Sometimes bands do the unthinkable and Cloven Hoof is certainly one of the bands that fall into this category. They started out as a NWOBHM band and as the years progressed, the band had to move on with the times in one way or another… so what did they do? What about releasing a power metal album with an American edge to it?
I shit you not; Dominator features all the ingredients you could expect from of a USPM album. The biggest surprise comes down to the tasteful guitar work and I’d describe it as a melodic style of playing that’s rather versatile, even if it never feels empowering in a thrash-inspired manner, neither does it result into a dull-rocking direction that you might associate with some lighter USPM albums (think of Welcome to the Ball by Vicious Rumors for instance). The guitars are responsible for a collection of horns-raising rhythmic tracks such as “Reach for the Sky” or “The Fugitive”; both which feature plenty of hooks that several bands would have killed for, but there’s more to Dominator than one might expect. Even the semi-progressive “The Invaders” leads into this labyrinthine web of off-kilter and chugged riffs that might come off as a surprise, but it’s a superb track that never leaves you wondering whether it’s worth to bang your head to it in the first place. At least, I can’t help but be reminded of early Queensrÿche once “Warrior of the Wasteland” starts; it’s that melancholic and calming introduction that follows up with a hard-hitting, yet meaningful riff that brings to mind The Warning.
If that wasn’t enough yet, Russ North has taken over the vocal duties and he couldn’t have been a better replacement. This confident tenor has no problem reaching a blistering high note from time to time, yet North never abuses his upper register and the majority of his lines are extremely memorable and hum-worthy. Not to mention the character that this guy possessed is second to none; there’s basically no one else like him and that’s obviously a plus. His vocals are also well-mixed, but I should mention that the production could certainly turn people off. Instead of playing around with the amp settings in order to get the right guitar tone, it sounds as if the guitars were tracked in a hurry. The result is a wave of noise that possesses the guitars and if you think that raising your volume knob will solve this problem… I’m afraid that it won’t.
Personally, I got used to the production rather quickly and if you could as well, then you’re in for a massive treat; as far as songwriting is concerned, Dominator is absolutely fantastic stuff. “Rising Up” explodes into high gear and it’s one of those archetype speed metal tunes that certainly wasn’t anything new in 1988, but I love it anyway. Oh, you can hear clear nods to “Freewheel Burning” but I love that song, you love that song… so I think we can do with a few more examples of something inspired by it. Russ North demonstrates his capacities with ease here, while the guitars sprint around him in a furious manner and since it’s a well-paced track (surely you wouldn’t want to end album with a track like this), it makes a fantastic introduction. The rest is no slouch either, although I should admit that my favorite picks change from time to time (which probably isn’t something that you’d say about a USPM album, but given the amount of variation shouldn’t come off as a surprise). “Reach for the Sky” and “The Fugitive” rely on these addictive choruses that are designed to be sung along, although both tracks sound rather distinctive; the former drives on a series of rock-solid riffs, while the latter briefly takes the Iron Maiden-esque direction with some captivating lead-riffs thrown in for good measure. ”The Invaders” is another highlight, which opens up with a warped-lead melody and once it progresses, turns into a laboratory-like track. It’s a fantastic song, although I can’t help but wonder what an entire album of this stuff would have sounded like.
“Warrior of the Wasteland” features Russ North at his most heartfelt during its balladic opening, while the track slowly leads towards a grandiose speed metal offering that brings to mind Judas Priest’s “Let Us Prey / Call for the Priest”. Indeed, it’s quite an epic track… but the album closer sounds even more epic! “Road of Eagles” originally appeared on Cloven Hoof’s first demo and in most cases original tracks shouldn’t be messed with, but whereas the demo version recalls a band playing something that was beyond their capacities, this version sounds clearly superior. It’s pretty obvious how much of a superior vocalist Russ North he is when compared to the original singer David Potter. Just listen to that smooth and confident delivery in its chorus; it’s an excellent example of a singer selling a chorus without having to sing from the top of his lungs. I picture Russ North proudly marching towards his final battle, while an enormous crowd faithfully follows along. Still, “Road of Eagles” isn’t just a song that resolves around a big chorus and nothing else; there’s a brief section of blistering speed metal presenting itself later on, but I should also mention how the track finishes off with an amazing climax of delicate riffs and commanding vocals.
To me Dominator is one of those albums that get me in the mood by the time I spin the first track and it should certainly please your senses if you call yourself a USPM fan. It’s well-performed and the songwriting sounds absolutely inspiring. Now, as far as the production is concerned, do yourself a favor and try to get used to it; it will be absolutely worth it.
Score: 88 out of 100 – From occult freaks to Sci-Fi nerds
Release date: July 1988
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