Diamonds & Rust: Skyclad – The Wayward Sons Of Mother Earth

I am the Pagan Man–I speak for all my kind,
When I criticise your point of view–your hollow state of mind.
You say that I’m an animal–well this at least is true,
I’m a thinking, breathing human being–what the hell are you?

Some albums are so striking, so thoroughly impactful from the moment of discovery that they sear an imprint on your brain, an indelible impression to outlast time and trends. Skyclad’s The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth is one of those for me. I bought it at an independent record store in Spokane, Washington (pretty sure it was on Division St.) in late Spring or maybe early Summer of 1992. The art is what caught my attention, as was the way in the day, but it wasn’t what sold me. It is a wonderful piece of art, of course, but it also suggested it might be one of those sheep in wolf’s clothing type deals, maybe holding ren faire harp and lute music inside instead of the heavy metal I craved (we’ve all been burned before). Still the draw was strong enough to pull that CD out of the bin and flip it over for a look, which is all the further persuasion I needed, as I noticed a familiar face in the featured band pic.

Martin Walkyier, front and center, with studded leather gauntlets, a kick ass sword (one of two in that pic!), and stoic countenance, unmistakably the same dude that was front and center of another band I’d fallen head over heels for in the last couple years, Sabbat (UK).

I knew how amazing Sabbat was and what a tremendous part of that awesomeness was due to the formidable presence of Walkyier, so there was no way I was leaving that record store without The Wayward Sons. I didn’t even bother asking to give it a listen in the shop. I did insert it immediately into the ol CD player, though, still sitting in the parking lot, and was rightly blown away.

O come ye young of Hamlyn–you who know my tune so well,
Where it beckons you must follow–be it Heaven (be it Hell).
Forget your mothers grieving as I pipe you down the street,
With a shilling in my pocket–and the sky beneath my feet.

Straight from its opening riff, this album felt like it’s all happening in the sky, soaring, born of the open air. Every time that bass bubbles up, floats and glides, every bolt and dart of the strings/keys, each atmospheric connection from organic to electric that’s carried by a fiddle riff. (Fiddle. Riff!) And all around, an amazing empyrean atmosphere feeding the symbiosis of riff and cadence, rhythm and melody. It was like nothing I’d ever heard and I couldn’t stop listening. Here, on the 30th anniversary of the release of The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth, it’s no longer new, having been heard countless times and practically memorized, but the listening experience is otherwise very much the same: taut and powerful, swift and fierce, soaring and cerebral. And just as magical, if familiar.

Now maybe you’re an intrepid explorer of heavy sounds, clicking on all the articles, knowing that immersion discovers the path to enlightenment in an almost certainly limitless world of music. If that’s you, then gods bless you, pilgrim. You are the sage in the tower, the monk on the mountaintop, the all-knowing guru of rhythm and riff. Then again, who wants that kind of pressure? More likely, you’re a curious aficionado. You clicked on this article because you recognized the band name and album title and you like birthdays.

Let’s be real, though: it’s not like Skyclad is an obscure demos-only band or some flash in the pan. They are now and have been a well-known entity even if they weren’t in 1991. And, although Skyclad the band was as yet unknown, most of its members, like vocalist and lyricist Walkyier, were well and fully involved in the burgeoning heavy metal scene of the 1980’s. Guitarist, Steve Ramsey, handled most of the songwriting but shared it too with bassist, Graeme English, the pair of them already an experienced duo having founded and played in Satan (aka Blind Fury aka Pariah) for a full decade prior (only Keith Baxter began his professional career with Skyclad; he passed away at the tragically early age of 36 due to liver failure).

Of course, if you knew all that and clicked because you, like I, experienced Wayward Sons firsthand in your halcyon days, we’re sorry to remind you of the relentless swing of Time’s scythe (many of us here feel the rush at the edge of its radius, too, by the by). But even if you don’t already know it personally, chances are you’ve heard the album title, probably in the context of a discussion of folk metal. After all, Wayward Sons has been widely cited as the first folk metal album, a reputation well-earned and generally a net plus for the sub-genre and heavy metal at large as it broadens appeal, often drawing folk metal fans interested in beginnings who might not have heard this album otherwise.

As you cower in concrete boxes–sheltered from the light of day,
Pause a moment (stop and wonder)–who’s most savage you or they?

Every picture tells a tale of hidden wisdom they have found,
Man is just a part of nature–not the other way around.

But that reputation is also at least a little unfortunate for its very different effect on some other listeners: Folk Metal is a necessarily limiting tag with which to burden an album (or a band) that likely leads just as many the other way as might be attracted to it. Especially in modern times (*casually ducks the scythe), folk metal has a dubious reputation at best, so often associated with pointy hats and tights and nursery rhyme meter or, at the other extreme, super serious comically conservative (*ahem* racist) imagery and lyrics, that the reputation alone has probably cheated Wayward Sons out of as many new fans as it has reaped.

The ironic truth is that The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth deserves every single new discovery and lofty accolade that its reputation would suggest, but absolutely not because it’s the first folk metal album (or, at least, not simply for that). More to the point: The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth is not a folk metal album, although you’d forgive just about anybody that hears “The Widdershins Jig” for immediately assuming that of course it is.

We march to drums of our own choosing–each of them keeps different time,
As you are free to live your own life the way I’m free to live mine.

Listen to that gloriously bouncing bass. Good lord, it practically screams, “Don yer kilts and pull up yer tartan hose, laddies!” The bass is layered with jangling bells and a jaunty piccolo melody in a snappy compound meter, then the violin and electric guitar join in, alternately echoing one another’s breezy riff a couple times till everybody comes together for the big dance. Finally, Martin Walkyier’s vocals, gruff and lyrical, chant an allegory of free will and fickle fortune as seen through the dalliance of the wise man’s son and Wednesday’s child and, well, it just don’t get no folkier than that, folks.

