With a career that stretches back to 1988 and a panoply of stellar releases over that span of time, Varathron have cemented their place in the pantheon of Greek black metal, despite the fact that vocalist Stefan Necroabyssious has been the only constant in the band’s line-up. And yet, perhaps against the odds, the band have only continued to grow in creativity and power as the years have passed. Their last album, 2014’s Untrodden Corridors of Hades, was a landmark achievement, and while some might expect that their new “EP” The Confessional of the Black Penitents is simply a placeholder in between full-length releases, it is in fact yet another remarkable sign that Varathron are scaling new heights rather than resting on their laurels.
I put the acronym EP in quotes because this release includes roughly 40 minutes of music. It is probably being labeled as such because only three of its seven tracks are new songs, with the others consisting of live performances of songs from previous albums. But don’t think that those live tracks are some kind of filler — they are amazing to hear; they would be worth having even if The Confessional… included no new songs at all. And they make this “EP” a great jumping-off point for new fans who are just discovering the band, providing a musical retrospective on where the band have been as well as an electrifying statement of where they are today.
Varathron’s strength lies in their ability to combine majestic and exotic melodies, compelling atmospheric auras of brooding and ominous power, creative instrumental textures, and galvanizing riffs — and this new release displays all those strengths in striking fashion.
There is one more vital ingredient that is also very much in evidence throughout these seven tracks: the utterly inflamed, hair-raising force of Necroabyssious’ voice. Few vocalists in any genre of extreme music establish such a charismatic, dominating, and frightening presence in their band’s music as he does. And what The Confessional… proves convincingly is that he’s just as attention-grabbing, and sounds just as inhuman, in a live setting as he does in the studio.
While on the subject of the live tracks included on this album, the sound quality and mixing is so good and the performances so immaculate that, except for the occasional sounds of crowd noise, you could easily be fooled into thinking you’re listening to studio recordings. These live tracks were recorded on May 16, 2015, in Larisa, Greece, and they span a considerable range of the band’s career.
“Unholy Funeral”, which appeared on 1993’s His Majesty at the Swamp, is mid-paced and dramatic, bleak and black, a mix of transfixing riffs, desolate lead guitar melody, and huge, bereft bass notes. That’s followed by “Cassiopeia’s Ode” from the 1995 album Walpurgisnacht. Launched by slow, somber guitar melody and ambient keyboards, it soon begins to burn with intensity as the band loose a fusillade of compulsive, rapid-fire riffs and darting arpeggios. The drumming eventually goes completely off the hook, as the drummer mixes super-fast blast-beats and equally accelerated tumbling.
We’re then led back a few steps in time with “The Descent Of A Prophetic Vision” from 1991’s One Step Beyond Dreams. The song moves back and forth between bursts of fast, jabbing riffs accompanied by gut-shot drumming and mid-paced melodic segments pierced by slithering/darting lead guitar notes. The song repeatedly builds to ravenous, savage crescendos that ratchet the tension, and it further includes a couple of rare, spitfire guitar solos.
The last of the live tracks is the immense “Kabalistic Invocation Of Solomon” from Untrodden Corridors of Hades. It’s a long, dynamic song that begins with medieval choral chanting and a huge tribal drum rhythm, establishing almost immediately an aura that’s solemn, ritualistic, and ominous. When the lead guitar comes in with an exotic melody, the music begins to spawn imaginings of the slow uncoiling of a great dragon, powerful yet hypnotic. But as dark and doomed as the music is, it also burns with zealous devotion; true to its title, it has the air of an invocation to dark powers, made all the more credible by Necroabyssious’ strangled shrieks and tyrannical proclamations.
As good as the live tracks are, the three new songs are even more interesting, as they reflect the band’s continuing creative growth and the incorporation of even more diverse musical elements. And they’re produced in a way that magnifies the innate power of the music, with the kind of clarity that makes listening to them a genuinely immersive experience and enhances the dark aura of sinister majesty that shrouds this album from start to finish.
The mid-paced title track begins with a low droning sound and the picking of a guitar, and then the band gradually add musical layers while continuing to elaborate on the song’s dark, sweeping melody, making it even more exotic and entrancing (and somehow it really is entrancing, despite — or maybe because of — the presence of Necroabyssious’ truly monstrous growls).
“Sinister Recollections”, the one song from the album that has premiered so far, is a long, intricate, dynamic work. It moves from the dramatic, epic aura of an introductory section dominated by huge, pounding drums and bleak, heavy chords to an electrifying flurry of hard-punching riffs and rippling melody, to a conflagration of sweeping tremolo chords and blasting/somersaulting drums. It’s a genuinely compelling song that burns with intensity and passion.
At nearly eight minutes in length, “Utter Blackness” is another dynamic song that incorporates fast, jolting riffs and potent drum rhythms, sweepingly epic melody and serpentine guitar excursions, mammoth groaning chords and martial snare patterns. A stately march comes in the middle, and a blaze of infernal intensity comes at the end, with the vocals reaching hair-raising heights of rage and agony.
Far from a “placeholder” between full-length releases, The Confessional of the Black Penitents is a fresh testament to the power and vitality of a long-running band who are still progressing, and in whom the black flame burns as vibrantly as it ever has. Highly recommended.
The EP will be released by Agonia Records on October 23. Here’s the complete track list:
01. The Confessional Of The Black Penitents
02. Sinister Recollections
03. Utter Blackness
04. Unholy Funeral*
05. Cassiopeia’s Ode*
06. Descent Of A Prophetic Vision*
07. Kabalistic Invocation Of Solomon*
The front cover artwork and layout include paintings by Carlos Schwabe (July 21, 1866 – 22 January, 1926), a Swiss Symbolist painter and printmaker. The record in physical form is available for pre-order here, or digitally on Bandcamp here.