Vargrav – Reign in Supreme Darkness (Werewolf Records, 2019)

Article by Belisario

Among the latest newcomers of note to the realms of underground metal we find Vargrav, a Finnish one-man-band with a debut album released in 2018 and a sophomore effort published just a few months ago. Under the title Reign in Supreme Darkness, this latest album has stirred some attention not only on account of the material itself but also owing to its recent live debut as part of the notorious SteelFest festival which takes place in Hyvinkää, the very city Vargrav hails from.

This second studio foray shows a huge improvement over the first attempt, since it achieves a more defined and cohesive version of the symphonic black metal formula outlined in its first recording from last year, Netherstorm. The band’s style draws clearly on the most relevant references that characterize the symphonic variety, mainly Emperor but also Kataxu, and although it still remains pretty close to its influences, it also displays a considerable degree of skill and creative force in stringing together its compositions, which to a large extent make up for its manifest lack of originality, ultimately offering a rather gratifying listen.

Since the intro, very similar to the one on Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, and the first minutes that follow it is made perfectly clear that Emperor’s music pervades Vargrav at all levels, as the band carefully apes the formula of the Norwegians’ earlier and superior era: incisive guitars that lead forward, keyboards constantly jumping over and a varied and imaginative percussion, among other remarkable assets.

In the best black metal tradition, guitars and keyboards are structured as overlapping layers that complement each other avoiding loose ends, with a hoarse shriek overflying the whole as well as short and occasional recitations in the style of Summoning, which disorient at first but are fortunately not out of tune since they never take an excessively prominent role.

Similarities to Emperor reach at times almost unbearable heights, although in general this flaw tends to be compensated by means of diverse well-solved additions that bring in some more personality, such as the feigned closings at the end of each album side (tracks 4 and 8 on the CD), after which the main theme of the song comes back vigorously in a tactic that yields a fantastic effect.

The main virtue of this music is that, in spite of displaying huge amounts of hyper melodic keyboards, it never eschews a steady guitar-based anchoring, which drives it away from the most shameful excesses of what is commonly known as symphonic metal. Instead of presenting catchy melodies repeating themselves time and time again, the keyboards are generally used as dynamic backings, nuancing of the guitar riffs or isolated saturations that generate a pretty ethereal atmosphere, a resource masterfully utilized by Kataxu and whose effectiveness is almost paralleled here.

All this grandiloquence makes sense, since the suggested topic is a romantic exaltation of the night and a sublime reverence of darkness, both aspects being clearly delivered without a need to check the lyrics. Songs are solid and centered, they know where they want to go and do not mess around, which results in a fluid yet compact album that holds well repeated listens.

It is very difficult to talk about originality in an album with the aforementioned features, yet the truth is that there is some undeniable merit here, considering that the symphonic black metal subgenre is something very difficult to cultivate in order to achieve an end result that does not become an awful hodgepodge (such as Dimmu Borgir or Old Man’s Child) or something which, while not inherently lame, gets inevitably damaged by its own excessive nature (like Tartaros or Obtained Enslavement).

The problem with this substyle is that more often than not the keyboards tend to assume all prominence, casting guitars aside, which on the one hand decreases the level of aggression and blurs the global frame, and on the other reduces the music to an endless repetition of melodies which are pretty similar to each other and end up sounding like a videogame soundtrack, vaguely attractive yet utterly subsidiary. In Vargrav’s music, the guitars are always in place and carry the weight of the compositions, ensuring its solidity and relevance.

The success this album has gathered among underground milieus somehow proves that this hyperactive lad from Hyvinkää, involved in a long list of bands, has truly struck a chord with this project. In contrast to the relative shyness and hesitancy that characterize its predecessor, Reign in Supreme Darkness is no mere exercise in style, it is instead a well-crafted record which is highly enjoyable and does not contain fillers. Nonetheless, for Vargrav to stop being a menial entity, content with imitating glorious echoes from the past, it will have to conclude the process of assimilating its influences in order to finally develop a voice of its own.

The album cover, which unmistakably mirrors the one on In the Nightside Eclipse, is a good visual metaphor of how a band, no matter how good it is, will not reach its mature state until it decides to develop its own style rather than restricting itself to worshipping the work of others. Vargrav is a skillful band that well deserves a few listens, but it is still lacking a big leap forward if it wants to become a truly outstanding and essential act.

Review originally written in Spanish: Vargrav – Reign in Supreme Darkness (2019)

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12 thoughts on “Vargrav – Reign in Supreme Darkness (Werewolf Records, 2019)”

  1. Flying Kites says:

    Vargrav, was it a cat I saw? Vargrav?

  2. Anonymoose says:

    Just curious, what’s DMU’s collective take on Metalcore, particularly the kind that emerged in the mid ’90s when bands were more influenced by Thrash and Groove Metal as opposed to Gothenburg Melodeath or Post-Hardcore? Some of those bands are knuckleheaded especially if they’re influenced by Beatdown Hardcore, but I’m much more in favor of the earlier style than the latter particularly because those bands sound as much like Metal as they do like Hardcore. God knows why so many musicians wanted to emulate “Slaughter of the Soul” by At the Gates, but a new wave of Metalcore acts are rediscovering their roots in Hardcore, so hopefully, they’ll produce music more in line with New York and less in line with Gothenburg.

