In this edition of Throwback Thursday, we look back on an album from 2014: Zgard‘s Contemplation. Zgard is the project of Yaromisl Grozovoy, who handles vocal duties as well as all instruments bar the drums. As their Ukrainian origin denotes, they play black metal in the Slavic tradition, resulting in drawn-out, melancholic compositions that dip into the waters of folk music more than once. In this review, we will look at how well the different aspects of the music are balanced out.
Ask anyone about the bands that got them into metal and without a doubt at least half of the bands they name will be jaw-stiffeningly embarassing. We’ve all been through it. Slipknot, Cradle of Filth, Korn; some of their releases are bound to be secretly collecting dust somewhere deep in your record collection as a testifier of your pubescent absence of taste.
It is only logical, however, that youngsters should first plunge into the boundless depths of cheese and mediocrity before they (hopefully) emerge and develop a decent sense of taste. The whole point of the term ‘gateway drug’ is that some narcotics are more appealing to the innocent for providing an easier and quicker way to get high. With music, it is much the same, with teens flocking to the metal that, on the surface, appears to be the most extreme and shocking. Not to mention that, to a teenager, the idea of subverting artistic and societal norms with minimum effort is tremendously appealing. Entire social media platforms thrive on it.
Hence why Zgard’s 2014 release Contemplation could not carry a more appropriate title, for it refers to the activity required in order to appreciate this album at all. Originating from Ukraine’s western Lviv region, Zgard produces the type of nature-themed black metal that tends to shoot forth from the soil of the heart of Rus’. Unlike their label-mates Stryvigor, who offered the traits of Ukrainian black metal in a more compact package, Zgard goes all-out with its grandiose compositions, offering well over an hour worth of music across a mere seven tracks. In doing so, they force the listener to sit through multiple sessions before the core of each song can be unravelled.
Zgard distinguishes itself by combining Saenko-endorsed black metal templates with more explicitly formulated folk influences, introducing flutes and mouth harps where Drudkh would evoke similar atmospheres merely with standard rock instruments. Fortunately, these traditional instruments, instead of attempting to steal the show by driving the guitars into the background, serve as frills to spice up the already solid groundwork of guitar-based black metal. As a result, a song such as “Through the forest” is provided with an extra layer of depth, though the composition would have definitely come out fine even had the flute been omitted.
Accolades aside, there is definitely room for improvement on Contemplation. Though many of the compositions make more sense over time, some parts of the album fail to captivate the listener even after a dozen back-to-back listening sessions. One such example is the ambient interlude “Silence”, which provides a five-minute break before the final part of the album kicks in. Such tracks can be functional when they offer a breather in the middle of an ongoing stream of relentless metal (see: the instrumental on Sühnopfer’s Offertoire). Many of the compositions on Contemplation, though, already contain plenty of gentle segments that intersperse this album’s more frantic passages. As a result, “Silence” rather comes across as an unnecessary interruption of this album’s flow. Add to that a set of other less enticing ideas, such as the long-winded and monotonous title song, and you have a record that, while harbouring a plethora of great ideas, still falls a bit short as an overall experience.
While Zgard is yet to hit the nail on the head, with Contemplation this project has laid a strong foundation from which to rise as a progenitor of a new wave of Ukrainian black metal. With classic acts such as Hate Forest having disbanded, and Drudkh seemingly unable to touch the high standard it set across its first four albums, it is time for a new generation of bands to take over and show the world that Ukraine is far from emitting its last breath as a powerful cultural entity.