Viktor Smolski started his path in the metal scene back in 1995 when he joined the Germans of Mind Odyssey, but it was only in 1999 – when he helped Peavy Wagner with additional guitars for the Rage album ‘Ghosts’, only to later join as a full-time member of the band – that he reached some sort of spotlight and was (rightfully) recognized for his skills. Relying on otherworldly guitar proficiency and a very special musical background, Smolski quickly made his mark by allying classical music elements to his virtuosity and showcased it with acts such as Lingua Mortis Orchestra, one-time project Nuclear Blast All-Stars, and even Rage, inserting his personality into a band that was (and still is) known to be musically centered around its creator. The result of that insertion was a mix of good albums, and a couple of great ones in-between with ‘Unity’ and ‘Soundchaser’, making for a strong case that he was sort of a genius as a songwriter. Then 2015 came and, due to musical differences, Smolski and Peavy parted ways, making a lot of followers orphans to a lineup that – along with Mike Terrana, and later on with Andre Hilgers – was arguably considered to be the best Rage ever had (my opinion is that the best Rage lineup was with Manni Schmidt and Chris Efthimiadis), leaving me wondering if the guy would finally take a break from years of working non-stop.
Well, I was wrong. Not much time after his break-up with Peavy, Smolski rolled up his sleeves again and formed Almanac, a symphonic metal act featuring no less than Andy B. Franck (Brainstorm, ex-Symphorce) and David Readman (Voodoo Circle, Missa Mercuria, Pink Cream 69, Adagio and many others) on vocals, along with Jeannette Marchewka (vocals, former bandmate of Viktor’s on Lingua Mortis Orchestra), Armin Alic (bass), Michael Kolar (drums), and Enric Garcia (keyboards). After a small period of time promoting the band, the guitar virtuoso and his company released via Nuclear Blast on March, 18th the album ‘Tsar’, a conceptual album that tells the story of Ivan, the Terrible from birth to death, and everything in-between.
If you are familiar with Smolski’s songwriting process, you know what to expect here. The album is crafted to be a rock-opera and features every single element used by the guitarist throughout his career, from his characteristic tapping and distortion techniques to pompous orchestrated moments. The production also features the Orchestra Barcelona Filharmonia, performing all the symphonic parts of the work. The album opens with the self-titled song “Tsar”, which portrays a dark, angry beginning to Ivan’s life illustrated by a strong chorus and heavier guitar tuning. Follow-up is “Self-Blinded Eyes”, which shows why Smolski knows what he’s doing: the song features one of the catchiest choruses you’ll ever hear this year. I’m serious; this will stick in your brain like bubblegum sticks to hair. Besides that, the tune has a highly accessible musical construction and is very, very melodic; no wonder this was chosen to be the single to promote the album. After the intro “Darkness” comes “Hands Are Tied”, changing the pace of the album a little with a mid-tempo arrangement through most of the song, tied to a groovy chorus. “Children of the Future” ends the first half in an almost melancholic way, paving the ground to the better part of the display.
“No More Shadows” starts this second-half standing at an overwhelming 08:19 minutes, and I don’t say this in a good way; this tune could easily be cut down in 2 or 3 minutes, mainly because there are too many variations inside it and although this can be compelling, it also has the power to tire depending on who’s listening. This song is linked directly to its follow-up, “Nevermore”, the best one of the bunch in my opinion. It has easily the strongest set of elements the album can offer and is at the same time, fast, heavy and emotional. Immediately after the end of this comes “Reign of Madness”, that for the first time features Marchewka’s vocals on a main role. I honestly could not understand this, because her vocals are really good and add a lot to the mix, especially with this kind of atmosphere. It’s a shame that she wasn’t used on a more prominent role and stood in the background for most of the album. The song is one of the emotional bits of the story, and displays the best lyric construction of the entire experience. “Flames of Fate” ends the rock-opera in a strong statement, with special attention to Readman and Franck vocal performances, who externalize really well the emotional charge of the lyrics, not to mention the mix of high-pitches and rawer vocal lines which make for a solid atmosphere.
In this first output arranged by the Belarusian guitar master, Almanac already made a lot of noise in the metal scene with a potent statement. Relying on competent musicians who know what to do and when to do it, the album has high quality and deserves a spot in your collection, especially if you enjoy symphonic and pompous displays of metal. Nevertheless, this album has some flaws and can look flat at times when you take in consideration that its creator is no less than a musical genius. ‘Tsar’ has strong lyrics, good songwriting, crystal-clear production, and is definitely the product of honest inspiration, but it comes up short (by a mile) from being a masterpiece, or even a contender for best album of the year, for that matter. I’m being this critical because I know what Viktor Smolski is capable of, and he can do so much better.