Tuesday, July 4, 2017

CD Review: Scald / Росс - Agyl's Saga

Artists: Scald (Russia) / Ross (Russia)
Album Title: Agyl's Saga
Record Label: Wroth Emitter Productions (Russia)
Released: 2013
Purchased From: Paragon Records

Scald's Will of the Gods Is Great Power (or Will of Gods Is A Great Power on the original release) is a legendary cult album in both the epic doom metal and Slavic pagan metal underground.  It was Scald's only album, released in 1997, shortly after the tragic death of vocalist and leader Maxim "Agyl" Adrianov at age 24, which also spelled the end of Scald.  The surviving members of the band underwent a change of direction and band name; they became the progressive folk metal band Tumulus.  Scald's sole album was originally released on cassette only, and it wasn't until 2003 that Wroth Emitter Productions released it on CD and gave the band a larger potential audience.  Years later, metal fans are still discovering the band and those who are fortunate enough to possess copies of Will of the Gods Is Great Power are not likely to let them go.

Though the CD version of Scald's album was said to be "remastered," listening to the album reveals the fact that, remastered or not, the sound quality leaves much to be desired.  The album sounds, well, like an album that was originally released only on cassette.  The production sounds flat and unclear.  What unfortunately suffered the most were Agyl's vocals, which were arguably the highlight of the album.  A lot of clarity and power that should have been there was lost.  Many of us thought, however, that this was the best that we could expect, that if we wanted to enjoy Will of the Gods Is Great Power, we had to accept that this was as good as it was ever going to sound.

However, some time later (in 2010, to be exact), the album was remastered again.  According to Wroth Emitter's website, this time it was taken from the original master CD.  And it is from this remastering that we find the first disc of Agyl's Saga, a double-CD compilation of the music of both Scald and Agyl's original band Ross (which more or less morphed into Scald in 1993).

The highlight, for me, is the first disc, the remastered-again Will of the Gods Is Great Power.  I've had the original CD release for many years now and have listened to it countless times.  The less-than-ideal (I wouldn't call it "poor," however) sound quality was something I grew accustomed to, and some reviewers even said that it added to the atmosphere of the recordings.  Scald's music was self-described as "ancient doom metal."  Essentially they sound quite a bit like 1980's Candlemass, but with Norse (and, earlier, perhaps Slavic) themes, similar to the Bathory of the early 1990's and in the last few years before Quorthon's death in 2003.  I'm not an expert on Doom metal, but I don't think the flat production fit the style of music.  Fortunately, with Agyl's Saga we have something more fitting.

Granted, it's still not perfect.  Everything sounds much improved with the new remastering, with the vocals getting the most welcome boost in clarity (just try to listen to the vocals toward the end of the remastered "A Tumulus" without melting into a puddle... I find it impossible).  Also, those tasteful guitar solos have never sounded so good.  The drums are far better than in the original CD release, too, though they still sound a bit weak and, at times, sound digital to me.  However, it has been said that when Scald recorded the album, the studio they used was not accustomed to recording the style of music they were playing, so any imperfections in the original mix will affect the final product.  Still, this is by far the best way to hear Will of the Gods Is Great Power.  Even if you are one of those people who felt that the sound of the original CD release was perfect, you owe it to yourself to give this version a listen.  I was skeptical, but from the first minutes of "Night Sky," I could not keep my jaw off the floor.  This legendary album can finally be heard the way it deserves to be.  Agyl would be proud.

The primary difference between the version of Will of the Gods Is Great Power on Agyl's Saga and the original CD release is that the songs have been re-sequenced to match what seems to be the original song order on the 1997 cassette release.  For some reason, the 2003 CD release changed the order of the songs, so that's something you might have to get used to if you listened to the original CD a lot.  The album still starts with the excellent "Night Sky," but from there everything gets jumbled up, and now the album closes with "In the Open Sea," which was the fourth track of the 2003 CD version.  The short instrumental "Bilrost," on the 2003 CD version, was actually part of "Ragnaradi Eve" on the original master, and that has been restored to its place at the end of that track rather than its own separate track.

