Skyclad is also the band formed by Martin Walkyier formerly of Sabbat and Dave Pugh and Dave Ramsay upon the former of these worthies' ejection from the Nottinghamshire thrashers he had assisted founding and subsequent move to Newcastle. The aim was to be "the ultimate pagan metal band," they were also the founder of the movement that later became known as folk metal along with the Irish band Primordial. Though they didn't really sound particularly folksy until 1997 or so; in their early days they were more thrash with violins.
I won't go into too much detail about their rather fluid lineup, as today only Dave Pugh remains, from memory, of the original 1991 roster. However I will try to expound upon this seminal and pun-filled quintet as best I can.
Thrashing with Violins - 1990 - 1993
Their first album, "The Wayward Sons of Mother Earth" came out in 1991 and was, from what I've heard of it, just that. The only really folksy song was one entitled "The Widdershins Jig" which was violins with thrashing. I really can't say much more about this album, I don't have it and it seems to be quite, quite rare. It's also suffering from questionable production.
They released another one in 1992, which was much better (second album rot is strangely inverted in the world of metal), named "A Burnt Offering for the Bone Idol," but even so the band seemed to be a bit inconsistent, and still had yet to get into their stride. That being said, I do like "Spinning Jenny" which is a pun-filled exploration of sex with a succubus - "She'll exorcise your demons, then exercise your thighs, await your second coming with a hunger in her eyes!" That, and "Alone In Death's Shadow," which seems to be about AIDS. There's also the rather ironically pro-Gulf War (sort of) "Salt on The Earth (Another Man's Poison)" which I'm sure the band are in retrospect a bit cringing over given the fact that they have been described as a bit of a protest band... whoops!
Actually, speaking of which, Skyclad are one of the few metal bands who manage to be socially aware and have it come across without coming over as preachy or sanctimonious. Well, almost. Their third album "Jonah's Ark" seems to be a concept album about the environment and was released 1993. This was, of course, the era of the roads protest movement, and environmentalists at that time were a wee bit on the luddite scale and had a bit of a thing about science being bad, m'kay, for some reason. Musically it's a good album but does come over preachy ("Bewilderbeast," anyone?) and also a mite hypocritical. This is because the first song on the album, "Thinking Allowed," which was easily the best they've done, features the chorus line as follows:
"I'm just thinking allowed, isn't thinking allowed?
WHY IS NOBODY THINKING?!"
Such a strong support of thinking for oneself didn't really sit well with the rest of the album, which had the message that if you disagreed with them on anything you were clearly some sort of brainwashed right-wing sexist death-merchant. Double whoops.
Prince of the Poverty Line - 1993 - 1996
"Thinking Allowed" also had the band's first video, a masterpiece of low-budget fun which specialised in cameras mounted on the ends of the band's instruments while being played so you could see their fingers and so forth. The success they came to with this meant they could then afford to put more money into production. They also started moving away from thrashing and then started shaping folk metal as a genre round this time. Unfortunately, Martin was as sour and bitter as ever, partly because for most of the 1990s so far his record label, Noise, on which Skyclad's stuff as well as his old Sabbat albums were released, had seen fit to shaft him out of royalties owed to him. As a result, there was a period when he and the new producer Kevin Ridley were stuck in a state of absolute destitution in a dilapidated flat someone in Tyneside with nineteen pence in the electricity meter and reliant on baked beans on toast to eat owing to sheer terminal shortness of cash. This period powered album number four, named "Prince of the Poverty Line" which was another concept album about, well, abject poverty and urban decay.
"Prince of the Poverty Line" is not only the best album Skyclad ever did, but also the most honest and authentic. Other bands, metal or otherwise, had done songs and albums about being down and out. Rage against the Machine may have pretended this sort of thing and claimed to stick up for the dispossessed while cashing large cheques from Sony BMG but they were never actually on the breadlines, as far as I know. This explains why when they yelled, "fuck you, I won't do what you tell me," it sounded like a whiny teenager not doing his homework. But when Martin Walkyier of Skyclad belted out, "Have YOU had a bellyful of emptiness? Do you feel like me we're all just wasting our time?" it bore the unmistakeable ring of coming from someone who had actually been there, in "the concrete mound of a rising slum." Another song from that album, "Cardboard City," is about street homelessness. From the way it's presented, I suspect that Martin probably was on the streets for a time as well.
(There was also a song on that album called "Sins of Emission." This song is about wanking. It's awesome.)
1995 saw the release of two Skyclad albums, "The Silent Whales of Lunar Sea" and "Irrational Anthems." The move now was gradually away from bitterness and thrashing with violins and into forming folk metal as more of a sound. Puns and bittersweet humour came in more, although Britpop got a right savaging in the song "Penny Dreadful."
"Now if we'd played this riff more punk then maybe we'd have a million seller.
But this piper's tune is not for sale, I'm glad to say I'm not that kinda feller!
DJ's VJ's pimps and trollops - never mind music, this is BOLLOX!!"
