Music comes first. No matter how good your online presence is, your music must be written with passion. And playing your music with passion to an audience, will not only get you better on stage, but will grant you endlessly.
Review, photography, and interview by J. Donovan Malley
Review of Varathron’s “Incursion of Chaos in America” tour stop in Portland, OR…
Fans of black metal from across the Pacific Northwest descended upon Star Theater in Portland, Oregon in late July to witness the return of Greece’s Varathron to the United States. One of the pioneering bands of hellenic black metal, Varathron had not been to the United States since 2018 and never to the Pacific Northwest. As one of only 5 dates on this tour, the night promised to be a memorable event for all involved.
The mood of the evening was set by promoter Dennis Dread’s excellent extreme metal djing. Dennis and his partner Tiffany Kenaley run Wyrd War, a Pacific Northwest art gallery, record label, film series, and production company. They were both instrumental in pulling this night off, working as the show’s promoters, coordinators, drivers, and bookers of the local opener: Hulder.
Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, Hulder has a very loyal and dedicated fan base willing to travel hours for every performance. This night was no exception, as the venue reached near maximum capacity as the haunting sounds of ‘Cursed from Beyond’ signalled the band’s entrance. The band proceeded to rip through 8 of their songs, highlighted by the masterful performance of one of Hulder’s first songs, released on the now famous Ascending the Raven Stone demo: ‘Bestial Form of Humanity’.
One of the founders of the “hellenic black metal” sound (along with bands such as Rotting Christ and Necromantia), Varathron has developed a cult following throughout the world during its over 30-year career. The evening’s set covered primarily the band’s first full-length (and in many ways seminal) release His Majesty at the Swamp (1993) with a nod to Walpirgisnacht (1995), and the band’s most recent full-length album Patriarchs of Evil (one of my favourite black metal releases of 2018). Hearing second-wave black metal masterpieces such as ‘Unholy Funeral’, ‘Nightly Kingdoms’, and ‘Flowers of My Youth’ live was mesmerising. All of the drums on Varathron’s early material were programmed on drum machines (often referred to in liner notes as a band member named “Wolfen”). It was wonderful hearing all of these classics performed with the incredible live drumming skills of Haris Kokkinos. The guitar roles were handled skillfully by the dual attack of Sotris Kokkinos and Achilleas Kalantzis. Even more impressive was the bass playing of Stratos Kountouras, who took a number of the earlier songs to an even more intense place with his playing. Of special note was the inclusion of a new Varathron song, entitled ‘Crypts in the Mist’.
But let’s be honest; to see Varathron is to get a chance to witness the timeless intensity of its core member: Stefan Necroabyssious. From the moment he took the stage, opening with ‘Ouroboros Dweller’, Stefan stalked around with a seriousness that was almost foreboding. He was clearly at the top of his game. Of particular note was his incredibly powerful performance on the epic song ‘Cassiopeia’s Ode’, which was jaw-dropping. While the solemn intensity of the night (referred to as a “Necromantic Ceremony”) was maintained throughout the set, it was also clear that Stefan was thoroughly enjoying the experience. The band closed out with monumental performances of two of their earliest demo tracks from 1989/1990: ‘Le Reine Noir’ and ‘Genesis of Apocryphal Desire’. By that time, Stefan’s trademark scowl was giving way to a smile and an almost playful interaction began between the band members. As the band left the stage with the track ‘Sic Transit Gloria Mundi’ acting as an outro, it was clear the evening was the kind of historic performance that would be remembered by all in attendance for quite some time.
After their set, I was able to talk with two members of Varathron and ask several questions, the highlights of which are found below…
E&D: Is there a plan for a future full-length release from the band?
Stratos: Yes, it is about time. The new album is ready and delivered to Agonia Records. I believe that The Crimson Temple [the forthcoming album’s title] is one of our most complete works so far. From the music to the artwork, the layout, and the general aesthetics of the album we have taken care of every small detail. Our fans cannot expect anything less than another album full of passion and rage! Once again, this album has a strong reference to our previous works interconnecting the past to the present. I cannot say much more, I guess you will hear it soon. In fact, those who have been present at the shows of this U.S. tour got a small taste of it. For these shows, we decided to exclusively perform ‘Crypts in the Mist’, a song I define as an adrenaline shot of all Varathron classic elements.
