When we think of the past, we tend to focus on the brighter bits while ignoring the bad parts that characterized it. This feels truer than ever in a genre like metal, where the bulk of classic releases for all the main genres were released in the 80s/90s. For this reason, there is a desire for many bands to emulate the sounds of the past and to relive the glory days.
Within this space of “retro” bands, it seems there are broadly two camps of bands that form – those that merely want to replicate a certain band or regional scene (AKA worship bands) or those who take these as a reference point to try and craft something new while still decidedly sounding “old school”. I have no problem with worship bands in principle since the old adage of “if it ain’t broken don’t fix it” applies here – particularly when certain subgenres are hard to come by (this is why I devour any Hellenic BM I hear).
The problem with worship bands is the lack of lasting power they possess. While it may be cool to hear a band paying homage to Mental Funeral almost note by note, sooner or later you wonder while you’re not just listening to Chris Reifert bellow out caveman vocals himself. The second category of bands is ultimately the one who has the most lasting impact; one you can re-visit over and over without at any point saying “this was already done better”.
One of the lesser known names of this new wave of bands is Scythian; whose debut To Those Who Stand Against Us celebrates a decade since its release and best exemplifies the second type of band I mentioned earlier. Scythian is a band that is “old school” and whose influences can be felt, but not comparable to any one single band.
Describing Scythian’s sound is not exactly straightforward at all. At its core, the band can broadly be classified as a Death/Thrash band – much of the riffing sounds derived from acts such as Sodom, Destruction, Morbid Angel, Possessed and so on. What sets Scythian apart is the incorporation of more “epic” sounding passages and solos that call to mind Viking-era Bathory and the melodies of both the NWOBHM and USPM movement.
To look at this duality, one only needs to look at the opener “Pray to War”. From the get go, the song opens with a thrashy riff that is quickly accompanied by grisly roar from frontman S.Vrath and the thundering percussion of drummer Volgard. If you knew nothing about the band at this point, you’d be forgiven in thinking you’re going to get a straightforward dose of death/thrash throughout the duration of the record. However, around the 1:45 mark, the tempo considerably slows down and suddenly the growls give way to background chants and a melodic ambience which builds to the first solo of the song – courtesy of A.Von’s guitar skills. The song then returns to its frantic pace (although accompanied by more secondary vocals in the background) before closing out with another beautiful solo and fading out.
This “formula”, if you can call it that, persists throughout the album and is what keeps the listener bound to the album from beginning to end. The songwriting is high caliber as these transitions between wild death/thrash and more melodic segments are handled in a smooth and tasteful manner, never feeling out of place. There are plenty of other examples one can show within this record. One would be “Ares Guide My Blade”, a track that is a solid thrashy affair but is elevated by the inclusion of an almost regal sounding solo into the mix. The beginning of “Open Steppe” brings a soaring feeling into the mix, invoking the image conjured in the lyrics: The open steppe beneath my feet /As far as falcons fly.
The album closes with their most ambitious attempt at epic songwriting, “Kurgan Funeral Chant”. The 8 minute track is a mixture of everything mentioned until now, with more emphasis on melodic riffing, background chanting and a generally slower pace. Even S.Vrath’s vocals feeling more subdued here than on the rest of the album. The song ends with a recited passage and lush guitar tone that signifies the inevitable conclusion. It is a fitting ending for a record that seeks to establish its own sound and hints at where the songwriting will go in the future.
If you had to point a shortcoming in the album, it would be definitely be the mixing and production. While it’s good for what it is, you can’t help but feel some of these songs could be given more life with a finer sound – “Spires to Ashes” being an example. Nonetheless, the raw production values certainly give it a visceral feeling that is hard to replicate.
Sadly, Scythian’s debut did not receive the resounding success one would expect from a release of this caliber. I recall a conversation with Alexandros from Macabre Omen/The Omen many years ago (their bassist at the time) where he pointed out that Scythian’s sound was not exactly in vogue – this was the early 2010s when the HM2 revival and Incantation inspired bands were gaining attention more in the extreme metal world than anything else.
Nonetheless, Scythian continue to soldier on, having released an excellent follow-up in the form of Hubris in Excelsis which deals with some of the aforementioned shortcomings of their debut. While in certain aspects the sophomore may be considered “better”, To Those Who Stand Against Us remains my favourite album from them. At the time of its release, there was nothing like it and I remember listening to it obsessively over the course of several months after purchasing it. I would highly recommend this record for anyone who enjoys their extreme metal with a strong doses of heavy metal influence.
Album rating: 93/100
Favourite track: Pray to War