Song number four and the shortest on the album outside of intros and interludes, “The Widdershins Jig” is 100% folk metal and can rightly be cited as the seed of what would become Folk Metal, ultimately one of heavy metal’s most proliferous subgenres. All the pieces that make “Widdershins” such a great folk metal song can be found throughout Wayward Sons and, yet also, it’s the only song on the album to feature those things so prominently and all at once. Notice then, too, that electric guitar, it’s spirit straining against the folk song’s proper structure, to understand what lies outside the bounds of this one lovely but lonely traditional dance: thrash metal. Yes, you’ll find some fiddlin’ here, a traditional melody there, and great swaths of pissed off and pagan poetry throughout but, otherwise, The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth is pure slicing, stratospheric thrash.

Tell me just what kind of fools would laugh and stare death in the face?
Only the worst kind of fools (like you and I–the human race).
If we laugh for long enough it could well be our epitaph,
Mother Earth will laugh the loudest–She will have the final laugh.

The folk metal is such an important part of Wayward Sons’ greatness, but the album’s prestige is truly earned on the strength of several much less obvious factors and, crucially, their fusion: a windfall of amazing riffs; eclectic and dynamic songwriting that captured the essence of thrash metal in a wholly unique way; legitimately incomparable vocals and lyrics from Walkyier that reflected what we all thought was the tumult of the time but turned out to be examples of ongoing failure of human beings to actually take care of themselves; all of it wrapped in fantastic, abiding production that remembers the 80s with an ageless heart.

Mankind has lived to curse the day it climbed down from the trees,
But still we keep our heads held high whilst crawling on our knees.
I hope I never live to see the ‘perfect’ world you crave,
Where ambition is the burden we shall carry to our graves.

The best heavy music of the 80s (and ever, really), found extra depth beyond the kick ass riffs through thoughtful lyrics and Skyclad did this better than most. Wayward’s songs were focused on darkness and various horrors, as is custom for metal, but Martin Walkyier’s poetic approach, equally manic, frenetic, and shrewd, delivers biting social commentary that stands strong even without its music. Lyrically, Walkyier offers compelling allusion, allegory, and metaphor, to call out Modern Man’s arrogance, greed, short-sightedness, and especially selfishness, the apparent willingness to both kill and die in the name of one more trinket for the pile.

Held within the safety of this mundane existence–
Facing endless grey Mondays of dull nine to fives,
We all climb the social ladder with a dogged persistence,
Forging chains we shall carry for the rest of our lives.

The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth closes with a pair of songs that, at first glance, seem to be a brave but probably foolish couple of steps outside the unofficial but pretty well established bounds of thrash, even for a band that just invented folk metal. “Moongleam and Meadowseet” is mostly a gently picked acoustic ballad with Walkyier providing an essentially spoken word ode to England.

On bended knee before you with tears in my eyes,
I pledge that till my dying day my sword is on your side–
Forever on your side.

I’ll admit to hating this fucking song for a lot of years before I fell in love with it, but fall in love I did, mostly because it’s just so goddamn sincere. The guitar play is wonderful, especially the electric guitar solos, and Walkyier’s delivery is so heartfelt that the chorus of hails behind him at the song’s climax feels honestly and absolutely earned.

Then the final track, “Terminus” features more spoken word, but this more obviously in the service of storytelling and it’s more immediately rewarding as a result. The problem for many at the time, at least as I heard, was that the song’s abrupt stops and starts made for less than a smooth listening experience. It’s pretty clear now that those opinions were more the product of unsophisticated ears than the songwriting, which actually conveys its subject matter brilliantly.

Send spitting fires and roaring thunder–instigate Poseidon’s wrath,
Unleash the terrors of the deep uncertain of the aftermath.
Attack is the best form of defense–fingers on a keyboard play,
When genocide’s a numbered sequence death is but a breath away.

“Terminus” is an apocalyptic tale of its time, foretelling Armageddon ushered in by the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles from nuclear submarines. It was a constant background anxiety in those days (*argh, that fucking scythe again) and the song reflects it well, simply and starkly illustrating the end.

Skyclad would continue from Wayward Sons with an emphasis on the folk aspect of their template set down firmly by “The Widdershins Jig,” widening the melodic scope of their songs and, ultimately sacrificing the heaviest of the metal edges. It took a few years to really take hold but, over that course, they inspired the massive swell of folk metal bands that now comprise a full-fledged category in the records of those halls in which such things are archived. Skyclad themselves made a dozen high quality albums over the next twenty plus years, (the last three records without Walkyier), and as good as much of that music is, even the best of it hasn’t measured up to the distinct heights achieved on The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth. Indeed, no album has.

 

Skyclad: Wayward Sons line-up (1991)

Steve Ramsey: Guitars (lead, rhythm, acoustic)
Graeme English: Bass, Guitars (classical)
Martin Walkyier: Lyrics, Vocals
Keith Baxter: Drums, Percussion

Rog Patterson: Keyboards, Piccolo
Dominic Miller: Guitars (track 9)
Joe “Guido” Caprani: Vocals (track 6)
Mike Evans: Fiddle

K.-U. Walterbach: Executive producer
Kev Ridley: Producer, Engineering

Garry Sharpe-Young: Artwork

 

They are as sick that surfeit with too much,
As they that starve with nothing.
~ William Shakespeare
(The Merchant of Venice)

Posted by Lone Watie

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