When considering my favorite metal releases of all time I have immediate and strong opinions about my picks for most sub-genres, as I gravitate toward ‘perfect’ records that I made immediate and unholy connections with. With the exception of doom metal, black metal is perhaps the quickest answer I can give for my favorite sub-genre specific recording. Without a doubt no black metal album has held my pure, unwavering adoration more than the second full-length from cult Greek black metal stalwarts Varathron. While I would happily concede that several of the best Varathron songs are found on their debut ‘His Majesty at the Swamp’ and that their demo ‘Genesis of Apocryphal Desire’ is equally stunning, ‘Walpurgisnacht’ is Varathron‘s most complete vision and a standard bearer for the Greek black metal sound that remains unchallenged to this day outside of a few brilliant Kawir records.
Because much of ‘His Majesty at the Swamp’ was a collaboration between Varathron founder Stefan Necroabyssious and Archon Vorskaath aka Dimitrios Dorian (Zemial) the sound and style of that first record wouldn’t carry into ‘Walpurgisgnacht’ as much as Voskaath’s Agatus. Instead Necroabyssious was joined by guitarist Pyrphoros as the two had collaborated on Kawir‘s debut EP ‘Eumenides’ in 1994. Many of the Greek bands of the era were collaborative and birthed from early Varathron, Rotting Christ and Nocturnal Death line-ups with several of the resulting collaborations and their own offshoots still active today. ‘Walpurgistnacht’, without any information otherwise, feels almost solely written by the pair of Necroabyssious and Pyrphoros and as a result it has the sharpest focus and arguably most distinct and tasteful take on the ‘greek black metal’ style and sound.
Varathron‘s slow, methodical pace with an emphasis on minimal keyboards creates a Root-esque first wave black metal feeling that swerves into classic doom and heavy metal territory as much as it seeks the more melodic, focused vision of Rotting Christ‘s ‘Non Serviam’. Elements of black metal, death metal, doom and a subtle mystic atmosphere give the tracklist a superior set of dynamics to work with that set it apart from full-lengths by Nergal and Agatus at the time, both of which focused on the emerging popularity of symphonic elements. Though I would say if you want more melody and speed grab ‘Non Serviam’ and if you want more melodic/pagan black influence get Agatus‘ ‘Dawn of Martyrdom’ as well.
Pyrphoros’ melodic black metal guitar work is immediately related to ‘His Majesty at the Swamp’ era Varathron but entirely different in approach with the line-up (and drum machine) now more mature and capable of playing in time. His slow motion epic heavy metal riffing is circular in it’s motion and thematically referential throughout the release making it’s entirety memorable in it’s organic, serpentine regalia. The almost plucked, echoing tone of the bass on the introduction to “Cassiopeia’s Ode” is a moment I’ve found myself almost preciously attached to over the years. I think because it makes such a grand statement right at the point of the album’s greatest impact with an eight minute epic song that shows Varathron‘s doom riffing, black blasting, and melodic intent alongside careful use of keyboards throughout. It is the song that pulls me back into ‘Walpurgisnacht’ for another full-listen almost compulsively. When that bass tone returns to “Under the Sight of Horus” I’m drawn even deeper into the record as the song is structured after ‘Her Majesty at the Swamp’ riff style with an almost heavy metal/hard rock beat slipping in underneath.
Because George Zacharopoulos (Necromantia, Thou Art Lord) likely enforced some restraint and point of view when producing this record, it’s gothic metal elements are so limited they only enhance it’s lasting atmospheric appeal across several decades. Yet it is the influential guitar work that survives most readily in modern extreme metal. Echoes of Varathron‘s melodic legacy can be felt within ambitious black metal projects like Spectral Lore and Cult of Eibon as well as death metal bands like Sacriphyx and Vassafor. Of course the band continues to this day and I don’t intend to discount the music they made after this. If you like this style then I’d suggest tracking down the reissues of the ‘Sarmutius Pegorus’ demo from 1997 as it features the same line-up with the exception of a new keyboardist who would be prominently featured on their 1998 EP ‘The Lament of Gods’ as well as their third album ‘Crowsreign’. I’m not a huge fan of the symphonic experiments that came from that decade of the band’s history but the ‘Sarmutius Pegorus’ demo is generally fantastic because it features Pyrphoros’ intricate guitar work before he left the project.
Very few black metal bands out of it’s second wave hit anywhere near the ballpark of the epic heavy/doom metal and gothic metal influences that made ‘Walpurgisnacht’ special back in 1995 and I’d suggest that it will continue to be a unique statement within black metal beyond these last 23 years. Thankfully this album received solid reissuing for it’s 20 year anniversary. I am not sure if it was ever remastered, I don’t think it’d help to iron out it’s warm analog charm and classic drum machine all things considered. It is my personal favorite black metal related album and highly recommended if you’re a fan of the sub-genre’s ability to bend and flex in unexpected ways.
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Emperor of forgotten souls. 5.0/5.0
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