England’s Black Country was, of course a heavy metal hotbed in 1982, having spawned the likes of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Judas Priest in the previous decade and a half, and for a very short while it looked like Dudley natives Cloven Hoof might have been the next cab off the rank to metal stardom.
It had taken since 1979 and the usual interminable rounds of local band travails before a workable lineup coalesced, featuring David “Water” Potter, Steve “Fire” Rounds, Lee “Air” Payne and Kevin “Earth” Poutney – the band took on elemental personae for stage performance, with much tittering resulting pretty much everywhere except within the CH camp – and this lineup went into the studio to record the well-received Opening Ritual EP; Celebrity fans of the calibre of Robert Plant and Rob Halford touted the band as could-be heroes, and the band recorded a semi-legendary session for BBC Radio One’s Friday Rock Show, further cementing their ‘next big thing’ credentials.
Even signing to the hapless Neat label didn’t seem to harm their career at this point, and the band released their self-titled debut album for the label in 1984. Cloven Hoof is an absolute storming album, pure NWoBHM class from start to finish for which the phrase ‘all killer no filler’ could have been coined. Mixing the sort of pop metal anthems Judas Priest had cornered the market in by then (Crack the Whip would almost certainly have dented the charts had it been recorded with a Halford, Tipton, Downing writing credit) with galloping, Maidenesque romps (Gates of Gehenna) and closing with a proto-black metal epic that Manowar would have been proud to call their own (Return of the Passover), the power of the music overcame the silly costumes – vocalist David Potter in particular always looked uncomfortable representing ‘water’ on stage, further underlining the belief that Cloven Hoof really were contenders. Listening back to the album today the album stills stands up incredibly well – better, say, than the contemporary efforts of acts like Persian Risk or Tokyo Blade – and it becomes an even bigger tragedy with hindsight that the band didn’t become major players at this point.
Still, the British music industry is nothing but if not fickle, and by 1984 they were all searching for the next Def Leppard (hello, then, Heavy Pettin’) rather than the next Iron Maiden, and the band went unnoticed, comparatively, unable to even snare the sort of major support slot that might have set them on their way. The ‘elemental’ lineup dissolved, leaving only bassist Lee Payne to carry the torch forward. In 1986 the band reappeared, with a live album recorded when Rounds and Pountney were still in the band, but this lineup too was short lived and it wasn’t until 1988 that the band emerged with a new studio album, Dominator.
Hampered by poor production ( Motörhead man Guy Bidmead did the best he could with the budget allowed, I’m sure, but still…) Dominator did feature some nice moments of power metal mayhem – Nova Battlestar springs to mind, but, the superior vocals of new man Russ North aside the album did little to guild the Cloven Hoof lily. North and new guitarist Andy Wood were both members of Budgie offshoot Tredegar, a band that itself tasted a small amount of notoriety based around their excellent Duma single, and both fitted in well, able to ‘play the Cloven Hoof way’ – especially North, whose fine voice was just what the songs of Payne needed to help them take flight, but where Cloven Hoof had about it the air of being the work of a great band waiting to explode, Dominator merely hints that the talent is still there, contenting itself with bluster instead of real creativity.
However, the lineup stayed together for long enough to get another record out, 1989’s A Sultan’s Ransom, and that little bit of stability clearly paid dividends, because ASR was another cracking heavy metal record.
Eschewing the chance of paying another producers fee and twiddling the nobs themselves was a wise decision for a start, with North’s voice in particular the beneficiary of this policy, and the band as a whole sounds heavier and tighter, even if Wood’s guitar tone is again a bit on the weedy side. But the fact is the band were once again writing top notch songs – there were no oafish Heavy Metal Men of Steel to be found here – with the likes of Forgotten Heroes and the balladic Mistress of the Forest being bona fide power metal classics, easily on a par with anything the big boys of the time were churning out. The key here again was North, whose powerhouse vocal performance on ASR really did mark him out as the real deal. How he lost out to Blaze Bayley when Iron Maiden auditioned singers to replace Bruce Dickinson is indeed anyone’s guess. But guess what – the album was met with blank incomprehension by both critics and the record buying public, and the band used ‘contractual difficulties’ as the excuse to call it a day in 1990.
It would be 15 years until a new Cloven Hoof album was recorded – sadly sans North, but that’s another story for another day…