Twenty years. Twenty. Years. Two decades since the classic epic doom sounds of New Dark Age first graced us, and legends Solstice were only actually inactive for five of those. Since then the band have gigged, written, road tested, rewritten, demoed and road tested again their new songs only pausing to release the excellent Death’s Crown Is Victory EP in 2013, some splendid vinyl reissues and the odd (but extensive) compilation box set.
So 2018 sees the gents Kearns (vocals), Walker (guitars), Whittaker (guitars) and Buxton (bass) rejoined by Rick Budby (drums), last heard on New Dark Age I think, after the amicable parting with stalwart James Ashby. Oh and forty six minutes of epic metal in prospect.
‘III’ offers the cawing of crows and the gradual rise of the guitars to a solemn drum beat before the crescendo of vocals calling out and a final guitar cry leads straight into the hair prickling guitar melody of live favourite ‘To Sol A Thane’. This is it, this is what it’s all about: The expectation, the fuss – compared to this, the excellent demoed version was restrained, almost black and white. This is the full bloodied colour version, vivid and vibrant. That sound of lyrical guitar refrains over the newly crushing, intensely gritty mid paced riff is just heavy metal myth and when the huge, goddamned brilliant voice of Paul Kearns rings out if you don’t get chills you’re probably already dead. Honestly, there could be no better return, you feel your chest swell with honour as the rich music lifts you up. The mix and production is spot on – everything in bright detail, a live energy humming through it but the intense and unapologetically rough edge to the riffs tone keeping the song earthy and muscular. Epic. Utterly fucking epic.
We then pass to another facet of Solstice with ‘Beheld, A Man Of Straw’. Short, simply beautiful, minimal guitar work with a truly gentle touch and perfectly phrased. Water and low keyboard backing enhance the moment and again Paul Kearns shows his range with a soft tone; beautiful and restrained. It is so difficult to hold the control at this fragile level and he not only does but the emotion is so raw and poignant. Duetting with that gorgeous guitar work this is pure mastery elegantly displayed.
The epic rides in once more with the title track; the lovely patter of drums, a soft guitar line and vocals before it all winds up and just bursts out into a driving riff pushing the hook riddled melody to the fore. “This is how it once was…” go the lyrics, and the same might be said of heavy metal, except this is so new and pulsing with life and vivid memory. As title track anthems go this is top drawer, meticulous craftsmanship with longing and embers glowing hot.
Then we take a much needed breath. ‘For All Days, And For None ‘ for a band like Solstice famous for their huge riffs and cantering melody, is a masterful break. With the sparsest of drums and subtle guitar and bass this is a stage where the full range of Paul Kearns marvellous voice is centre. A truly heartfelt lament he carries this through the softest whisper to a chest filling cry. Just goosebumps remain as it fades.
Breath taken, the great riff rises once more for the nigh on thirteen minute journey of ‘Under Waves Lie Our Dead’. Riffs flow with the gigantic strength of tides, heart tearing refrains tumbling over the top as waves crest. This is where you realise why Solstice don’t have need of backing vocals: The lyrical, touch perfect to and fro between both Andy Whittaker and Rich Walker’s guitars, and between guitars and vocals is woven so deep into the fabric of every song that they are those backing singers, the perfect chorus for a band built from the ground up on the guitar. This song is just a joy to drown in, possibly the finest saga they have ever put their name to. Such granite solid bass lines form an undertow as the vibrant drumming forms rocks against which the riffs crash and the vocals rise over the top. Just…ah, just pure class.
We end with ‘Gallows Fen’, a strong, tugging reverie. Another key we didn’t know Paul Kearns had in his armoury, another incredibly intense refrain from maestro Rich Walker’s heart. There’s an unashamed, very masculine emotion here, a simple hard working strength in the gnarled hands of men working with their hands. Not macho posturing; simple straightforward honesty.
Forty six minutes and they are gone. Timed to perfection.
I’m not sure how to sum this up, really. Was it worth the wait? If you’re already a fan then yes, of course. Solstice are their own men and pride in their craft is at the centre. Last minute recording crises, long extra hours, dedication; all towards this. They just don’t do bad, or acceptable our even just good; everything has to be the best it can be. Currently on bandcamp; CD, vinyl and cassette versions will be available shortly, and you really need to see the thought and talent put into those, too. White Horse Hill is just all about that. The best..
If you are new to the name, and have a love of heavy metal, epic metal and music wedded to the history of a land, then you need this.
Without a doubt, with full awareness of my love of this band and the weight of expectation that brought, White Horse Hill is the best epic metal since at least Atlantean Kodex’s The White Goddess, and guess who they proudly cite as an inspiration?
If you walk over fields listening to this you can almost feel the bones of the long dead stirring in recognition
Sorry, this wasn’t supposed to be the score. But it is.
Simply put, peerless.