Every great album that, either carved a new path in the genre or followed the usual norms but managed to expand the greatness of heavy metal, can be divided into two specific sub-categories. That kind of historic / behemoth level albums either create new metalheads, that manage to bring new blood to the fold and, like a magnet, draw people into the genre and those that turn the older fans of the genre to hardcore fans. There is a special place though, the one that manages to have one foot to each sub-category, and “A Sultan’s Ransom” is one of those. It’s the crown jewel of the cult N.W.O.B.H.M. heroes, an album so great that even Iron Maiden would be jealous of. And I am talking about the age this album was released, not during their fall (at least sales-wise). It’s an album that wasn’t necessary created by the same elements with “Dominator” but seems like it came out of the same mold but in a more rich and mature form. Payne’s composition skills once again met with Russ North’s warm, mature, epically toned vocals on the tops of the Highlands. Galloping riffs, melodic leads and harmonies, all combined in an unbelievable way with solid rhythm parts, all hand in hand with simple composition structures. Each member giving us a lesson in maturity and serious expression, with no need for anything that could be considered “too much”. It’s no secret that their sound has been shamelessly flirting with American Power. But in this album, like in their previous one, the boundaries are becoming hard to notice and one cannot but wonder why Cloven Hoof didn’t become famous or at least a cult band on the other side of the Atlantic. I guess those Brits were more loved in Europe. Despite what happened or the legend this album became in the circles of those who fanatically love this genre, it was, at least at the beginning, a paradox. On one hand we have the music press hugging the album, with the English Metal Hammer being totally enthusiastic about it, and the well known, though more extreme, Terrorizer putting it in the top 10 power albums of all time (yes it is!) and other positive reviews from other magazine. But on the other hand, we have the complete apathy from fans. Sales were not good and the fact that it was produced by FM Revolver Records (a Heavy Metal Records subsidiary) didn’t make things any easier. At the same time, the once pioneer (especially when related to N.W.O.B.H.M.) Kerrang! and the completely different choices of bands and sounds that it promoted seemed that the magazine understood what people wanted now, how times changed and, unfortunately it was showing a grim future for Cloven Hoof.
However, Payne & Co’s conscious choice of keeping the immortal flame and moving with a totally driven by emotionally by listening to his metal heart and only that, makes him even more lovable because him selling-off would be a fatal mistake in the band’s legacy that with so much toil has been building for so many years. Much has been said about the strange cover of the album. The 2 Camel packets, the served drink in the glass, the ashtray with the cigarette butts, scattered pills, white powder on the glass table, a machete and a girl’s photo who we see again at the back cover, posing with the members of the band, it’s not a concept that we come across oftenly … however, the cult that emits makes it even more appealing and grows the legend of the “A Sultan’s Ransom” even more. For Payne’s skill \s as a composer we’ve talked already, for each member’s performance too, as for North’s outstanding voice as well. Let’s also talk about the songs … that just by reading the titles you should feel a stir of emotions in most of the heavy metal fans … With no further delay and with hymns like ‘Highlander’ (first ever video clip,I saw in my life), ‘Astral Rider’, ‘Mistress of the Forest'(one of the best N.W.O.B.H.M. songs of all times), ‘Forgotten Heroes'(the guitar synths brings to mind Maiden) and ‘Mad Mad World’ (with its sweet melancholy aura) are unsurpassed tops for many acts with superior status and sales from Clove n Hoof but these things happen, we are not living in a fair world or something like that.
In the most accessible tracks for common mortals, the DVR raises hell, making the heads with bang constantly with its frenzied rhythm but also with its epic complexion magnificent chorus, 1001 Nights blends western sound with Oriental origin themes and elements, Silver Surfer is powerful but way too easy for Payne to be honest with you, while Notre Dame is one of their most well-known songs with the suspicion of being considered a Hit (such as ‘Highlander’ and ‘Astral Rider’) and basically summarizes the pattern of alternations in rhythm and the mix of melodic and powerful parts that shuffle harmonically throughout the duration of the disc, with a common denominator in almost every song the chorus, that makes you singalong all day long, once you listen to it once. The Brazilian Classic Metal version is the latest re-release of the album that is worth investing for those you do not have it. It contains the lyrics that continue with Dominator’s sci-fi theme, and to tell you the truth I would like a more meticulous booklet with Lee Payne’s liner notes or some comments on the tracks, though I think it’s a good opportunity for a thematic interview … hmm let’s see. Summing up we are talking about a jewelry made of solid gold, indispensable for every collection.