the long, long years from ‘New Dark Age’.
And while ‘Deaths Crown Is Victory’ was very good, a few niggles just made it feel slightly the lesser than the prior era.
I think that’s what fed into the first few dozen spins of ‘White Horse Hill’, perhaps tainting it a little.
Having now worked to it, drunk to it, read to it, walked to it… finally it’s clicked. At laborious length, mind.
But yes, it’s there. Finally I can realise the many small beauties in it, from sublime harmony choices in the vocal and guitar, to the rustle and build of particular bits of drumming, rising from nothing to thunder in just the right length of time.
What can I say: it’s been hard won, for reasons I hope will be apparent but not off-putting (quite the opposite, I hope).
‘To Sol A Thane’ is properly superb. A vintage Solstice anthem that majors on all the elemental ingredients that define their classic sound. Harmony, heraldic melody, power, and the mighty return of drummer Rick Budby who gave so very much to ‘New Dark Age’.
Yet as anthemic as it is, it remains – strangely – a proper slow burner as well. As a metal song, you can appreciate easily it at first spin; but it’s only with repeat listens that this track really reveals the depth of musicality that has gone into it.
It has that fantastic quality of being uplifting and powerful as well as gently melancholy – something very difficult to capture. Paul Kearns’ particular choices of notes just before the ‘falls in shade’ lyric (03:40) are just masterful. It begs to be sung back at them live, and rightly so. A new Solstice standard.
‘Beheld A Man Of Straw’ is an atmosphere piece rather than a track proper, ushering in the title track. It’s un-Solsticey, and, it could be argued, upsets the flow a little.
But ‘White Horse Hill’ too is strong, building from quiet strains into a galloping thump. I love the shuffling hi-hats and pumping kicks about two thirds of the way in before the solo.
It’s at this point that the metal takes a back seat, and Solstice try out some new tonalities. We have of course had them go quiet before, albeit in a more acoustic fashion (‘Blackthorne’). ‘For All Days, And For None’ is more of a low gain, quietly warm lament, similar – somewhat ironically – to the post-Warning band 40 Watt Sun’s ‘Wider Than The Sky’ sound palette.
It is here that I wince at once again having to deliver difficult news.
Paul is a superb singer whose powerful pipes have enlivened the band as the latest in a line of high quality and more importantly distinctive singers.
But he very definitely is sharp and flat of the note on several occasions – something I’ve flagged up before, but that to my ear at least remains the case. ‘For All Days’ is a track that exposes this, in part due to the low gain and energy.
How can I say that without being a nitpicking killjoy? I cant. But there it is. I’ll say no more on it, save to say that his performance is absolutely excellent throughout the vast majority here.
‘Under Waves Lie Our Dead’ is sonically a bit different from the rest, in a way that’s hard to put your finger on. It’s more traditionally doom metal, sharper and heavier than the others, but kind of lacking the clear line of attack of the first two tracks. It drifts along a bit, somewhat rudderless.
That, and ‘Gallow Fen’ do seem to me to suffer from the feeling already aired by some listeners that they seem very much borne out of long jamming rather than decided songwriting efforts.
So in a way it’s these tracks that have made me dial back from a fuller enjoyment of the release. Were they really subject to the same quality control? Or did inspiration at some point wane, in favour of banging out the tunes?
And yet they’re still very, very good – and, importantly, in keeping with the spirit of the release, melodically most of all. The same lietmotifs are there, helping with the musical consistency of the whole.
As I said at the start, many of these gripes dissipate with time. It’s a fact that there are two great songs on this and four alright ones; but they’re still very satisfying.
So let’s talk turkey.
While immensely enjoyable, sonically powerful, and melodically rich – the first half at any rate – it is inconsistent.
‘To Sol A Thane’ is among their best work; it is, as it were, Mighty And Superior. The rest is not. It is however still memorable and potent.
And for all that, I have spun and spun and spun it again.
3.4 / 5 – Earl Grey ::: 24/03/18