The enduring brilliance of Varathron’s His Majesty at the Swamp
Had I encountered this album in the early days of my journey of metal discovery I probably would’ve dismissed it as boring. True enough, this album does get a bit samey and the production doesn’t really help things by being quite plain and unadorned. What this album does have going for it – and what certifies it a classic, is its patient and utterly logical riff writing.
Taking the tradition as laid down by Hellhammer/Celtic Frost (more on that next week), each new musical idea on this album proceeds from a blueprint motif/riff that drives the whole track and makes each change sound like a clear and meaningful development from the one that preceded it. Most of the tracks remain in the one key for more or less their entire duration, whilst introducing a sparing and arguably quite Classical (Haydn, Mozart) sense of chromaticism at specific points to colour passing harmonic regions and create the necessary dramatic arc in the track. Being largely monodic though, it skirts the line between evocative ancient-feeling, modal style melody and more Classical structure-centric writing.
For example, Son of the Moon first deviates from its blueprint Aeolian/natural minor by introducing a riff with a # 3rd, returns to the Aeolian melodic shape and then introduces a riff with a raised 4th – two very typically Classical bits of chromaticism that colour regions related by the circle of fifths (a system that explains keys relationships and how to change key coherently) yet also, in the way they are used, give the riff a folkish/modal feel. They also come at just the right moment in the track, when the initial idea has been very much established and it’s time to reveal a bit of conflict and ambiguity. True to the narrative structural approach the track has been leading us along, what follows is a riff that returns to the Aeolian basis, responding to the ‘conflict section’ and expanding the original melodic idea. A properly satisfying emotional resolution is delayed until the very end of the track, yet even then, in typically metal form, the sensation it leaves the listener with is one reminding them that the journey goes ever on – rather than offering up a neat ‘happily ever after’ cadence, the way a pop song or even a piece of Classical music would be expected to end with.
The fact that the production comes with no proverbial bells and whistles means all the more that the riffcraft is laid bare and made the main focus of the listener’s attention. Melodically a lot of the album is very simple, and it really doesn’t stretch itself in terms of speed, variety or technicality, but it does what it does very well, revealing the essentiality of metal song writing in a relatively calm and assured way.