Thursday, February 19, 2009

Album Review: Znich - Язычнік я... (2007 reissue)

Znich - Yazychnik Ja...

Artist: Znich (Belarus)
Album Title: Язычнік я... (I Am the Pagan) + Bonus Tracks
Record Label: Volh Records (Russia)
Released: 1997, 2007 (reissue year)

They may not be as well-known as some of their Russian or Ukrainian counterparts, but Znich is one of the earlier Slavic pagan metal bands. The original incarnation of the band formed in 1996. I say original incarnation because there have been a bunch of lineup changes in Znich over the years, each one seemingly bringing a completely new sound to the band. I was first exposed to their music with their 2007 album Крыжы-абярэгi (Pagan Crosses), and although I thought that album was pretty decent, it didn't inspire me to go to great lengths to obtain their earlier albums. Then, during a Belarusian pagan metal mini-binge, I came across the Volh Records reissues of the first two Znich albums and decided to give them a chance.

First of all, let me tell you about the Volh reissue of the first album, Язычнік я... In addition to the 10 tracks that make up that album, Volh included their entire 1999 demo Дух зямлi. Not only that, but they include two of the tracks from their 2000 single (I don't have the Cyrillic title, but the English translation is Sensation of Spring). With these 9 bonus tracks, the total length of the CD is brought to 79 1/2 minutes, so you definitely get plenty of music crammed into this disc. But quantity does not guarantee quality, so what do we have?

If you think about it, 1997 was an eternity ago in the pagan metal scene. Butterfly Temple's Veles was still two years off, Nokturnal Mortum was only just releasing Goat Horns (or perhaps hadn't even released it yet), and many of the bands that make up the scene today didn't even exist yet. So how does Язычнік я... stand up after almost twelve years and hundreds of pagan metal albums released in the interim? Well, as you might expect, this album captures a less mature Znich than they one we see later, but it's still very listenable. The musicianship isn't the best, and Ales Tabolitch's growl is not yet balanced out by his unique, folkish clean vocals, but there's still a pretty solid collection of songs here. There is little or no folk to be found on these ten tracks. Instead, we have pagan doom metal with a lot of keyboards. It's somewhat generic, especially when compared to the unique sound they would later capture on what I consider their masterpiece (so far), Zapaviety Aposniaha Starca, but it's not bad. The sound quality is surprisingly good, considering it was apparently only available on cassette until 2004. All in all, it's definitely a respectable debut.

Next we dig into the bonus tracks, the bulk of which are made up of 1999 demo Дух зямлi. The sound quality certainly takes a turn for the worse during this section of the disc. I don't know if this was remastered like the first album was, but I would imagine that the demo wasn't recorded in a studio (or at least a decent one). Still, I think Дух зямлi is important because by this point we are seeing many of the elements that Znich would carry into the next decade. At this point, Ales begins using clean vocals in addition to the growls, though at times he sounds way off-key. The overall sound is still doom metal, but there are many folk elements being added to the mix, mostly in the vocals. On a few tracks, there's a female vocalist present, and she does a very nice job. Obviously, because of the recording quality, the overall effect lacks the kind of power it would otherwise have, which is a shame, since there are some good songs here as well. At least one (Ой, дымна за дваром) would later be re-recorded, and it appears on Крыжы-абярэгi. I don't know how the lineup on this demo differs from the first album (the digipack only lists a single lineup), so it's possible that lineup changes helped lead to this progression in sound. The demo's bonus track, "Propaganda," is a Sepultura cover. I have the original version of this song, but since I haven't listened to Sepultura in years, I can't remember what it sounds like, and I'm not about to dig through boxes in order to hear it. I like Znich's version, though. I would like to add that although the recording quality on Дух зямлi is not as good as Язычнік я..., you can still hear everything clearly, which is more than you can say for many demos.

The disc closes with two songs from Sensation of Spring. By this point, the band was continuing to progress into the sound they would carry to fruition on Zapaviety Aposniaha Starca, and actually these two songs are early versions of songs that would appear on that album. The female vocalist appears to be the same one as on Zapaviety Aposniaha Starca. The only track from the Sensation of Spring single that didn't make it on this disc, a newer version of Чорны Зніч (the original version of which appeared on Язычнік я..., and of which a later version would appear on Крыжы-абярэгi), would be included as a bonus track on the reissue of Zapaviety Aposniaha Starca.

There's a lot of music on this disc, but, unless you're a pretty big Znich fan or a completist, it may not be worth your while. It's good music, but I wouldn't call it essential. I am glad for Volh Records giving people another chance to hear this stuff, though, because, rough edges and all, there are certainly fans who will be interested in this.

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