CLOVEN HOOF - Dominator LP (BBTAD)
Here's a reissue of 1988's 'Dominator', the sophomore full-length by the NWOBHM band. Cloven Hoof was known for being one of the more theatrical bands of the NWOBHM movement. The band members each assumed one of the four elements as a persona, and wore elaborate costumes on stage.
Midlands outfit Cloven Hoof must rate as one of the most legendary bands of the entire New Wave Of British Heavy Metal movement. The origins of the group go back to the year 1979, when they first formed under the name of Nightstalker. In 1981, however, the band switched to their new moniker: Cloven Hoof. Original vocalist David Potter, guitarist Steve Rounds, drummer Kevin Poutney and main man Lee Payne on bass adopted the stage characters of ‘Earth’, ‘Fire’, ‘Water’ and ‘Air’. A very interesting concept which was far ahead of its time. After recording demos of songs such as “Return Of The Passover” and “Nightstalker” Cloven Hoof issued their debut vinyl 12” EP »The Opening Ritual« on Elemental Music in 1982 (today a precious collector’s item). In 1984, the self-titled Cloven Hoof album was released, followed by »Fighting Back« (1986) and »Dominator« (1988).
“It was a golden era for the band and a new beginning,” comments Lee Payne regarding the original release of »Dominator« back in 1988. “An entire new line up was auditioned by myself and we all got on like a house on fire. Jon Brown was the first to send in a demo tape in answer to an advert I placed in the ‘Express & Star’, a local newspaper. I auditioned 75 drummers over a period of three weeks and Mr Brown stood out because he played with feel and had a down to earth attitude. He wasn’t the best technical drummer by any means. He had no heel/toe technique whatsoever and he couldn’t play to a click track, but he hit those drums hard and all he cared about was being a team player. That mattered a whole lot in my book, loyalty deserved to be rewarded and when the going gets tough, you need a drummer you can depend on. Because the new album was going to be sci-fi based I suggested we adopt a suitable image to go along this theme. Jon and I set about creating a ‘Mad Max’ look that we adopted when we went into Heavy Metal Records’ offices to get a record deal. Paul Birch signed us on the spot based on our look and the previous two albums and the first EP. The size of our fan base virtually guaranteed decent sales anyway so we were on the front foot from the word go. Next came the exhausting job of recruiting a suitable guitar player. We advertised in Kerrang! magazine and got two very good candidates. One was a guy who taught various members of Sabbat to play called Tony, and the other a blonde chap called Andrew Wood who was ex-Tredegar. Tredegar had ex-members of Budgie, like our previous singer Rob Kendrick. Jon and I thought both would be prime contenders to deliver a twin lead attack, so we asked them back for a second audition. However, the first guitarist was offered to play in a band in America so Tony considered it a more glamorous option to relocate there. He liked our music though and said if it didn’t work out for him could he try again for Hoof at a future date? Andy Wood jumped at the chance of a second audition, we loved his enthusiasm and Galen Kruger amp sound. So much so we didn’t pursue getting a second guitarist for a long time. We got a vocalist recommended to us by a mutual friend and he sounded great in the rehearsal room but when we got him into the studio everyone noticed his pitching was off in the higher registers. Guy Bidmead, our producer, was particularly scathing of his performance, so he recommended we change the singer with immediate effect. Andy Wood said in Tredegar they had a singer who was a big fan of Cloven Hoof and he had the first radio session we did for the BBC Tommy Vance show. The guy was called Russ North and he knew all the Cloven Hoof songs off the first album by heart because he was always raving about it after buying the LP on the day of release. We told Andy to get in touch with him and ask if he wanted to audition, in a heartbeat Russ came up from Wales to the West Midlands and he sure delivered the goods at the rehearsal studio. Now the line up was complete.”
For a lot of people Russ North is the ultimate Cloven Hoof singer. In retrospect, how would Lee Payne judge his performance on the album? “Russ did fine performances on »Dominator« and »A Sultans Ransom«, without a doubt. Back in the late 1980s he was full of enthusiasm and dedicated to a fault. Above all, he was very proud to be a member of Cloven Hoof because he was a fan who got to be in the band he loved. His range was second to none and he was rehearsing with the band all the time looking after his voice. He could sing for hours on end and his voice sounded clear as a bell. I worked with him until he got the melody lines down perfect and he added great harmonies himself later in the studio. They were happy times and we were best friends back then and I look back on those days with a smile. For some Russ is their favourite Cloven Hoof singer and that is cool, this is a taste driven occupation after all. As long as people dig the albums then that makes my day and gives me a warm glow. For my money, however, George Call is undoubtedly THE best vocalist Cloven Hoof has ever had and we have had some great singers. This is because when I first started the band I had a vision of what I wanted. His voice was what I had in mind all along. Russ had everything except the throaty raw edge that say Halford and Dickinson have. All the really great rock singers possess this quality and George has it in spades. He is the greatest front man too, in my opinion, and he really knows how to work a crowd. That said, Mr North was really fantastic in the late 1980s and it was such a shame he could not deliver when we reformed due to alcohol and personal problems. Remember him for the magical performances on »Dominator« and »A Sultans Ransom« because those songs fitted him like a glove and they will stand the test of time. One day I would love him to kick his personal demons and meet up and talk about the old days. Life is too short and he is Hoof family after all!”
