To truly understand the legend of The Crimson Temple, we have to go back to the beginning. Its construction began thirty-five years ago with the foundation of Varathron, who would release their debut album a few years later in 1993, Appropriately titled, His Majesty At The Swamp feels like the establishment of a crude, primitive pagan altar in the Stygian marshes, and fits nicely among early Greek black metal tomes to be shelved (in order of importance) somewhere between Rotting Christ’s Thy Mighty Contract and Necromantia’s Crossing the Fiery Path, both released in the same year. Both, but especially the former, employ those humid, damp mid tones and chunky, mid-paced “heavy lifting” riffs that feel more indebted to Under The Sign Of The Black Mark and Blood Fire Death on the Bathory spectrum, as opposed to the more frigid sound of The Return that left a more notable impression on Scandinavian black metal at the time. Gloomy sounds from the yellowed keys of a Casio keyboard are selectively employed by the bands to increase the misty haze to their respective atmospheres, rarely doing more than simply holding a few prolonged notes to accompany the melodies.
From the flames of Patriarchs emerges The Crimson Temple — a work thirty five years in the making: its walls constructed with the corpses of its sacrifices, its metallic halls adorned by craftsman of Hellenic copper, its elaborate fountains gushing with the blood and the suffering shed upon its construction. What began as a humble altar of mud and sticks has arrived at a masterwork of architecture, an exalted temple erected in those fabled Stygian marshes along the Styx.
Thanks to the immaculate production, it’s as though you can reach out and touch the mighty ionic columns of load-bearing “heavy lifting” riffs that support the dramatically symphonic touches that give the record its alluring sheen — the guitars don’t slice and dice so much as pound and hammer. Even when hitting the occasional tremolo burst of intensity (right off the bat with “Hegemony Of Chaos!”), there’s a deliberateness that compounds the impact of the strike. While the choral synth-ery and hurdy gurdy-ery lend a lot in amplifying the stunningly epic scope of the album, it is the sort of record that would still demonstrate its might without the window dressings that adorn it simply based on the strength in the guitar riffs and powerful sense of lead melody. Everything that made His Majesty At The Swamp such an endearing classic is still very much present in the bones that support the walls and the blood that flows in the fountains that adorn The Crimson Temple.
The “Ascension” intro beckons with a pagan call before “Hegemony Of Chaos” bursts forth the gates to reveal the beginnings of an album-wide invigorated performance by vocalist/founding member Stefanos Karasavvas. