Review by Omni: Originally known for their elemental personas and occult themes, Cloven Hoof had changed significantly by the time that A Sultan’s Ransom was released in 1989. With the departure of Water, Fire and Earth, bassist and primary songwriter Air reverted back to his given name, Lee Payne. He was forced to search for a new lineup to continue Cloven Hoof, eventually recruiting vocalist Russ North, guitarist Andy Wood and drummer Jon Brown. North and Wood had both played together in Tredegar, having toured and appeared together in a promotional video. This lineup first appeared on Dominator, which was released in 1988. This sci-fi concept album was a reasonably strong effort that showed a band with a lot of potential, but it was somewhat uneven and showed a band that had not yet managed to focus their combined abilities into creating a truly incredible album. In the following hear, the band reconvened and recorded A Sultan’s Ransom, which has gone on to achieve cult status and is widely viewed as their best and most focused album to date.
While not wholly dissimilar to the music found on Dominator, “Astral Rider” opens the album and it’s immediately clear that Payne’s songwriting and the band’s musicianship had greatly matured since that album was released. Benefiting from a more confident vocal performance by North and a more dynamic musical approach than ever before, this song is the first hint that this band had finally succeeded in realizing the ambitions that had shown through since their inception. While this album’s comparisons to Iron Maiden’s output from the preceding years are not wholly unwarranted, that does a major disservice to the intricate songwriting and prominent influences from 1970s bands such as Rush, Rainbow and Queen. There is also a definite undercurrent of 1980s power metal, in the vein of bands such as Queensrÿche and Crimson Glory, to be found throughout this album. Despite these similarities, Cloven Hoof’s penchant for elaborate compositions show the band finally achieving their own unique voice in the realm of heavy metal. The entire band sounds focused and confident throughout the album, no doubt fortified by their experiences together during the time spent recording and touring together in support of Dominator. Paul “Oggy” Hodson, who graced several albums with his keyboard work as a session musician in the 1980s, and studio guitarist Mil Gagic provide some additional touches that work to the benefit of the album’s fuller production and more layered musical style.
While diversity in musical style can cause an album to become an unfocused mess, Cloven Hoof uses it to great advantage on this album. The albums songs cover a lot of stylistic ground, from the aggressive and straightforward “D.V.R.” to the Rush-influenced fusion of Middle Eastern melodies and progressive rock found in “1001 Nights” and everything in between. Much of the lyrics on the album are inspired by various forms of literature, from classic tales to comic books. Payne’s excellent bass playing is central to the foundation of the songs, and Wood’s beautiful lead work adds to the already impressive sense of melody throughout the album. Brown’s drumming is inventive and capable, and his role is central to maintaining the dynamic rhythms found on most of the songs. Russ North is not to be overshadowed by his bandmates. This album makes a clear case for why he was very nearly Bruce Dickinson’s successor in Iron Maiden, as he is endowed with an impressively powerful and emotional voice that allows him to perform with the versatility that is required on such a wide-ranging collection of songs. “Mad, Mad World” and “Highlander” are examples of the band’s talents, as they’re both very accessible songs that seem like deliberate attempts to create songs suitable for radio airplay while still retaining the band’s signature sound. While the entire album is of incredible quality, “Mistress of the Forest” ends things on a true high note. This mournful ballad captures Payne’s love of Queen and Rainbow in its beautiful melodies and passionate vocals as it weaves a cautionary tale about how things may not always be what they seem.
Sadly, Cloven Hoof became mired in legal complications after the tour in support of A Sultan’s Ransom, and this resulted in the band going into suspended animation for many years. Although they’ve since reunited and recorded enjoyable works with various lineups, they would never again quite reach the lofty heights if this 1989 album. As such, it should be considered a mandatory purchase for fans of 1980s heavy metal with powerful vocals and excellent musicianship. The 2012 reissue by High Roller Records does this underrated album some long deserved justice with remastering by Patrick W. Engel at Temple of Disharmony and the inclusion of an extended interview with Lee Payne. A bonus DVD entitled A Sultan’s Ransom: Video Archive is also included. This DVD contains the music videos for “Mad, Mad World” and “Highlander” and live footage overlaid with studio versions of songs from the album.
My rating: 95/100 (Outstanding, high valued albums & Classic Ones… a direct purchase is advisable !)