An Italian symphonic metal band writing a concept album about Russia’s Tsarist past is not something you encounter every day. The fact they mix the romance language of Italian with the harsh edge of the Russian tongue and invoke Wagner as much as Prokofiev is even more ambitious. On the evidence of this EP, their ability is almost as high as their ambition.
The idea of symphonic metal began with Celtic Frost’s Into the Pandemonium in 1987, but Sweden’s Therion were the first to turn it into a fully-fledged genre with their 1996 masterpiece, Theli. Voland are a mixture of the two, taking the more simplistic power chord approach of Celtic Frost but marrying the distorted sounds with the pomp and splendour of Therion’s string arrangements. Of course, this will matter not one bit for those who listen to classical music, apart from the flourishes of harsh death metal vocals and blast beats among the triumphant navel-gazing. This is where the comparisons with turn-of-the-century Dimmu Borgir come in handy. Opener, ‘Casa Ipatiev’, launches into a frenetic black metal attack after ten seconds of marching boots crunching against tarmac and showcases a wonderful alternation between malevolent vocals and the magnificent rolling ‘R’ consonants of a bass voice. It might remind you of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in the way it invites you to imagine an imperial guard of troops walking by in your honour.
It’s easy to see why the Russian Tsars had their sycophants and subjects refer to them as ‘Your Effulgent Majesty’. One listen to the ode to Ivan the Terrible on ‘Terza Roma’ conjures yet more images of triumphant military parades and overdressed aristocrats flaunting their wealth in a magnificent display of ceremonial power. The intro here is a brutal detonation of guitars and blast beats that settle into an unlikely alliance with powerful keyboard strings. Only one criticism persists throughout – the guitars need to be louder. Carach Angren had the same problem with last year’s Franckensteina Strataemontanus, but Voland salvage the situation near the end with an extravagant burst of harmonised leads and finger-tapping melodies.
The unpredictable nature of the music is the most difficult aspect of the listening experience on Il Culto degli Zar. This should not be a problem, but many will find the compositions way out of their comfort zone. ‘Promontorio’ pits adrenaline against martial self-awareness, mixing power chords with epic choir vocals and a barrage of drum blasts. You can imagine yourself on Mount Sinai, like Moses receiving God’s instruction to build the tabernacle. Music as pompous as this never fails to excite the imagination.
‘Suite russe’ is the opposite and by far the melancholiest of the compositions on offer. This one mixes colourful baroque pageantry with doom metal and treats us to a dark passage of military snare drums and bass choir harmonies. The band’s decision to add two live studio recordings as bonus tracks helps to flesh out the record and brings the guitars to the forefront with a nastier distorted tone and spit-soaked vocals that invoke Rasputin the Mad Monk dropping to the floor with poison foaming from his mouth. Voland’s musicianship is competent and deserves the highest praise for its limitless self-belief.
We’ve seen some strong symphonic metal releases this year, with Norway’s Deception and England’s Ghosts of Atlantis leading the way. Voland fall just short of these two, but their originality and power merit more than a casual listen.
Release Date: 02/07/2021
Record Label: Xenoglossy Productions
Standout tracks: Casa Ipatiev, Suite russe
Suggested Further Listening: Dimmu Borgir – Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia (2001), Therion – Theli (1996), Wagner – Opera Choruses (Royal Swedish Opera)