Well this promo turning up was a pleasant surprise. Those of you who bothered to read my End Of Year thing for 2013 would have noticed I have already praised this as it was available as a download from the band and on lovely vinyl too last year. So yes, I bought it (digital via bandcamp and of course vinyl courtesy of Russ Smith at Black Tears distro) and yes I am a fan. Now as I suspect most fans of Solstice already have this, let’s treat this as being for those of you who have never crossed swords with them either through being too young (their last new studio release was 1998’s classic ‘New Dark Age’) or lack of opportunity.
Solstice are, frankly, both one of the original keystones of true, epic doom metal and quintessentially English to boot. Their recorded history though sparse (besides splits, live recordings and compilations it was two albums and an EP prior to this, not counting the Isen Torr EP – more of which later) is a template for how to do it and their influence runs deep in doom waters. There are very few epic doom acts who don’t acknowledge this, and a shocking number of epic heavy metal acts who likewise can be found thanking them in the liner notes. Heavy as a thundercloud, dark and brooding often, melodic with beautiful guitar lines incorporating a kind of English folk in the same way that Thin Lizzy did with Irish Gaelic with guitars and not pratting about with fiddles; Solstice were a genuine Original. People tried to sound like them, but Solstice sounded only like themselves.
When founder member Rich Walker stirred this beast from the long slumber sometime in 2007, they vowed to do things their own way and there’s no doubt they have done just that. They gathered a line-up, but that took until 2011. They rehearsed, they began to play live and to write but instead of recording they decided to hone these new songs on the hard live road. I first heard ‘I Am The Hunter’ at the inaugural Full Moon Dog festival and since then the song, and the band, have tightened and hardened. They recorded and initially self released this mini-album themselves. ‘Never Surrender – No Remorse ‘ runs their motto they’ve stuck to that and so here we are. Solstice 2014.
We open with rain, wind, birdsong with a crow calling as the drums usher in a beautiful, soft guitar melody. All mist shrouded fields, drizzle, cold and damp: This is immediately, after all these years, Solstice. Fears of a mess crumble and you just fall into ‘Fortress England ‘. A beautiful scene setter instrumental that steadily rises, solidifies and becomes a strident, powerful piece but those evocative melody lines riding high keeping the thoughtfulness true.
‘I Am The Hunter ‘ follows with a fine, solid bit of doom riffing to kick in the song, some excellent drumming gathering the momentum and then… the vocals from Paul Kearns. Solstice have always had good vocals but, honestly, this is mesmeric. The man has a stunning range and a gorgeous deep, clean style that moves up and down the octaves with ridiculous and rare ease as highlighted in the quiet midsection. Two other things become apparent here as well: Firstly the production sound is a plain, distinctly honest one, a ‘live ‘ feel that in no way diminishes the epic, swords drawn sound and leaves you a little dumbfounded that with only bare guitars and powerful vocals Solstice have simply strode right back to the vanguard of epic metal after fifteen years away. The second thing is that this has incorporated some of the tempo and touch of the Isen Tor sound back into Solstice; these doom steeds gallop more, they eat up the ground with turf flying and trust me you will lose yourself in this tale of revenge as though you were sitting at some tavern fire listening to a bard. It is everything a metal fan could want. Bass heavy, guitar rich, fist punching metal.
The title track slows things a little, the heavy wings spreading the intro to clear a pool of quiet where they step into almost semi-acoustic mode. Here we are treated to classic Solstice. Meaty lyrics with beautifully articulate lyrics sung in a way that is utterly peerless, flawlessly and emotionally delivered to the simple accompaniment of deft, flowing picked guitar and light percussion. It rises and hardens in a way that sends chills through me every time I listen. Ten minutes of epic doom brilliance. The guitars of Rich Walker and Andy Whittaker gel seamlessly and the great thundering horse hooves rhythm of bassist Ian Buxton and drummer James Ashby is like a chariot behind them. You play live as often as Solstice have recently and you reap the rewards.
They close with another shorter instrumental, ‘Aequnoctium II’, a coda that closes the chapter with a rolling, swaying tune that is full bodied and somehow both ends the album but hints at more to come.
Leave ’em wanting more I guess, and it it’s true. You do. Whatever, as it fades and you reluctantly pull yourself back into your daily world you realise that you have just been treated to a master class. But more than that you have been gifted some truly beautiful music. Only Atlantean Kodex or maybe Procession have equalled or topped this of late but in differing styles (and guess who is in their Hails To notes?).
If you love heavy metal of the epic style just buy it; it’s what you’ve been waiting for. Solstice. Death’s Crown is Victory, and the crown is reclaimed.
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