Do you remember what life was like prior to 2015 B.V. (Before Vardan)? Back when the phrase “monthly visitor” meant something radically different than black metal’s most notorious one-man sweatshop, the busiest man in black metal was Ukrainian pagan mastermind Yaromisl and his own one-man machine, Zgard. When we last heard from our heathen busy-bee, he put out his fourth album in two years, Contemplation, back in the summer of 2014 [Four albums in two years? Slacker! – Steel Druhm]. While it was overly long and somewhat repetitive, it did show glimpses of anthemic beauty. Well, Yaromisl is back with Zgard‘s fifth album, Totem [That’s more like it! – Steel].
It’s a bit of a mixed bag, but there are marked improvements here. After a short, three-minute intro involving deep vocal chants and ominous sound effects, “Land of Legends” blasts forth with heathen Drudkh-ish fury. With plenty of layered tremolo riffs, a deep vocal choir in the background, and some rather maniacal vocals by Yaromisl there’s already more urgency shown here than on most of Contemplation. When the sopilka makes its appearance at the 2:42 mark, it adds a triumphant counterpoint to all the speed and urgency, helping the song to stand out. There is a bit of repetition on here, but instead of bringing the song down, it actually holds your attention throughout. Impressive.
There’s no shortage of surprises on Totem. “Forgive Us Nature” starts off with a beautiful female vocal and a gentle arpeggio acoustic guitar with a running lake in the background before blasting into oblivion for the song’s nine-minute entirety, save for the female vocals acting as a bridge during parts of the song. “Sorrow” contains one of only two whooshing wind effects found on Totem (YES!), with more acoustic guitars and a sad sopilka melody, and is the slowest song on here, and even then it plays at quite a clip later on. The title track contains the most upbeat of melodies between the sopilka and the mouth harp and some thundering drums by session drummer Severoth. Keeping in the theme of epic closers, “The North,” while containing the other whooshing wind sound effect, is a blasting, fervent number with no shortage of riffs, chanting, and frenetic blasting, and by the time the keyboards play off the final minute or so, you’re left wanting to play the song again.
The production is a bit better than previous efforts. While still brickwalled, there’s hardly any clipping, and the bass makes an appearance amidst all the mad riffage. The drums sound pretty good overall, and careful attention was made to assure that the sopilka and the clean chants sound better than past efforts. Also, once again, that’s some pretty sweet cover art. My biggest beef with Totem is the sheer length of the songs themselves. Again, more could be said with less, as a lot of it gets repetitive quickly, and I wouldn’t recommend listening to this album in one go, as it’s a lot to chew through.
Still, this is a step in the right direction. While it’s not something that will cause me to redesign my Top Ten(ish) of 2015, Totem is a good album with a couple of really strong songs. I can’t wait to see what develops from here, as Yaromisl is quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with in the realms of atmospheric pagan metal.