Ahhh…the Russian underground in the early 80’s…innovating through illegally imported Western music… During the next decade, among the ruined institutions, ravaging alcoholism and child begging, ASPID (АСПИД), CHERNIY KOFE (ЧЁРНЫЙ КОФЕ), FRONT (ФРОНТ), MASTER (МАСТЕР), KRUIZ (КРУИЗ), SHAH, SKORAYA POMOSHCHJ (СКОРАЯ ПОМОЩЬ), TRUPNIY YAD (ТРУПНЫЙ ЯД) and, of course, ARIA (АРИЯ) took over the radiocassettes of a brave new youth. Nearly all of these bands formed in Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg) –the Russian economic and cultural centres– and performed the main metal genres such as heavy, thrash, speed and death. Nonetheless, in Yaroslavl, 250 km away from Moscow by northeast, surrounded by dark woods and crossed by the Volga river, a young man steered away from these styles to compose what is still considered the crown jewel of post-soviet doom metal: SCALD. If you already knew this band, congrats. Its brief opus ended up concealed in the, well, permafrost, only to reveal itself like a baby mammoth in the thawing ice during the last years. After a 23-year long hiatus, they played at the Hammer of Doom XIV (Germany) on November 2019.
SCALD was born in 1993 by the initiative and talent of Agyl (Maxim Andrianov), resulting from a process of music evolution: his soviet-rock project 220 VOLT (1988-1990) would become ROSS (1990-1993), a mix of a MANOWAR-like sound with Russian folklore spirit (the name has nothing to do with Ross The Boss, it’s a reference to the movie Rus Iznachalnaya). At 21, the composer and self-learning singer, alongside his comrades, would take a decisive turn towards CANDLEMASSian and viking-era BATHORY sounds. Their lyrics would be focused on Nordic-slavic paganism and written in English, thus departing from classic national folklore (which was pretty unpopular within the underground at that moment). Due to the inclination of some bandmates to write about evangelic Christianism, Agyl and Ottar (Alexander Kudryashov, drums) sought more like-minded musicians. Thus, SCALD’s lineup would be completed with Harald (Ivan Sergeev, guitar and Agyl’s cousin), Karry (Vladimir Ryzhkovsky, guitar) and Velingor (Illia Timashev, bass guitar).
The band began to play what they called “ancient doom metal”. They released the demo North winds (1994, Wroth Emitter Productions) and the album Will Of The Gods Is Great Power (1997*, MetalAgen), which would achieve a legendary status among the Russian scene. Perhaps this circumstance cannot be ascribed to the eminent musicianship only, but to Agyl’s untimely death (in a train accident) as well. In fact, the album was posthumously released with nearly 1000 cassette copies, making it a rare gem. The same label released it in CD format in 2003 and, ten years later, re-edited it under the title Agyl’s Saga (featuring ROSS recordings) due to the growing demand. Labels’ interest in SCALD’s short discography also grew. Kyrck Productions & Armour pressed 600 vinyls in 2005. And, in 2018, new CD copies were released by Ordo MCM and Hammerheart Records, albeit with a reordered tracklist. The latter includes previously unpublished material such as demos, lives and covers (e.g. MANOWAR’s “Hail to England”). From there on, the album has attracted a lot of attention among the international underground scene. But let’s put an end to the History class – it’s time to focus on Will Of The Gods Is Great Power itself.
In the distance, thunders in the sky. Suddenly another one cracks the air and all the instruments display a complex harmony. Under the vocalist’s warcry “Will of the gods is great power!” drums resound – and we set sails alongside “Night Sky”. An epic adventure filled with soundscapes and emotions awaits us. Forces of nature such as lightning, fire, wind and sea launch many songs, none of them lasting less than six minutes, while two of them surpass the eleven-minute mark. During the first couple of listenings, the album seems overwhelming with so many entangled melodies, a relentless voice, constant exchange between riffs and lengthy guitar solos. Even with a crispy production, the band made sure to embed every detail with epicness. The influences of CANDLEMASS and the post-Hammerheart BATHORY are made obvious when the parsimonious and distorted riffs are combined with occasional keyboard-based atmospheres (e.g. “Sepulchral Bonfire”). The guitars constantly alternate each other or harmonize, procuring a sense of a waving sea. Folk-like details appear here and there: in “A Tumulus”, the keys play a short tone that reminds of a shepherd flute while, at composition level, the repetition of melodies by distinct instruments at different pitches is a typical element in traditional Russian music. In addition, a set of bells pinpoint the climax of “Ragnaradi Eve” – an effect created with an Ensoniq keyboard.
It strikes that, as detailed in the last edition’s sleeve, Agyl developed such a powerful, flexible and charismatic voice all by himself. Inspired by Valeriy Kipelov (ex-ARIA) and Eric Adams (MANOWAR), the young singer developed a unique style within the Russian underground. Throughout the entire album, the vocal register is varied, featuring deep intonations (“Night Sky”) and raspy vocalizations (“Eternal Stone”) while showing great control skills over high-pitched vocalizations (“In The Open Sea”). Yet during the “A Tumulus” track his talent is released at full. Being largely chanted in low pitch, the final verses are sung at the highest one, while dominating the lengthy vocalizations with vibratos and modulations. This chameleonic technique, combined with a strong Russian accent, gave Agyl the ability to express ominous emotions and soundscapes. Runes, fjords, rituals, taigas and storms are recalled in a convincing way.
SCALD’s focus on Nordic and Varangian-Slavic paganism fully matches the development of similar interests in contemporary Scandinavian metal. Starting with the name itself, skald was a figure in the Scandinavian courts that composed and recited epic poems during the Viking age. Mythological elements of Varangian-Slavic origin (“Perun”, “Svarog”) and Nordic ones (“Valhalla”) are fully present in the lyrics. The most epic and dark tones are highlighted with the inclusion of forces of Nature, bloodthirst or glory in death. All is expressed through an inconsistent prosody which, mixed with the vocalist’s accent, evoke a feeling of arcane times marked by fire and steel. Every song looks as if an old piece of saga has been translated from an older translated version. Regarding the lyrics themselves, Agyl never wanted to have them published. The gods tried to keep his will when the manuscripts disappeared during a burglary in his apartment shortly after his death. The lyrics found in the album sleeves actually are the transcriptions made by the bandmates from old recoded tracks. However, the lyrics of “Eternal Stone” have never been restored.
With this pioneering album in the post-soviet scene, SCALD makes an homage to the Nordic and Varangian legacy on Russian history and culture. The band had the fate of becoming a legend in the metal underground, although it was tied to its creator’s death. His story and work are epic, thrilling and enigmatic. Tragedy, nonetheless, would end up reigning, leaving the promising band in the imaginary of a reduced collective – although it is growing more than ever. Twenty-three years later, the former bandmates have reunited to bring this project back to life. Felipe Plaza Kutzbach (NIFELHEIM, DESTROYER 666) has embarked to defend the band with the mic, starting at the Hammer Of Doom XIV and continuing at the Up The Hammers XV. What would happen next, only Svetovid knows.
* Despite 1996 is still considered the release date, Ilia Timashev (Velingor) clarified for this article that it actually happened in 1997 under a verbal agreement.
PS: I thank Ilia Timashev (Velingor) and Tatiana Krylova (SCALD’s manager) for the numerous clarifications.