Epic Heavy/Doom Metal from the UK
It’s been twenty long years since Solstice’s last full length album, New Dark Age. In most other cases, this would be called a comeback, but not here. Rich Walker and co. have been toiling away steadily and meticulously across the last decade since the band’s reformation to bring us White Horse Hill. The album was released back in February and I can confidently say that after nearly ten months of repeated listens, this is 2018’s best metal offering.
What draws me to White Horse Hill, and Solstice in general, is the impeccable songwriting and blend of influences at play. Solstice’s signature style takes beautiful, winding guitar melodies and superimposes them onto crushing doom metal riffs accompanied by English-folk inspired acoustics. The winning formula is all here and out in full force on White Horse Hill. Solstice’s strength has always been the lead work of founding member Rich M. Walker and, with Andy Whittaker’s help on guitars, the master of riffs is just as lethal as ever. Rounding out the guitars is a rhythm section eerily similar in style to New Dark Age. This is thanks to drummer Rick Budby who made his return to the band in 2016. White Horse Hill is the whole package, complete with a roomy production and thoughtful lyrics.
I don’t normally assess a release by its lyrical content – it so rarely matters in the grand scheme of things. However, Solstice is an exception to this rule. In their case, the lyrics play a critical role in shaping the feeling of the music in a way that few manage to do. Solstice is aggressively British and the lyrics reflect this unashamedly. White Horse Hill itself is a reference to the massive, prehistoric, chalk-cut figures that are scattered across the countryside – a testament to the ancient history of England. The lyrics intertwine with English folk music and Kearn’s mighty voice to create a radiant, welling pride and not in the toxic sense either. It’s infectious – I can’t help but feel a pride and love for my own culture and background vicariously. Solstice has the rare talent of genuinely bringing their lyrics to life through the music and White Horse Hill is yet another example of their ability to do so.
A key part in bringing the lyrics and music of White Horse Hill to life is vocalist Paul Kearns. Solstice has had a number of vocalists across the years and Kearns is certainly the most confident vocalist to date. His bellowing, warrior-like baritone, amplified by a full and clear production, exudes power like none of Solstice’s vocalists before him. It completely changes the dynamic and feel of the music – instead of yearning and melancholy we have triumph and might. As a result of Paul’s vocal style, both Death’s Crown is Victory and White Horse Hill feel more similar to Isen Torr rather than previous Solstice material.
While the whole of White Horse Hill is magnificent, there are elements of it that bother me ever so slightly. The guitar melodies that make New Dark Age so special are still there, but fewer in number and not quite as compelling. The album doesn’t flow as smoothly as its predecessor either and that’s largely in part due to the number of acoustic passages – there are only seven tracks on this album and three of them are acoustics. While they are excellent tracks and short in length, they take away from the impact and pacing of the rest of the album. The other tracks on White Horse Hill have some acoustic passages in them already so it feels a bit unnecessary. In the grand scheme of things, these minor criticisms are really just nitpicking.
Solstice doesn’t quite capture the same magic that they did on the nearly flawless New Dark Age, but their latest effort reminds just us how mighty they still are. Solstice has brought a slightly different sound with each release and White Horse Hill is a natural result of their slow, calculated evolution. It’s been a long time coming, but the wait has certainly been worth it.
Album Rating: 95/100
Favorite Track: To Sol A Thane