I could have sworn that I'd heard Varathron before, but as soon as Stefan Necroabyssious's vocals hit me on Hegemony of Chaos, the opening track proper, I realised that I haven't. They're a Greek band who helped to pioneer black metal in Greece, alongside Necromantia and Rotting Christ, in the early nineties. They were formed as far back as 1988 with their 1993 debut, His Majesty at the Swamp, credited to three musicians and a drum machine. They've bulked up over the years to be a five piece here, with Achilleas C sounding like more because of his keyboards, but this is only their seventh studio album. They're not exactly prolific.
Their particular brand of black metal is symphonic to my ears, though the album starts out with a vibrant intro with choirs, bagpipes and drums, as if Carl Orff was writing Viking metal. It suggests that this will be folk metal rather than black metal—and there are certainly folk elements spicing up the mix at points throughout—but Hegemony of Chaos kicks right into speedy black metal with a roar, initially sounding like the traditional wall of sound black metal style.
However, it does a lot more than that and, in doing so, points at where this album goes. One note is that, while it starts out fast and traditional, Stefan doesn't deliver in the typical shrieks. He has a notably theatrical voice that's rough more than it's harsh and projects more than it shouts, and doesn't really have an easy comparison. While it seemed out of place when I first heard it, I found that I adjusted almost immediately. It's a memorable voice, sinister rather than evil, and I like it a lot.
Another is that, while Hegemony of Chaos starts out fast and traditional, it doesn't stay that way. On this one, the verses are fast but the chorus slows down and adds orchestral swells to make the backdrop seem epic. There's a firm melody overlaid too that takes over, as the song slows down to highlight different aspects of the band's sound and the instrumental sections are slower again. It gets folky halfway through, with an ethnic lute of some description leading the midsection with a repeated rhythmic theme as its backdrop that continues until the end of the song.
So Hegemony of Chaos often slows down, Crypts in the Mist rarely speeds up and, the further I got into the album, the more I realised that there really isn't a lot of fast material here. Hegemony of Chaos, Immortalis Regnum Diaboli and Shrouds of the Miasmic Winds all have strong fast sections but there's also plenty on each of those songs that's much slower. I found myself thinking of how a lot of thrash bands have fallen into playing at two speeds, blisterers going fast and chuggers going mid-pace, with how often any particular band shifts between them an easy means of determining their audience.
In those terms, Varathron seem like a mid-pace black metal band nowadays, even if they ramp up occasionally to frenetic, that's where their elegance is and that's what makes them symphonic to me. This is a set of carefully composed tracks that use black metal components to tell stories and evoke moods. There's as much Iron Maiden on show here as there is Emperor, but the sonic toolkit is far more reminiscent of the latter, so that's where it falls. Stefan's voice is worth bringing up in this context too, because his theatrical approach would often work as well in other forms of metal as this particular one, which tends to be labelled extreme.
The guitars from Achilleas and Sotiris often follow suit, reminding as much of heavy metal bands as anything extreme. Check out how Crypts in the Mist ends and how Cimmerian Priesthood kicks off in its wake. This is heavy metal guitarwork, even if the tone is straight out of black metal. Outside of the few blistering sections, it's often only a fast beat from Haris that really keeps the extreme tag valid. If he slowed down and ditched his double bass work, then this might still remind of black metal but wouldn't play as extreme at all, more prog or even folk metal. To the Gods of Yore hints at doom metal.
And I have to come back to that folk metal aspect. It's not everywhere here, though it shows up on enough occasions to be notable. I don't know what instruments are being used, because I don't see any credits for them, but they're clearly ethnic and they add an extra flavour to this music when a song decides to let them in. Hegemony of Chaos is the first, but To the Gods of Yore goes there too and there's plenty more in Swamp King. I liked this aspect a lot and wish it had been utilised more often. It makes me wonder how Varathron arrived at this sound and how their next album will turn out, though it would be surprising if we see that any time soon.