For quite a few fans »Dominator« is the quintessential Cloven Hoof album, is Lee Payne able to share that view? “It is certainly one of the best for sure,” he says, “but how can you choose? it’s like picking one of your children over another. »A Sultans Ransom« was incredible and the first album was very innovative but I would choose »Morning Star« as my personal all time favourite. It is the closest to my original vision at least. »Dominator« was for a long time my favourite Hoof album and the drummer Jon’s, because it really does have four guys playing from the heart without any studio trickery whatsoever. It is honest, what you hear is what you get and we knew the songs inside out after rehearsing them endlessly. Every track fitted like a comfortable pair of shoes and everyone shone with their performances. We were all best friends and our enthusiasm and belief is etched onto every groove. Lyrically and musically, it is one big concept piece dealing with the dangers of genetic engineering. The inspiration for the album came from the news that scientists had grafted a human ear onto a little mouse. It smacked of playing Frankenstein, just because scientists can do something should they do it? There are moral issues here surely, it didn't seem right experimenting in such a cruel and inhuman way. Where will this all end? I took this notion to an extreme end and imagined scientists creating a genetically all powerful being who mutates into a genocidal dictator. He destroys his creators and carves out an intergalactic empire with one goal: total conquest. The album chronicles the Dominator’s rise and fall.”
Are there some songs on the album Lee Payne would not have recorded for it from today's standpoint, some weaker tracks? “I don’t think there are any weaker songs on »Dominator« … no fillers, all killers. Every song worked well live, too. How many albums can you say that about? They sound as good today as they did then because good music stands the test of time. That is the proof positive if music is good or not, in my view. The production is the only thing I can fault on it, I wish we could re-record the whole thing but that is impossible as Russ’ vocals in this day and age could not do it justice sadly. Best to leave a classic well alone and don’t try to fix it . A bit like trying to gild a lily.”
And who got the idea for the cover artwork? It looks like something from Warhammer than the band’s early, more occult and more mysterious artworks... Lee Payne anwers: “John Blanche who worked for White Dwarf magazine did the artwork on the »Dominator« sleeve. Jon Brown and I saw his work and thought the painting was fantastic. I thought a female warrior would be cool because it fitted the song ‘Warrior Of The Wasteland’. She could be the unlikely hero who slays the dread all powerful Dominator. The notion of the underdog saving the day is something that appeals to be a great deal. I picked the sci-fi direction for the band as opposed to the occult leanings because a serial killer called the "Night Stalker." Richard Ramirez was an American serial killer who broke into California homes, raping and torturing more than 25 victims and killing at least 13 over a two-year rampage. Well, we had a song called ‘Night Stalker’ on our debut album and this was about the time of these incidents took place. I don't know for certain whether Ramirez was influenced by that song about the homicidal killer in the song but I felt there were some crazy people out there and they could interpret the songs in the wrong way. Nowadays I think if someone is crazy they will act out their insane desires independent of what anyone releases by way of songs. You can't be responsible for other peoples actions, so don't even try.”
Did the band get a lot of press for »Dominator«? “It’s got its fair share of excellent press worldwide,” says Lee Payne. “The reviews were mainly superb, I recall. Metal Hammer Greece gave it 99/100 and voted it one of the albums of the your. Because of our uncompromising stance, the British press were never about to give us the attention we deserved. Never a prophet in your own land as the saying goes but at least we can hold our heads high and say we never changed our style or sold out to the media. Even Crimson Glory who were excellent tried to change to cowboy Bon Jovi material at one point because it was en vogue. Others went to grunge as soon as it reared its ugly head … never change your style or musical integrity for anyone!”
1988 was indeed a difficult year for heavy metal, especially in the UK. The NWOBHM was well and truly over, speed metal had come and gone, a lot of bands struggled. Lee Payne confirms: “1988 was indeed a difficult year if you were a no-nonsense uncompromising metal band, especially in the UK. Music papers like Kerrang!, once proud bastions of supporting heavy metal, switched allegiance and sold out to all the hype act fashion trends that were out there. It became like ‘Smash Hits’ magazine pushing hairdo metal and AOR sounding American acts that were no more than pop bands with slightly distorted guitars. The media sucked and we rebelled totally, all we cared about was playing our own music and fuck 'em all! Greece for instance loved »Dominator« and in Metal Hammer they gave us 99/100 and named it one of the albums of the year. Even Kerrang! magazine had to admit the album was good and our live shows were outstanding. But Britain was held in the iron grip of major labels and hype companies and it remains like that to this day. True metal has gone underground and it will remain so for a long time to come sadly. The loyal fans are out there in large numbers of course but payola and Simon Cowell pushed trash is all that gets full media attention. At the end of the day Cloven Hoof do this purely to make music for its own sake, not for fame or money bullshit. We will never abandon the fight because we are proud to play music for people who share the same tastes and musical ideals as we do. Hoof are the real deal because we paid our dues and have stood tall when others folded or fell by the wayside. How many bands have split up trying to make a fast buck out of reforming just because there is a resurgence in the genre? Quite a few, but how many still deliver the goods and make killer albums not resting on their laurels? Not many, and we will continue to do so.”
By the time »Dominator« was released Cloven Hoof were signed to HM Records. How did they get along with Paul Birch? “Heavy Metal Records was probably, along with Neat Records, one of the biggest independent heavy metal labels in England,” states Lee Payne. “Paul Birch was a pretty ruthless business operator back then but he has mellowed out through the years. I get along with him great when we meet from time to time. But the music industry has always been a dog eat dog world and not the place for the faint of heart or the naive. You can easily sign your life away as it were and many did and fell by the wayside. Our albums on Heavy Metal were very successful, so Paul was always fine with us as we made him a lot of money. He was always courteous and respectful, so we have no sour grapes as it were. »Dominator« and »A Sultans Ransom« are now considered untouchable classics, so we have him to thank for releasing them. Our legal trouble came from the tragic death of our manager David Hemmings and the people who descended like vultures claiming they owned a piece of the band in the aftermath. We signed with Neat Records and not CBS as result of the fallout it caused, and we were sued on numerous occasions may I add.”