Some of the puns were truly epic level, and this was taken further in 1996 when along came "Oui, Avant-garde a chance." Yes, it's a bilingual pun. In French it means "Yes, avant-garde is fortunate," well, sort of, and in English it sounds like "We haven't got a chance." In an iffy French accent. You may now commence to groaning. There were also songs named, "If I Die Laughing, It'll Be An Act of God" and "Great Blow for a Day Job." Not to mention, "Bombjour!" which was about French nuclear testing in the Pacific and halfway through fell into a version of Frére Jacques. It makes sense in context. And it's another bilingual pun - "bonjour" as in "good day" and "bomb jour" as in "bomb day."
Also something else happened around this time. Martin Walkyier's voice changed. He actually started singing more and put away his rough, spite-filled vocal hammerings. Granted, Skyclad never used the head-splitting snarl that Sabbat had, but it was by no means clean. Here, he actually started singing. Violins and keys came in more, and Celtic rhythms and even acoustic guitar segments came in. These would become mainstays of folk metal as it is now in the 21st century. Lyrically things changed too. Martin had kinda grown the beard somewhat. No longer did Skyclad spit spite and bitterness at things they found unpalatable but seemed more introspective. They also seemed to try to present things more as fables than rabble-rousing.
Alcohol and Depression - 1997 - 2000
So the electric guitar was cut back on, as were the angular riffs. There were more acoustic numbers, and more introspection. I suppose it was only natural really; by now Martin would have been over 30. And I think he had a thing with depression, judging by what he wrote about. 1997's "The Answer Machine" contained songs in which he referred to prayers as going "unanswered like junk mail for Jesus," and had songs which deal with what people might do when they are depressed. "Helium" is about leaping off a tall building to one's death. "Building a Ruin" is about turning to drink. "My body's a temple - a shoddy construction!" "The spirits are sunken, so the wreckage can fly." And then there's "Fainting by Numbers" which is another depressing offering. There is a moment of amusingness though with the song "My Naked I" which is about seeing a woman in a bar, lusting after her, saying what you actually think about her, honestly, and what you'd like to do to her. Yes, it's folk metal Blurred Lines, except 16 years earlier and waaaay more inventively. "The reins that bridle my desire grow flimsier than your attire," or "If you'd be my new hobby I could give up DIY," or "I'd say without a doubt you're the best sex I never had, cuz in my dreams you wore a necklace white and pearly." Also "like a spider with a fly upon her web come wrap those legs around me."
(If this was the extent of Martin Walkyier's pulling skills, no wonder he was depressed.)
"Vintage Whine" came next in 1999 and it was even more depressing, though "On with their Heads" is fairly amusing. Thankfully they cheered up a bit with Folkémon in 2000, which also restored some of the thrashy goodness, although the lyrics were less depressive and more ominous - "When God Logs Off," for instance. The best track here, though, was "Any Old Irony," which was the band singing about themselves and is a good table-thumping Real Ale-supping anthem for which folk metal became increasingly known.
Unfortunately that was the end of Martin Walkyier - he left the band in 2000. Replacing him on vocals was the less venomous, less alcohol-roughened, and more congenial Kevin Ridley.
Another Drinking Song - 2001 to present
And with the departure of Martin Walkyier the band became less metal and more like a slightly guitared-up version of The Levellers or something like that. They moved towards clean vocals and pub songs, and did an album in 2002, "No Daylights nor Heeltaps," which is an attempt at doing acoustic renditions of their previous numbers. It's not bad but doesn't have the bite of the Martin years. They did two albums afterwards, "A Semblance of Normality," and "In the... All Together" in 2004 and 2009 respectively but I wasn't too impressed other than the excellent "Another Drinking Song."
Martin Walkyier attempted to make the ultimate pagan metal band again with an outfit called "The Clan Destined" but after one album everyone quit on him because he was apparently so insufferable. In 2007 he reformed Sabbat with guitarist-turned-producer Andy Sneap who he still tours with and, yes, still plays "Blood for the Blood God" with them.
In fairness, Skyclad ceased to be much cop once Martin Walkyier went. For all intents and purposes, he was the band. His brand of venomous protest songs, pagan trappings, and love of vast quantities of alcohol made Skyclad what they were. He also was able to laugh at himself most of the time and had a great self deprecating streak. I know not why he quit, but Kevin Ridley, for all his strengths, just didn't have the same X factor as Martin. He was also able to make what in the hands of others would be horribad wrist-slasher music actually sufferable. Whereas many an emo would throw about how suffering and noble they are, which is pathetic and worse, boring, Martin would write stuff that had a feeling of a brave face being put on things, but when one looks deeper, one sees what a psychological wreck he appeared to be at the time. And on the political stuff, while I don't necessarily share his views on things (especially some of his more unpleasant anti-science tirades he got into) he manages to make a point without coming over as a whiny teenager or making it an unintentional period piece.
One final note though. So far as I know, Skyclad have never performed, erm, skyclad.