No excuses. I totally forgot to publish this back in June. My bad. On the other hand, this is worth bringing up this late in the year because it’s pretty darn good.
Expectations are a double-edged sword. Most spiritual and religious guidance I’ve ever received is to ignore them, lest discontent be the result. As a person grounded in today, having done what I’ve done and knowing what I know, I have to call bullshit on that point of view. Expectations aren’t to be avoided: they’re to be embraced and managed. Pretending otherwise seems absurd to me, and the only way to prevent them is to avoid life itself. Anticipation, coupled with restraint, is a recipe for enjoying things on a meaningful level.
Still, I know my expectations for This Sceptered Veil were a bit on the high side. I crossed the line, man, and there was no going back.
This is the third original LP by Sergeant Thunderhoof. I thought the previous albums were pretty good. I own them all, and I do listen to them on occasion. It’s good stuff, with the vocals of Dan Flitcroft being the obvious highlight. However, I also knew nothing about them until two years ago.
That’s when I first subscribed to Ripple Music on Bandcamp (highly, fervently recommended). They released a split with another band I knew about, Howling Giant, called Turned to Stone Chapter 2: Masamune and Muramasa. I went nuts over this album, bought a bunch of copies, and gave them to various friends. I still think it’s the best album I’ve heard this century. I still get goosebumps just listening to it. I still think you should buy it.
I consider Muramasa to be a perfect song in every possible way. I had high expectations of this album coming out that it would equal or surpass that one fantastic epic of a piece. From the first note of You’ve Stolen the Words, in my head, I couldn’t help but call it, there and then, as a perfect album. Yeah, I know. I got ahead of myself a bit because I was exhausted and mentally tapped out when I got to Woman Call. The album is an hour and eight minutes long, which was too much. I thought that song and Show Don’t Tell could easily be left off the album, and that the Hoof could use some serious editing. I didn’t hear why two straight-ahead rockers were on the album.
I was disappointed.
I doggedly kept at it over the past few weeks. True, I had some serious professional stuff going, like opening a private practice and building a company along with 6 days of 12-hour-long trainings and an emergency trip to Illinois.
I was distracted!
Finally, about 2 weeks ago, I gave it another go as the dust was settling in pieces or chunks. I listened with Airpod Max’s, Sennheiser 6XX’s, speakers, and a car system. I didn’t have time for the whole thing: 70 minutes is a heck of a commitment. But I did what I could, and almost every night, the newbie-doomer heard me mumble something, usually swearing, like, “how the fuck did they do that?” She’d look at me quizzically, and I’d just say something like ‘Thunderhoof, dammit.” She got it: we be like that.
So, let me tell you more about what had me flustered. It mostly had to do with not having time to listen to the whole thing in one setting. DAMMIT!
No reason to be cute: Dan Flitcroft is amazing. Pretty much the male equivalent of Sara from Messa, his vocals can take you someplace, just sweep you up listening to his range: his growls during key passages, his vocal choices. They’re almost Dio-esque in that he has complete command of his voice, and every syllable is deliberate and artful. He reminds me of Rob Halford regarding basic range and timbre, but there’s so much more involved in his delivery. Like Sara, I could listen to this dude sing the phonebook, and I’d be enthralled. My one complaint, which is the pickiest of nits, is that Dan’s voice needs NO electronic processing. A bit of natural-sounding reverb, and some necessary but tasteful compression, and the dude is good to go. It’s probably for artistic reasons, but the processing and mixing techniques are unnecessary. So let ‘im rip, man. Just sayin’…
Since their debut in 2015, Mark Sayer has been one of the better guitarists in the heavy realm. Just a solid player with some creative flair.
Going from one of the better to one of the best is hard to quantify, but this dude is SCREAMING GOOD. Like, guitar-god level playing. Like Dan, with Mark, it’s the darn control of his playing, the choices he makes, that results in the most effective guitar work I’ve heard on this side of Elder or King Buffalo. I’ve seen lots of press that the age of the guitar, and rock in general, is dead. Oh, really?
Take one of those throw-away songs, Show Don’t Tell, for instance. It sounded like a hair-metal riff or even a Schenker-era UFO piece. Total hard rock (as if that’s a bad thing). What I think this song has done a 180, and if nothing else, it’s a showpiece for what the whole band can do, with the guitar leading the charge from beginning to end. Ultimately, it’s a fresh take on an old formula.
Being a bassist in a world-class band can be a thankless gig. If the bass player isn’t Geddy Lee or Steve Harris, no one usually gives a crap. There’s also the old myth about them being frustrated guitar players, or, even worse, lazy as shit. Check out this rant from recording guru Glenn Fricker, which sums up the general attitude toward the species.
Aside from the dudes referenced above, the absolute best bassists hold everything together, help the drummer keep time, and fill out the bottom octave of the chords being played. It sounds easy, but it’s tricky as hell. I can confidently observe that Jim Camp is one of the absolute best bassists around. His ability to full-out the sound, then keep things grooving in the pocket during solos is nothing short of first-class. He can rip a nasty arpeggio when it serves the song and immediately falls back onto the pocket in synch with the drummer. Best of all is his tone, a thick and rich bottom end that’s also articulate and precise. The whole performance is captured perfectly, and the mastering by Tony Reed places him perfectly in the mix.
This is something I don’t write very often: at times, I needed more drums in the mix. Few things get on my nerves as loud, over-played cymbals, and even those bright, clashy noise discs are buried, almost disappearing at times. On Foreigner, at times, it’s hard to even hear them, which is strange in so many ways. What makes it worse is that the playing is excellent when I focus hard on the drum tracks. It’s an interesting decision regarding the final mix, and I’m curious to find out if anyone else agrees with me.
Yeah, expectations can lead to disappointment. It took me a while to give in, without reservation, to what the ‘Hoof have offered us. I can, without qualification, say that I’m completely blown away by what they’ve done here. The sheer scope of it boggles my mind, and it’s still hard to wrap my head around this album.
I keep concluding, over and over, that this is as good, probably better than, almost anything that came out in the 70s, ’80s, and ’90s. I can’t help but put this in some very rarefied air, equal to The Who, Zeppelin, Budgie, and even the mighty Black Sabbath. It stands on its own as a singular achievement, and yet I still find it hard to believe, every time I listen, that the next song is every bit as good as the one I just heard.
Most striking is how cohesive the album is, from start to finish. Every solo, lyric and musical performance seems constructed to serve the song, and each piece tells a story. As a result, not only does This Sceptered Veil deserve a place among the classics already mentioned, but it’s also on the same level as Elder, King Buffalo, and anyone else you can think of in this new Golden Age of heavy music.