To your left:
Three minutes into Johan Länquist’s version of one of the greatest doom songs ever recorded from side B of what many consider to be one of the world’s finest doom records, epic enlightenment is achieved. “Under the Oak” goes quiet, save for some lightly plucked guitars, a moderate keyboard backdrop and Johan’s anguished vocals, but the listener is gutted at the 4:30 mark by way of a ripping solo and some of the most impassioned singing you’ll hear on a metal record. Epicus Doomicus Metallicus is loaded with moments such as this, and it’s no wonder the iconic cover has long since become a beacon that unites all with a fierce devotion to epic doom.
To your right:
The muted sounds of a typical day in the life for any Johann Shmoesson in 850AD kicks off “Father to Son” in a fairly unassuming way, but by the time that Quorthon riff hits and those thunder-drums rumble around the 1:30 mark we’re treated to one of metal’s highest headbangable moments. So unifying in its headbangability, in fact, it should be used as a litmus test for anyone claiming association with our tribe—if you hear it and don’t instinctively headbang, you’re clearly here for the fashion. Hammerheart is loaded with moments such as this, and although Blood Fire Death stands at ground zero of all that is “Viking metal,” it is Quorthon’s 1990 release and its doomier “hammer-strikes-the-anvil” pace that epitomizes one of metal’s most defining moments of heathen glory.
Somewhere at the intersection of Epicus Doomicus Streeticus and Hammerheart Lane exists England’s Solstice. You will find them gathered at a fossilized pub that slings time travel in a bottle and bitter cider from questionable taps, and they will probably be laughing about when and where heavy metal managed to go so far off course. Not completely off course, mind you, because bands that hold integrity on its proper pedestal clearly continue to exist, but careening down so many different paths that dead-end with the the dregs of untold bands that played atmospheric blackened crustcore yesterday and whatever squirrel-wave that’s currently twisting knickers today piled up to the tree-line. Contrastingly, the Solstice intersection is one that forgoes today’s trends in pursuance of the same sort of timeless “herz und stahl über alles” standards that produced heart-swelling classics such as “Under the Oak” and “Father to Son” during the golden age.
Solstice play majestic, proud, solemn, swaggering heavy metal, and they’ve been doing it for nearly three decades. Lamentably, that considerable stretch has produced what most would agree is a limited output: two proper full-lengths, two EPs, a handful of splits, and an impressive stack of demos mostly intended to remind people that no one’s yet managed to croak. The reasons behind such a modest crop is likely as long as God’s arm, and similar to most abiding bands, there is—aherm—a rutted history here, specifically with respect to its authoritative driving force, Richard M. Walker. Put simply, he’s a “my way or the incinerator” kind of guy, which has a unique way of obstructing the harvest in all manner of frisky ways.
Beyond the true risk of getting pinned as a complete wanker for, oh, I don’t know, showing up to rehearsals wearing a puffy My Dying Bride shirt, the primary factor impeding the Solstice yield has to do with the fact that Mr. Walker represents an ideal textbook definition of “perfectionist.” Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson ain’t got nothin’ on this dude, and the twenty active years since the last official Solstice full-length is testament to that certainty.
Every facet pertaining to a Solstice release ends up examined under a Lawrence Berkeley National Labs electron microscope, particularly with regard to the last decade-plus. That means every note, every piece of artwork, every lyric, every step during the production, and every conceivable participant available for live gigs gets ransacked in order to ferret out imperfections. If a flaw is uncovered, it’s back to the drawing board. The good news: this assures top-shelf work when material finally hits the streets. The bad news: if you’re already an abiding Solstice fan, you’ve already heard 25 minutes of this record via provisional demos floated out for inspection back in 2014 and 2016. That particular point is the sole flaw attached to White Horse Hill. But when you consider the fact that another of Walker’s purist traits involves scoffing the modern age’s dependence on all things digital waggling from cheap earbuds in favor of pure analog recordings that THUMP from actual speakers, and you take into account that said prior demos were extremely limited in physical form, an official tangible product that includes 23 additional minutes of fresh material quickly becomes all the more critical.
