The Greeks who would become the prominent members of the Hellenic black metal scene experimented with various different sounds before reaching their final shape. Some of them started their journey playing raw, aggressive grindcore and spent years chasing a contract for their debut. Others tried out the early death metal style before taking part in one of the cornerstone splits of the country. Through experimentation and desire to find their unique approach to “evil metal”, Greeks cultivated their own sound, which resulted in what could be considered the most important wave of Hellenic black metal releases around 1992.
Greek black metal was in its prime back then with bands like Rotting Christ, Varathron, and Zemial releasing their earliest outputs in the style. This sound, for the uninitiated, can be described as the warmer equivalent of Swedish melodic black metal sound of 90s. With warm, Mediterranean touches instead of the cold, snowy, bite of the north, it was also heavily rooted in traditional and epic heavy metal. They stuck to this unique black metal sound during the rise of the Norwegian black metal scene and eventually got some worldwide recognition – they became infamous in tape trading circles. Rotting Christ went on to a tour with Blasphemy and Immortal as early as ’93 and many Greek black metal artists had their interviews published in zines in both Europe and USA. The Greeks had to overcome the weird problems of their times, like not being able to fit the drum kit in their studio or not even being able to find any single good drummer in the country who can play what they want, with small workarounds like e-kits and drum machines. Masterful key and synth touches were added on top of that evil heavy metal riffing and drum machines to round out the Hellenic black metal sound. Drawing heavy influence from historical themes, many bands from the scene started utilizing more and more folky aspects in their sound over time too.
After the essential Hellenic black metal split The Black Arts / The Everlasting Sins with fellow bass guitar enthusiasts Necromantia, came Varathron’s debut full-length His Majesty at the Swamp as well as the follow-up Walpurgisnacht, two of the most important Greek black metal releases from early 90s. Starting strong like this, they could have stuck to their formula, but just like the musical experimentations resulting in the distinct Hellenic black metal sound, keeping things stable was not on the minds of Greeks. Over time, almost all big names of the Hellenic black metal scene moved away from their original sound and went their own directions. Some of these attempts were very successful and some fell rather flat. Rotting Christ doubled up the gothic sound that began to show on their third album and entirely went in that direction; Necromantia increased the focus on orchestral parts and theatricals; Zemial/Agatus cleaned up their sound and made some extremely good attempts in progressive rock and epic heavy metal; Varathron implemented more and more atmospheric touches along with piano and acoustic passages. All of them left the initial Greek black metal style behind one way or another.
After many years of chasing different sounds, the Hellenic black metal style has been on the rise in underground circles again with new bands from Greece like Caedes Cruenta and Cult of Eibon keep the old school flame alive. More and more bands from very different corners of the world, like Sacriphyx or Putrefied Remains, are beginning to play a very Greek-influenced sound as well. In addition to all that, the old names have also been going back to their roots in some cases. Varathron would show that this was indeed their intention with some of their later albums even though the output wasn’t quite on par with the band’s earliest efforts.
With their 2018 album, Patriarchs of Evil, Varathron took the almost-30-year-old Greek black metal sound and showed how it still works in a modern setting. Not falling into the mistake of simply repeating their early 90s albums with no inspiration like many new, younger bands do; Varathron crafted an almost pure heavy metal album while still making the folky, epic, melodic characteristics of Hellenic black metal the main focus. The clean, modern production of the album does not feel out of place at any moment and it is not overdone, it emphasises the mature sound of the band rather than sounding plastic. Patriarchs of Evil has some of the smoothest lead guitar work of recent times and shows how the band still has a penchant for extremely catchy melodies and riffs. The synth touches are done tastefully and masterfully, just like how they used to be thirty years ago. The album is very much riff driven and leaves the previous atmospheric tendencies of the band behind.
The album opener “Tenebrous” begins with a riff that’s folky and triumphant enough to be on a Macabre Omen song. “Luciferian Mystical Awakening” has one of the catchiest choruses in recent black metal history. One of the moments that the album sounds pure black metal is the small riff in the mid-section of “Saturnian Sect” and it’s actually one of the best moments of the album too. The fact that they used that small melody only a few times makes it even more precious on re-listens. Acoustic passages, just like the delicious synths, are used sparingly throughout the album, with the peak moment for them being the melancholic song “Remnants of the Dark Testament”. The 8 minute-long closer, “Ouroboros Dweller”, is essentially a quick reminder and summary of everything Varathron have to offer, from the slow intro to heavy metal riffs to folky melodies to the ritualistic outro, it’s a perfect way to wrap up the album.
Overall, Patriarchs of Evil is not only a triumphant return from one of the first Hellenic black metal bands, but it’s also one of the best among their whole discography. Some Greek black metal bands get better and better over time while some stay consistent throughout their entire discography and others release a new album as good as their early classics. Patriarchs of Evil definitely places Varathron in this last group.
Album rating: 90/100
Favorite track: Saturnian Sect