Almanac – A Discographic Review [Tsar (2016), Kingslayer (2017) and Rush of Death (2020)]

Victor Smolski’s Almanac has produced three records since 2016. First formed in 2015, following Smolski’s departure from Rage, Almanac was sold as the follow-up to the Rage-adjacent Lingua Mortis Orchestra album from 2013. Having been thoroughly underwhelmed by LMO when it was released and having received Tsar from Nuclear Blast very late, I skipped it. Subsequently, then, I ignored 2017’s Kingslayer and did not notice that we had received Rush of Death until it was too late for its March 2020 release date from Nuclear Blast. That means for the last four years, I have been neglecting—and you have been denied my Very Important Opinion™ about—one of the most idiosyncratic voices in metal: Victor Smolski. And so, in a Swallow the Sun-sized act of hubris,1 I’m writing a discographic review of Victor Smolski’s Almanac.2

Victor Smolski in 2019Victor Smolski is the founder, composer and minor guitar deity of Almanac. Smolski should also be the go-to example of “voice” in musical composition. If you had handed me any of the Almanac records with no information, I have no doubts that I would have been able to tell you that the composer and guitarist was Smolski. The man’s unique style, and I say this without any negative evaluation, sounds a bit like he has been trapped in a studio-bunker since 1987 writing the soundtrack for Top Gun 2.3 Smolski’s voice has a strong late-80s/early-90s feel associated with action films and hyper-masculinity. This means that Almanac’s songs are replete with “hockey rock choruses” and ridiculous (and awesome) guitar gymnastics. But Smolski also dates his aesthetic choices by, for example, using piezo pickups every time he breaks out an acoustic (“Last Farewell” [Kingslayer], “Satisfied” [Rush of Death]). Similarly, his compositions are littered with bethrashed blues rock licks that evoke mainstream ‘80s glam and hard rock (“Rein of Madness” [Tsar], “Red Flag” [Kingslayer], “Predator,” and, of particular note, is the use of talkbox on “Blink of an Eye” [Rush of Death]). Yet, few songs push the glam feel very far at all. Instead, the flareups of glamitude transition quickly to crushing riffs and sing-along choruses without blue notes. Lastly, Smolski’s guitar playing dates to a shred-heavy-era that seems home alongside Van Halen, Steve Vai or Joe Satriani. The guitar work throughout his whole body of work is, frankly, sick. The guy is unbelievably talented and he likes his licks fast, furious and loaded with notes and fun guitar tricks. His playing makes all but the most banal of songs instantly way more interesting. One minor critique could be that he’s maybe a little too reliant on gimmicky things like talkboxes or volume/expression pedals, but for me that adds to the sheer volume of how he expresses himself. And his self-expression sounds great. Furthermore, far from being a gimmicky shredder, Smolski’s got a flare for songwriting that places him in a different league from most guys.4 Almanac still feels a lot like later Rage; it’s got that German power metal vibe that’s fast and heavy with infectious choruses (“Bought and Sold” [Rush of Death], “Flames of Fate” [Tsar]) and if you like the style, it’s hard to walk away without hearing a thing that will stick with you.

Yet, as the commercials for Monster Ballads were always sure to remind us, “every bad boy has a soft side.” And Victor Smolski is no exception. Rather than just writing straight ballads (though, “Last Farewell” [King Slayer] is), this softer side is made up of Smolski’s impressive orchestral compositions. For me, the epic scope of Almanac is part of what makes Smolski’s writing voice unique. He combines his hard rock impulses with orchestra in ways that raise the level when compared to almost any other hard rock band. Yet, unlike a Blind Guardian or Nightwish or [(Luca) Turilli(’s) / Lione] Rhapsody [of Fire] Smolski doesn’t lose himself to the desire to write a ‘pure’ symphony. Instead, he uses orchestrations in ways that complement his metal by linking songs to help maintain conceptual coherence (Rush of Death) or, more commonly on the first two albums, to help make the choruses even bigger and more epic. Interestingly, one of the things that really distinguishes the albums from each other is how the orchestrations are used. Tsar (2016) features orchestra heavily, backing up the riffing and introducing melodies (“Self-Blinded Eyes,” “Darkness,” “Children of the Future” [Tsar]). By Kingslayer, the orchestrations had been rolled back a bit, though they served a similar role at times (“Guilty as Charged” or “Kingdom of the Blind” [Kingslayer]), introducing riffs and melodies. By Rush of Death, the orchestrations have taken a backseat, being used more transitionally.