The record itself is a huge achievement—the closest thing to a natural 10/10 slab from the epic realm we’ve heard since Scald’s Will of Gods is a Great Power, and something that raises the bar previously set by the likes of While Heaven Wept’s pivotal Vast Oceans Lachrymose or The White Goddess by Atlantean Kodex.
Of course, Solstice is hardly a stranger to virtue; musically they’ve been world-class for ages. But the addition of Paul Kerns (ex-Arcane Sun) behind the mic beginning with 2013’s Death’s Crown is Victory EP was crucial for vaulting things to another level. Kerns sounds fantastic here—a Länquist level of spirit when measures are meant to galvanize, and a brawny approach to sensitivity throughout the record’s lighter fare. His range is showcased perfectly in a stretched neofolk ballad like “For All Days, and for None,” and the way his voice pairs with the second layer of melodic guitar that enters around 2:30 validates that most anything should be done to secure this dude’s membership for the long haul.
White Horse Hill is a perfectly to-the-point 46 minutes with zero filler, and each song either heartens, broods or crushes within an arrangement that balances these effects without flaw. In a world where intros have remained meaningless for decades, “III” opens the trip with a culminating sense of victory that could inspire a wet noodle to pierce plate armor, and the swell & plunge of emotions whips from that point forward. “To Sol a Thane” is epic to the point of detonation, and it reveals the truth that Solstice remains responsible for some of metal’s prettiest solos; “Beheld, A Man of Straw” is as cool and drifting as clouds on the Wicklow Mountains; “White Horse Hill” flexes a plow-to-the-earth sense of vigor with riffs that—if curled just a single degree further—could easily land on an early 80s hardcore punk record; and the towering “Under Waves Lie Our Dead” delivers 13-minutes of galvanized doom that features a very satisfying touch of Warning during those repeating points where Kearns “oh-oh-ahhh’s” parallel a lovely little guitar flare. A case could perhaps be made for ending the journey with something that gallops with a touch more speed, but the absurd pant-load of melody in that closing minute of “Gallow Fen” is as annihilating and emotionally draining as anything one could hope for in an epic closer.
That is a heap of words up there spinning a hell of a lot of praise. Nevertheless, White Horse Hill probably ain’t everyone’s cup of tea. Wholly unifying records no longer exist in a realm where people claim metalhead status and manage to find ways to dislike Iron Maiden. The record is, however, 110% essential for any creature that might appreciate metal that sounds as if it was pulled loose from the same primordial ooze that birthed all our doomy classics. If that sounds ideal to you, get ready to smash the living shit out of that LP preorder button in the coming weeks.
A closing wish: that White Horse Hill finds a renewed level of Solstice stability that yields material a little more regularly. And if Mr. Walker starts mentioning demos upon demos upon demos, maybe the rest of the lads can institute the B.A. Baracus method of Constructive Roofie Utilization to award themselves enough time to gather the goods and get it into a studio before he wakes up and starts throwing bar stools through windows. More great things related to Solstice in the not-too-distant future, please.
PLAY LOUD, FLIP, PLAY EVEN LOUDER. Repeat ad infinitum.
- Recorded at Vibrations Studios in Huddersfield, England. Engineered by Steve Longbottom. Mix and mastered by Richard Whittaker at FX Studios in London. All artwork by Chris Smith of Grey Aria Design in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
• LP via Dark Descent Records—Release date: TBA.
• CD via Dark Descent Records—Release date: April 6th. Contains one bonus track. Preorders up now.
• Cassette via Dark Descent Records—Release date: TBA.
• LP via Iron Bonehead Productions—Release date: TBA
• CD via Invictus Productions—Release date: TBA
• Cassette via Invictus Productions—Release date: TBA
- Solstice on this recording: Richard M. Walker – guitars; Paul Kerns – vocals; Andy Whittaker – guitars; Rick Budby – drums; Ian Buxton – bass