    Good new bands to check out: Terror, Selective Aggression

    Personal favorite Metalcore acts: Rorschach, Merauder, Ringworm, All Out War, Conviction, Integrity, Earth Crisis, Stigmata, (early) Overcast

    1. metal is symbolism not romanticism says:

      While it is probably always better to judge music based on what the artist creates within the bounds of the genre, rather than by the merits of the genre itself, metalcore is one of those that that essentialism approach can’t be applied obliquely due to its nature as a fusion of existing genres. Further it isn’t only a fusion but a dilution, since there aren’t any metalcore bands that take the genre at least to the level of hardcore or metal, let alone above or beyond.

      That is not a hill I would die on, however. If there is a metalcore album as good as the best hardcore or metal I would be interested to hear. I think none of those you mentioned have ever gotten there though, despite their enjoyability and even relevance among music movements at large.

      Rorschach is cool and gets brought up a lot but that’s the first mention I’ve seen of Overcast in a long time, so thanks for the reminder. Other honorable mentions would be Deadguy and 7 Angels 7 Plagues. The movement definitely fell off when everyone started to play more like Botch than Earth Crisis.

      1. Cynical says:

        The problem with the concept of “good metalcore” is that we just call it “crossover thrash” and move on.

        1. metal is symbolism not romanticism says:

          They are two distinct genres though. Rorschach and Earth Crisis don’t play like SoD or DRI. The latter are more firmly in the hardcore punk camp. Something like a fusion of Minor Threat and Metallica styles, though that’s a simplification of course. Agnostic Front with intensity on 11. The former are more like a fusion of Human Remains and Exodus styles. In fact a better name for metalcore would be groovegrind, haha.

          It’s not really a stretch to call Deadguy and Overcast good metalcore. As I said earlier though the genre itself confines expression in such a way that even good metalcore is not as good as any of the best metal and hardcore bands. Anyway they are definitely not crossover (or thrashcore to use the non-DMU-canonical term.)

          1. Anonymoose says:

            Pardon me for getting pedantic, but I treat “Thrashcore” and “Crossover Thrash” as entirely different genres.

            Thrashcore consists of bands like Siege, Charles Bronson, Dropdead, (very early) Cryptic Slaughter, (very early) DRI, (early) S.O.B., et cetera. Thrashcore is the predecessor to both Grindcore and Powerviolence, but Thrashcore lacks the necessary Metal or Noise Rock influences the successors respectively possess. In sum, Thrashcore is Hardcore Punk played much faster, more aggressively and intermittently set to blastbeats.

            Most people already know this, but while we’re on the subject, Crossover Thrash was the result of Hardcore Punk bands taking cues from Thrash Metal. Stuff like later Cro-Mags, Carnivore, Leeway or even Beowülf are leagues different from Siege or Dropdead.

            1. metal is symbolism not romanticism says:

              I see and don’t totally disagree. But I would actually rather put bands like Dropdead and Charles Bronson* (and don’t forget Spazz) under the powerviolence genre because they do have a borderline grind and noise sound what with the dissonance and blasts being so much more prevalent (with Siege bringing the techniques to the table which would become the foundation of pv) and also because those bands appeared a decade or more after thrashcore had run its course in the ’80s with Cryptic Slaughter and DRI (and don’t forget Deep Wound and Koro.)

              So you could throw them all under the crossover thrash label but it makes sense to separate the earlier Agnostic Front/Cro Mags influenced bands into one genre and call the later ones under a different name. So thrashcore would be the early groups without metal influence, crossover would be the thrashcore bands with metallic elements, and powerviolence would be the late model thrashcore bands with grind and noise influence.

  3. I wanted to like this album, but worship bands never reach the heights of the bands they wish to emulate.

  4. retard jesus says:

    HEY NICK you might want to check out a new album by SEWER — KHRANIAL. It’s brutal blackened death metal, and not the knuckledragging nu-slam or “symphonic” midi faggotry shit, no fucking way, it’s legimitate hostile relentless infernal cuntshredding, dare I say even better than the last PHANTOM release!

    Not even going out on a limb to say Sewer’s last three albums (including Khranial, Locked Up In Hell, and Birth of a Cursed Elysium) achieve heights that no other death or black metal band has hit since 1996

    1. True Heavy Metal is Romanticism, Death Metal is Nihilism, Black Metal is Simultaneously Both Neither and More says:

      are you personally associated with “The Satan Records” or something?

      1. retard jesus says:

        yeah I’m personally associated with TSR insofar as I connect with the ideas present in their music despite having never been in contact with any of their band members or whoever else works at the label

        now if I were professionally associated (ie received compensation for advertising) would I be so carelessly transparent about promoting the bands? and if I were would I openly admit it? and if I did would you even believe me? do you even believe me now? what would even change if I were? choose your own adventure, it’s still all in the same book hombre

        and death metal isn’t nihilism it’s decadence. nihilism isn’t even real dude. there are no nihilists making metal, they’re raping little kids and shooting up restaurants or playing fortnight and listening to djent or doing trendy psychedelics and painting stuff that makes Pollock look like Michaelangelo. modern music is just an echo of art movements that have already been done to death and nihilists never produced any art worth a hoot

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