Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Album Review: Смута - На Север

 Смута - На север

Artist: Смута (Smuta) [Russia]
Album Title: На Север ("To the North")
Record Label: Sound Age Productions (Russia)
Released: 2013 (January)
Purchased from: CD-Russia

I've been following the Yaroslavl pagan/folk scene for a while, as they have produced several fine bands such as Scald, Tumulus, Vo Skorbyah, the folk bands Krynitza and Vnuki Svyatoslava, and newer metal bands Veda and Shexna.  I've also been following Smuta, a mainstay of the Yaroslavl scene since 2004, who have earlier this year released their fourth full-length album.  However, though I enjoyed the previous three albums, I always felt like there was something lacking in Smuta, despite them having the right ingredients to make a great album.  For instance, for their 2008 album Xmel'naya Pesn' Voini, they had in their ranks Ivan "Harald" Sergeev, former guitarist of the legendary Scald, yet despite his presence it was not an album I consider to be great.  Despite their obscurity and many lineup changes over the years, Smuta has kept at it; a fact for which I am glad, because their fourth album Na Sever is, in my opinion, truly a great one.

The sound of Smuta can be described as fairly typical Slavic pagan/folk metal.  The music is very much black metal inspired and fairly epic, while the male vocals are delivered in a deep, death metal-ish growl.  Like many Slavic folk metal bands, they also have a female vocalist, in this case a very talented woman named Maria Smolia (who also plays flute).  Maria first came to my attention on Krynitza's Hail to the Sun album in 2007, and she has been a part of Smuta since 2008.  Her vocals and flute playing are some of the true highlights of Na Sever, as she excels at both.  Her voice is sort of a half-folk-style, half-operatic style that is gaining popularity in the Slavic pagan/folk scene, and it is a heavenly voice.  This is especially evident on the album's excellent bonus track, the folk piece "Poslednie Otbleski."  This track would not have felt out of place on the aforementioned Krynitza album, and it is a welcome bonus to Na Sever.

Maria Smolia's vocals are not the only great thing about Na Sever.  The instrumentation, production, and songwriting all seem to have improved dramatically, perhaps a product of the longer period of time between the third album and this one.  On the earlier albums, I always felt that the guitar tone was too thin and that the overall sound was too light to support Evgeny Vorobiev's deep and harsh vocals, resulting in a balance that never felt satisfying to me.  However, on Na Sever, the guitar has a nice, thick tone, and the overall mix sounds much better.  I don't know if this is all due to better production equipment (or a better sound engineer), or if it can be partly attributed to the band's newest guitarist Artyom Eremeev (also of the band Veda).  The rest of the band sounds great as well, with a particularly nice performance on the drums by Evgeny Moskovsky, another newer addition to the group.  Na Sever doesn't overstay its welcome, clocking in at a short-but-sweet 36 minutes (including the bonus track), and, in my opinion, stands up quite well to repeated listens.

There's a nice balance of softer/slower, midpaced, and fast songs on the album.  The first few proper songs are scorchers, but then the band slows things down for the ballad-like "Zarovor-Obryad" (which displays Maria's vocal talents nicely) and then launches into a couple of fast-paced tracks before finishing with a pleasant instrumental and the folky bonus track.  The contrast of aggression and beauty is very satisfying on this album because the band does so well at displaying and balancing both sides.  A song that demonstrates this balance really well is "Den' Bika," a song that alternates between a faster and slower tempo and then finishes with a beautiful folk breakdown that sounds like it could have come from newer Nokturnal Mortum.

Although Smuta is not doing anything particularly original on Na Sever, it is an album I can easily recommend due to its quality.  Even those who have heard Smuta in the past and dismissed them should listen to some samples of this album, because I honestly feel that they have reached a higher level with Na Sever than they have previously achieved.  This is a gem of the Yaroslavl scene to be sure, and a very pleasant surprise for me personally, despite the fact that I've been listening to Smuta for more than five years now.  I hope that they gain some attention with this album and that this gives them momentum to continue to achieve great things.  I for one will be paying even closer attention to Smuta after this.

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