Review: Solstice – White Horse Hill
Solstice are living doom legends, there’s no other way to put it. Founded in 1990 by guitarist and band leader Rich Walker, its tale is one of individualism, gorgeous melodies, working-man hymns, and an ever-ascending path to epic metal glory. If you’re reading this review and haven’t familiarized yourself with Solstice, I can’t recommend going back and listening to New Dark Age enough, but despite a history stretching back nearly thirty years, White Horse Hill is an album that sounds as inspired and carefully crafted as ever rather than tired or hackneyed.
To accurately describe Solstice’s sound is impossible, so those that find themselves intrigued should just listen to them instead of reading past here; I promise, the music is worth it. If you’d rather read (preferably while listening), then the closest thing that I can say is to imagine if Pagan Altar was covering Candlemass with a hefty infusion of English folk- not only in the melodies, but in the outright non-metal songs that come between the crunchy ones. Their sound is completely their own, and has never strayed too far from its roots; that being said, Solstice has infused more and more heavy metal into their sound over the years, always growing without ever straying too far away from what makes them Solstice. As the band put it, “For it was not intended that we should voyage far from our roots, and nor will we ever.”
Fans that missed the Death’s Crown Is Victory EP (an inadvisable move) will find themselves faced almost immediately with the biggest change from the old material in the form of new vocalist Paul Kearns, a powerful baritone that changes the vibe of the Solstice style to one that’s more muscular and massive than ever. Kearns soars over the music when he has to and on top of it when appropriate, and regardless of where his vocal gymnastics take him, he always has a certain weight to him that adds to the gravity of the music- some people approach heavy metal to find fun, and Solstice certainly is fun, but they’re not a half-assed joke thrown together to get free beers at the pub after a show, and there’s meaning behind what they sing about and the music they play. Though fans were wary of the change (and some I knew were inexplicably not sold even after his fantastic delivery on Death’s Crown), his performance here should lay any doubt to rest, because he absolutely killed it on White Horse Hill.
Another change- one that was noted a bit earlier- is that the addition of classic epic heavy metal sounds has been upped in the Solstice formula. It’s always been there, and Solstice has covered bands like Manowar, Iron Maiden, and Trespass before, but it grows ever more prominent, and can particularly be heard in the triumphant guitarwork on “To Sol a Thane” and “White Horse Hill.” Despite that, the melancholy doom and gloom of yesteryear remain, and are most strongly reflected in the non-metal tracks (particularly “For All Days, and for None”) and the mourning epic “Under Waves Lie Our Dead”, which ranks among the longest songs that Solstice has ever written. The careful flow between these moods really showcases the long years that went into the creation of White Horse Hill, and it’s obvious that every note has been as lovingly placed as they’ve always been. The leadwork is as stellar as always, the drumming as powerful as ever (unsurprising, given that the skins here were handled by the same Rick Budby that performed on New Dark Age), and though I can’t always keep an individual handle on the bass, the production is more than massive enough than to note its presence.
After years of waiting, Solstice is back, and they’re as good as ever – sometimes, even better. As scornful as I know that Solstice can be of reviews, I hope that this one can persuade some people to try out this record, because it’s really fucking worth the years anticipating it.
Though the vinyl (what I’d recommend getting!) and CD editions of the record aren’t out yet, you can buy it digitally from Solstice here, and follow them on Facebook here. Once it’s out, the album will be co-released by Iron Bonehead Productions, Dark Descent Records, Invictus Productions, and White Horse, Solstice’s own label.
Hail doom, hail to England (no offense to the band’s Irish vocalist!), and hail Solstice.