E&S: Not many bands can survive as long as Varathron has. What factors account for your ability to keep producing such incredible black metal over the decades?
Achilleas: From 1988 to 2003 Stefan kept the band alive and active through the most difficult circumstances. Obligatory army service, long distances, financial difficulties, and of course many unfaithful and undedicated members that didn’t share Stefan’s vision. He is a total maniac, and his remarkable passion has been a total inspiration for us. Since 2004 and after our last lineup change in 2011 we have been finally strong like a fist thus able to focus on music, art, and supporting Stefan’s initial glorious vision.
E&D: Has your approach to songwriting changed over the years? How so?
Achilleas: In 2004 Haris and I got involved in music writing for the first time, but we were very young. Both of us were minors so it is normal that in the next albums, our writing style got more serious and mature. Later Sotiris and Stratos got into the band and also added their elements to the music. Through the years and especially since Patriarchs of Evil we decided to simplify the music but focus on great instrumentations. We also try to progress while preserving the best elements from our long past. Finally, we realised that it is important to compose music for Stefan’s unique voice and not try to force Stefan’s style into the music. That was a mistake we made a few times in the past.
E&D: Who were the first artists or musicians that you connected with as a kid?
Achilleas: I think the first heavy bands I listened to as a child were Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. After that, Iron Maiden and Metallica were the bands that inspired me to get into metal for life! I think the first ever band I listened to with growls was actually Amorphis. It was ‘Tales from the Thousand Lakes’ on the radio, and it was the first time ever to listen to something with such extreme vocals. I was 12 years old, and it was breathtaking. The abysmal voice, the melodies, the heaviness, the atmosphere! After that, I started listening to anything extreme and discovered hundreds of amazing bands. At the age of 16, I was already a member of Varathron!
Stratos: I was always a big fan of metal music since my childhood. As a kid living in the 90s, I loved that classic Peaceville Records sound of that era. I am still nostalgic when I hear stuff that takes me back to these times. Of course, I do adore all the legendary bands which need no introduction. They reached the top for a good reason. When it comes to black metal, it came a few years later mostly with bands from the second wave. Then I dug to seek more from the past. Nowadays, I am extremely busy with work and bands, but I do listen to music on a regular basis mostly proposed by friends, since I cannot follow all this massive amount of information released at high speeds.
E&D: What first appealed to you about black metal?
Achilleas: As a young child I felt different than most of the children my age. I was inspired by cinema, comics, and paintings that were obscure, bizarre, or epic. My older sister had many friends that were listening to metal so I found a way to discover extreme music. As soon as I discovered black metal I was captivated. The obsession with darkness, the dramatic approach, and the eerie sounds felt like a warm spiritual charm to me. Also, as a teenager I felt like going against everybody and extreme music was my ally!
E&D: What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome as a band?
Stratos: Undeniably it was the assembling of a steady and strong line-up. Varathron has experienced numerous member changes since its existence. After Stefan’s return to his hometown Ioannina that burden started to lighten. I was the last addition to the band in 2011. Today, even though some of us are living in different cities, we have managed to turn this into an advantage by doing most if not all the preparation at home.
E&D: What is your favourite part of being on tour? What is your least favourite part?
Stratos: For the past years I have been managing the band when it comes to shows and tours. It’s not an easy task to organise everything so it runs smoothly for all parties. When it comes to touring America or Asia for example it gets quite chaotic due to the significant time difference. Waking up in the middle of the night is one of my least favorite parts even before the tour starts! Other than that, extensive traveling and lack of sleep is definitely the biggest headache for all of us. But as soon as we hit the stage all this belongs to the past. When it’s all done, seeing my bandmates satisfied is more than rewarding – and that is always my favourite part.
E&D: If you could change anything about the music industry, what would it be?
Stratos: I am not sure I would change anything, it’s a natural progression. The only thing I could say is to focus a little less on the visual aspect of things. Music comes first. No matter how good your online presence is, your music must be written with passion. And playing your music with passion to an audience, will not only get you better on stage, but will grant you endlessly. There are maybe hundreds of albums released daily but sadly most of them are very generic. Unfortunately, we all tend to listen with our eyes rather than our ears.