Style: Heavy Metal
Release Date: 8 Mar 2019
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I've talked up a few bands lately like Mystik who unashamedly sound as if a time machine had shown up out of nowhere and transported them forward from the mid- to late-eighties to now. Varkan are another and they're from right here in Phoenix. This, their debut album, came out back in March but I'm on it now because they're opening up for Holy Grail at Club Red on Friday night and I hope to be there. No, I'm not going to Wacken, I'm going to see Varkan.
Like Blackstone Puppets, they sound like the sort of session band I heard a lot on the Friday Rock Show back in the eighties, albeit in a different way. Rather than demonstrating their versatility by playing different styles in their twenty minutes of airtime, Varkan are confident enough in what they do that they can just stick to their style of choice and trust in their talent. The complex constructions of songs like The Revenge of the Black Queen are reminiscent of those from session bands that vanished after maybe one album but who crop up thirty years on in Facebook threads as favourites of fans who wished they'd stayed together and done more.
Let's hope that Varkan stay together and do more because there's enough on this album to warrant it. They're a heavy metal band with a taste for that old NWOBHM style and occasionally what came before, but who also like speed and aren't averse to ramping up the tempo once in a while. Iron Maiden are the most obvious influence, but Nocturnal Pollutions starts out like Judas Priest and there are less well known bands in here too, like Toranaga and Elixir and late eighties Cloven Hoof. They're led as much by the melodic guitars of Dominic Scarano and Alec Damiano as the powerful vocals of the latter, which tend to be buried a bit too far into the mix.
The early songs are decent on all counts, but they don't shine as brightly as later ones. Divided States and Shadow Self feature worthy melodies, nice guitars, whether soloing or supporting, and very lively drums from Michael Rodriguez. Eclipse of My Soul is a weaker song but it sparks up halfway and demonstrates how strong this band is instrumentally with a fast section in the middle. Rats from a Sinking Ship does something similar, but it's also better throughout, with memorable riffs and melodic lines, plus good vocals from Damiano. She's as much Messiah Marcolin as Bruce Dickinson at points.
To my mind, this is where the album kicks into high gear and it stays there for a few tracks. The strongest tracks may well be the four in the middle, even if Nocturnal Pollutions sounds like it was recorded in only one take and could have done with some of the guitars redone. I really like the way that the chorus loops. The Revenge of the Black Queen is the longest song on the album and it may well be the best, with emphatic delivery from Damiano, a gloriously chugging midsection and intriguing drumming from Rodriguez, as he seems to be playing two kits at once. The Wound Never Heals wraps up the quartet of highlights with style, the other contender for best track here and certainly my current favourite.
That doesn't mean that Varkan are done. The patient build of Born on Samhain with a simple but very effective riff, bouncy drums and a keyboard layer, is still to come. So is a new version of Filthy Human Race, which constituted their 2016 demo. There's even a neat little piano outro to nudge up to the three quarters of an hour mark.
I liked this a lot and it got better on a second listen too. The most overt downside is the production. The vocals are far too buried, with the backing vocals bizarrely louder, and the drums are sometimes distorted, such as on The Revenge of the Black Queen. A couple of songs could have been tightened up a little too, like Eclipse of My Soul.
Never mind the perceived lesser stature of the opening slot on Friday, I'm going to see Varkan as much as anyone else on that bill!