Agyl's Saga is worth seeking out simply for disc one.  If I were to introduce Scald to a friend who wasn't familiar with their music, I would certainly use the version of Will of the Gods Is Great Power that's included on this double-CD.  However, there's a whole second disc included, filled (litererally... it's almost 79 minutes worth of music) with early material from this cult band, much of which has probably been heard by few people.  Unfortunately, much of it, in my opinion at least, is an interesting glimpse into the history of a band that has not had enough light shed on it, but serves little more purpose than that.  The first ten tracks of the second disc are demo and live material from Ross, the original band of Agyl and eventual Scald drummer Ottar.  Ross was not much more than a fairly uninteresting "patriotic" rock band, with Russian lyrics.  Agyl's voice had not yet found its soaring, epic style (though there are glimpses of it, such as on "Sing, Guslar!").  His voice is probably the best thing about Ross, but that's not saying a lot.  By listening through the demo tracks, then to the live material, which makes its way through 1991 into 1993, I can sort of trace some of the direction that would lead to Will of the Gods Is Great Power, which was recorded in 1996 (in 1993, bassist Velingor and guitarist Harald joined with Agyl and Ottar to become Scald, with second guitarist Kerry joining shortly after).  The only tracks on disc 2 that are credited to Scald are 11, 12, and 13.  Tracks 11 and 12 are from a 1993 rehearsal with what I assume is the same lineup that would go on to record their sole album, minus perhaps Kerry on 2nd guitar.  Both songs have Russian lyrics, as opposed to their later material which was in English.  It is with these tracks that I can first hear the potential they had, which would be unleashed roughly three years later on their album.  These songs (or sections of them, at least) were later reworked into songs that would appear on Will of the Gods Is Great Power, but here they are the product of a band that was still trying to find their sound.  The final track of the second disc is the 1995 rehearsal version of "Sepulchral Bonfire" that appeared on the 2003 CD of Will of the Gods Is Great Power, which is a little disappointing, since I am sure there are some other Scald rarities that could have been included instead.

Personally, I would have removed most of the Ross stuff and included more early Scald tracks, such as the 1994 North Winds demo.  But I suppose what this does show me is that Scald was not an accident.  They were not a band that came out of the gate fully formed.  Getting there took a lot of work.  It gives me a greater appreciation for how great the band was when they finally recorded their album in 1996.  It was the culmination of a lot of hard work, a band that went from forgettable to unforgettable in a few years.  In a more fair world, Scald should have gone on to enjoy an international audience and record a number of highly respected albums in their time.  But, unfortunately, the world isn't fair, and in the end they were only able to record one album, an album that did not find its audience until years after the band had moved on, years after the man with the vision behind it, Maxim "Agyl" Adrianov, had gone on to Valhalla.  Therefore, this double-CD collection stands most of all as a tribute to him, hence the name.

The last thing I want to talk about is the packaging itself.  I don't know if it has or will ever be released in jewel case form, but in its original form, the one I have, it is a digipack.  The packaging and artwork is pretty good, with Scald's nigh-inscrutable logo prominently displayed on the cover, back, and the spine.  The overall effect of the packaging (especially the cover) is not as perfect as that included with the 2003 CD release, and I wish they had picked a better font for the "Agyl's Saga" text on the front and spine, but I know I'm nit-picking a bit.  The included booklet has a short essay about Agyl in Russian and English, which gives a little history of the man and his music.  Also, lyrics for all of the songs on Will of the Gods Is Great Power, with the exception of "Eternal Stone," are included.

In conclusion, I know I'm repeating myself, but I feel that this double-CD collection is worth buying for the re-remastered Will of the Gods Is Great Power on disc one, while disc two is mostly just a collection of curiosities that even hardcore Scald fans will likely only listen to once and forget.  They're important to the overall story of Scald, but I only received any enjoyment from listening to the last few tracks, when the band had really begun to find their voice.  So while I highly recommend the overall package, it is with those minor reservations.  Scald is a band that deserves to be heard and remembered, and if you haven't heard them yet, this is the release I would recommend.  And if you're already a big fan of their sole album, hearing it in this improved form may cause you to appreciate its greatness all over again, like it did with me.

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