Vargrav – Reign in Supreme Darkness (2019) REVIEW

Though it can be difficult to see a past behind the padded, spiked and smeared Wagner name-dropping shoulders of pompous desperation that ‘symphonic’ black metal brought the world over beyond 1998, there exists a wealth of experimental production and atmospheric artistry that’d arisen amidst the fiercest competition in the early 90’s. Former death metal musicians would scramble toward keyboards and drum machines as the second wave of black metal took Scandinavian teenagers out of their parents garage and into their makeshift bedroom studios. Some truly fantastic and well-known art came from these groups but it was the league that they’d inspire that might’ve left the most redeeming sonic experiments buried in the past. From the crypts we’d eventually see the bodies of Obtained Enslavement, Parnassus (Octinomos too, for that matter) and even Tartaros‘ demo hurled into the snow and preserved lightly but, today it is a fearful and carefully tread path back to the age of synth, keyboard, and the darkest corners of Tolkien lore. The wolfen spiritus of Vargrav is fearless in its existence, a roaming spellsword peddling exacting justice and cruel misanthropy where he’d see fit by name of V.Khaoz, VRTX, or in the late 90’s Kalma when he’d been a drummer for Azaghal and Hin Onde. Today and since 2015 he ensorceles ancient and truly grand ‘symphonic’ black metal art from Hyvinkää, Finland again channeling his second storm of Emperor and Abigor influenced darkness to its next logical peak.

If you’d already heard ‘Netherstorm’ (2018) and loved it, congratulations in receiving a follow-up that’ll be exactly to your liking just over one year later. Because he has lead with the Howard Shore-esque intro of “Intro-Et In Profundis Mysteriis” paired with a very “Into the Infinity of Thoughts”-esque blast of “The Glory of Eternal Night” you will immediately and undoubtedly feel the re-ignition of ‘In the Nightside Eclipse’. This time the resemblance and balancing of layers is uncannily close, as if to directly taunt this comparison. For the lasting early Emperor fan this is a glorious entrance and I’m easily counted among that group of nostalgic idiocy. Though I’d pointed heavily towards Limbonic Art in dissecting ‘Netherstorm’ the year prior today I’d point in a few more specific directions as I’ve had more time to consider and peruse some of my old favorites that might apply today. The first comes from Vargrav‘s own less specific suggestions of both Abigor and Obtained Enslavement, but since I’m quite close to these discographies I’d additionally point towards the chaotic atmosphere of ‘Verwustung / Invoke The Dark Age’ era Abigor before he’d taken a slight dip towards Dissection style guitar work and then “Witchcraft” era Obtained Enslavement after they’d cast off the death metal and raw black metal slop of their demo quality debut. From there and by my own will I’d land upon what I think is the most direct atmospheric comparisons that lie in Parnassus‘ (old Octinomos adjacent project) first two albums, particularly ‘In Doloriam Gloria’ but also the 1997 record. Each has a thick and noisome layer of hyper-violent guitar work and atmospheric keyboards lain atop a driven pace. You’d have to look towards Norwegian greats for the drum performances in the case of Vargrav but I believe this still fits.

Valuation of a record that is ingenious in its sound design and mildly nostalgic resemblance can be difficult when speaking to a crowd because its appeal is potentially personal and not entirely deep if you’ve been merely ‘sold’ by its sound. In this sense I’d value Vargrav‘s output an inch above that of groups like Allegiance or Evilfeast in terms of professionalism, production, consistency and beautifully curated art but perhaps not above a group like Valdrin in terms of concept and outward-facing creativity. This boils down to guitar work after many listens and I’d ultimately taken many detours back to the symphonic excess of Scandinavian classics only to realize this application might’ve been comparatively stricken with a bout of sameness from one song to another. Even with well over ten listens what distinction came would stick in my mind as keyboard work first and foremost. As a devout fan of melodic black metal everything Vargrav does with his guitar beneath those thickly layered keys is appropriate and decidedly sharp but little of it shone through brightly beyond some Ancient-esque runs on “Godless Pandemonium”. I’m probably less of an Emperor fan than many so you can excuse my own bad taste if you’re so inclined, but I’m probably more of a mark for a band like Faustian Pact, who’ve recruited V-KhaoZ on keyboards for their upcoming full-length soon enough; Set side-by-side I think the differences and similarities will speak for themselves in terms of production and tone, both are fantastic and not just cheaply retro.

Because ‘Reign in Supreme Darkness’ could be considered iteration rather than a primary revision of ethos it’ll naturally appear as more of what Vargrav had brought on ‘Netherstorm’. So, the main recommendation goes to folks who’d had their mind set upon something completely different. Looking beyond expectations this second Vargrav album is among the very best in its league today, outdoing the less authentic realities of many bands that have stuck around since the mid-to-late 90’s. There isn’t a massive, mind-shattering movement within ‘Reign in Supreme Darkness’ but a cloud of glorious frozen time that ices and terrorizes the listener as if they’d been pulled back into 1994. Without that experience to guide its value you’re still provided a sharply realized atmospherically minded symphonic black metal album. Moderately high recommendation. For preview I’d recommend the songs that stood out the most after I’d known the landscape long enough, “Crowned by Demonstorms” has an impressive change around the mid-point and “The Glory of Eternal Night” is easily the most memorable piece on the album with or without the gloss of nostalgia applied.

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Artist Vargrav
Type Album
Released April 26, 2019
BUY & LISTEN on Werewolf/Hell’s Headbangers Records’ Bandcamp! Follow Vargrav on Facebook
Genre Symphonic Black Metal,
Atmospheric Black Metal

Cloaked by the stars themselves. 3.75/5.0

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