The changes between the records are subtle, but important. Tsar primarily features, for example, two vocalists—David Readman (Pink Cream 69, ex-Adagio)—whose classic, reedy power metal stylings immediately reminded me of Adagio’s classic Sanctus Ignis before I even realized who he was—and Brainstorm’s Andy B. Franck. By Kingslayer, Jeannette Marchewka was playing a much more prominent role, splitting the vocal duties more evenly with Readman and Franck. By Rush of Death, the two men had gone, leaving Marchewka and Patrick Sühl as the primary vocalists, splitting the vocal duties fairly evenly between them. Sühl, like Franck and Readman, has a classic German power sound: an affected, gravely performance in the second tenor range. Marchewka, rather than playing beauty to Sühl’s beast, also has a classic power metal delivery. The multiple vocalists are at their best when they are used in tandem, nailing harmonies and having the added benefit of adding grit to the band’s sound while also sometimes functioning like a choir. And one might expect vocal changes to be noticeable from album-to-album, but Victor Smolski has largely selected vocalists with a similar timbre, range and approach. The similarity of his choice of vocalists means that he is easily able to swap them in and out with little fuss. Similarly, it says something, in my opinion, that the rhythm section has been replaced and that there is no noticeable difference. Bassist Tim Rashid and drummer Kevin Kott, who joined in 2017 and 2018 respectively, are clearly very talented musicians, but the roles that musicians fill in Almanac are secondary to Smolski’s vision for the band.

If Smolski’s unique voice is Almanac’s primary appeal, it is also its biggest drawback. He has a truly unique aesthetic approach in modern metal and I can think of no major label metal band with a sound that feels so authentically anachronistic as his. But there’s also a cheese and machismo that feels stuck in the same time period as Smolski’s voice. Of the three, Rush of Death ultimately suffers the most from this. The seemingly unreflective comparison between the racing of cars and gladiatorial combat strikes me as, honestly, a bit silly. And this is made worse by lyrics that can range between awkward and just downright silly. The worst example of this is the track “Like a Machine” (Rush of Death), which features the line “Attracted to the crack / Compelled to stay on track.” Now, I believe this to be about racing: that is, everyone is trying to get the inside lane as they go around in circles. But the phrase “Attracted to the crack” is the most awkward phrase I can remember hearing in a metal song since I first discovered Sonata Arctica. Similarly, I’m not entirely sure what Tsar is about, as the lyrics are not totally clear. But is there a bit of a creepy Serenity/Fleshgod Apocalypse-esque note of “maybe this genuinely-pretty-terrible-person-and-or-thing was good?” that arises from writing an album from the perspective of the Tsar (for example, the song “Hands Are Tied”)? I don’t know, but I try not to think too much about it.

Looked at as a whole, Almanac has released three albums that show Smolski and company to be remarkable talents. Of the three, Kingslayer is the weakest. It followed so quickly on the heels of Tsar that while it features really good material and is a fun album to listen to, it struggles to live up to its predecessor or to differentiate itself enough. In the second spot has to be Rush of Death. It’s a very good album, but it features some downright embarrassing narrations and a questionable analogy that make it a little bit difficult to fully buy in. It’s 2016’s Tsar that stands atop the pile, a great album with excellent writing. Maybe its biggest flaw is that the orchestrations sound like the keyboards they are, as opposed to having the full pomposity that comes with a real orchestra or state-of-the-art samples. While all three are technically concept albums, Tsar and Rush of Death are the ones that utilize the album format and take advantage of the orchestrations, making them integral to the flow of the record. But though the quality varies, all three of these albums are addictive and fun and which you will struggle to stop listening to once you start.

Almanac in 2019

Listening to Almanac’s entire discography like this has given me the chance to really appreciate Victor Smolski’s writing voice and to diagnose exactly what it is that I love about it. Quite simply, there is not another band around that manages to do such a good job of straddling the barrier between modern metal and classic hard rock. There’s an undeniable and beautiful authenticity to this material because you can tell that this guy—and this band—is making exactly the music he wants to be listening to. And, it seems, that’s the music I want to be listening to, as well.

Ratings: Great! [Tsar] | Good! [Kingslayer] | Very Good! [Rush of Death]
DRs: 5, 5 [Tsar, RoD], N/A (probably 5) [Ks | Formats Reviewed: v0 mp3 [Tsar, RoD], Stream [Ks]
Label: Nuclear Blast
Websites: |
Release Dates: March 18th, 2016 [Tsar], November 24th, 2017 [Kingslayer], March 6th, 2020 [Rush of Death]

Show 4 footnotes

  1. “I’m going to save the long-form review! Nobody has any patience anymore! What I need to do is prove they don’t have patience by writing 2500 words about the pride of Belarus!” Goddammit, that was so dumb.
  2. And before any of the writers ask: no, you cannot do this. I am Angry Metal Guy. When you start, then feel free to do whatever you want to do.
  3. So I googled Top Gun to find the release year and found that Top Gun 2 is going to be released on the 23rd of December, 2020. Alas, Smolski isn’t writing the music. Incidentally, has anyone else noticed that Belarus’ Eurovision entries all seem like this, too?
  4. Drama, style and longevity aside, Van Halen at least wrote songs that hold up over time, but he’s the exception to this rule.
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