The thing I love about self-proclaimed progressive music is that I never know what to expect. After listening to enough albums, it gets to the point where it's not hard to see where bands are going (especially new bands) after a couple of songs. They rarely change direction, and far too many bands these days play every song in the same tempo, with the same feel, and with the same tones. Eventually, it all blends together into one big song, and it almost never turns out to be a strength. At least with progressive bands, when they don't happen to bowl you over with that first impression, there's always the chance that the next song will be something completely different and win you over.
Scythia goes down a path I don't have much experience with, playing what they describe as epic progressive metal with a twist of folklore. In essence, they play a style of traditional heavy metal that is accented with strings and orchestration. They manage to pack the music densely, fitting all manner of influences in the under three minute opener, “Fanfare 1516”.
That song doesn't really give much of an impression as to what the record is going to be, as it comes across sounding like a half-written sketch for the song that was supposed to open the album. There's a riff or two that are interesting, but the vocals wander, and the orchestration is the focal point. As soon as the second song, “Merchant Of Sin”, starts, we get a much better picture of what Scythia is going for. Rather than sounding like a folk-influenced metal band, they remind me of Primal Fear. Maybe it's a comparison of the tone of the vocals, but some of these songs sound like they could have come from the big-name Germans.
What separated Scythia from every other band that plays so-called epic metal is the prominent use of orchestration. The strings that linger in the background of the songs are a key element to making the album work as well as it does. Frankly, it takes a lot for a traditional metal album to make much of an impact these days, because they style has been done to death. By adding the extra ornamentation, and understanding how to utilize it as more than window dressing, Sycthia puts a new spin on an old trope.
The other name that comes to mind as I listen to “...Of Conquest” is Alestorm. This album is what I think Alestorm could have been; a rollicking, fun metal adventure that doesn't go so far as to become musical comedy. Alestorm stepped over the edge into full-blown parody land, but Scythia contains their more overblown flourishes well enough to keep this a serious album. As such, it's far more enjoyable than if they had cranked up the kitsch factor that little bit more.
What I appreciate about the album is that despite borrowing a few death metal riffs, and some harsh vocals, they manage to keep the album fun to listen to. It's not as obviously pandering as some of the 'drinking song metal' that gets thrown around, but that's what's great about it. It's heavy, catchy, and doesn't require you to drink mead while wearing a puffy shirt to feel like you're a part of the action. Sure, some of it doesn't work as well as I would like, and I'm not sure I would have called it progressive the way the band did, but by and large the album is a good time waiting to be had.
I think Scythia has room to grow and improve, but “...Of Conquest” is a great starting point, and a record well worth checking out if you don't need your metal to be bleak and depressing. I didn't know what to expect from the album, but I'm impressed by what I heard.