Stozhar is a supposedly pagan metal band hailing from Yaroslavl, Russia that has come into existence in 2005. Their pagan metal is not of the purest breed, not even close to be honest, it contains many aspects of other genres of metal, the most defining being a distinct Slavic influenced folk and viking metal touch. Having remained under the radar for the first eight (!) years of their existence in which their only feat of arms was a demo released in the year of their establishment, they started a rampage release-wise in 2013 right around the time a few line-up changes took place. That hardly seems coincidental, but regardless that being the initiating factor or not, the band exploded into action right there and then. Their debut full-length, released in that particular year, was the start of an impressive stream of releases, ending in 2017 after having spit out three full-lengths and a single in that four-year span. Despite this track record they seemed to have either been ignored or overlooked by the vast majority of metal fans. Stating they’re completely unknown isn’t exactly the truth, but saying they’re considered the pinnacle of their genre is violating the truth even further. A shame really, because the music they have conjured up to date is pretty good, earning them the status of hidden gem in my book, though a tad rough still. Time to find out if they can cling on to that status, because after a three-year radio silence they have released their fourth full-length album on June the 6th. It’s called Холодом битв в объятья зимы, which roughly translates as Cold battles in winter’s arms. This release has again been the combined effort of the quartet of musicians that have formed Stozhar since 2013: Yarosvet as guitarist/vocalist, Pavel Ivanovas bassist, Sergey Glebov as drummer and Evgenia Vitlugina as vocalist. Well, on to Холодом битв в объятья зимы.
When a song is titled Ярость (Rage), your first reaction is brace yourself for what might be coming. However, there’s no reason to do so when the first notes of eponymous opener of Stozhar’s new release find their way to your ear drums. On the contrary even, despite the rather impending title and the intro being a representation of a sword battle there’s no indication you’re about to be exposed to music that might justify the choice of said title. Until the song actually fires up that is, because right after the moodily framed battle the song kicks into gear when the fast, heavy base rhythm is being embraced by a lone flute, soon to be followed by the rather aggressive sounding vocals of Yarosvet. Suddenly it all more or less makes sense, even the somewhat dance-influenced pieces and Evgenia’s operatic voice add to the overall atmosphere of uproar, without sounding too aggressive. A more than promising start in my opinion, so I’m highly anticipating the next song, which happens to be the title song, as the opener dies out with the ongoing sword battle. And, even though the opening sounds as music you’d expect on a Jean-Michel Jarre-album rather than on this release, I’m not disappointed.
The fresh sounding, powerful tunes unleashed on me so far make it impossible to stay put, no matter how hard I try. And luckily this pretty much applies to the entirety of the album. Each song is composed around roughly the same heavy sound structure with enough spotlight time for all musicians, but carries more than enough variety to effortlessly allow you to distinguish the one from the other without getting lost in too much complexity. The same can be said from the vocals. Yarosvet’s angry growls form a near perfect match with Evgenia’s clean, at times operatic vocals to maintain some sort of balance that contributes to the overall feel of the songs. Music-wise Stozhar’s metal relies heavily on Slavic influences to breathe the style-bound atmosphere that characterizes Eastern European (metal) music, with an important role being reserved for the flute, a role that has also been appointed to the arrangements. All this combined ensures a characteristic power-breathing, heavy, yet bright sound that is a joy to be exposed to. Even the most delicate song of this release, Память (Memory), packs the same punch, giving whole new meaning to the term power ballad. All lyrics are in Russian, but with titles like Расплескалась стужа (Spilled cold), Голос мечей (Swords voice) and Славянская сила (Slavic power) it really doesn’t take a genius to figure out what their general concept is about. I often see it as a loss not to be able to actually understand the lyrics, but in this case it was no bother at all, simply because the tunes soak you in so deep you won’t even know. The 46 minutes of music this Холодом битв в объятья зимы offers is simply way too enjoyable to be bothered with such trivial futilities. In my opinion Stozhar has grown significantly since their previous release, although it might not be that obvious at first glance. I feel they have put more structure, more coherence into their compositions without losing the playfulness and frivolity of their sound, their sound has matured in a pleasant way. Time very well-spent, definitely worth your undivided attention. They’re still a hidden gem in my book, even more so after this release, but I wonder for how long.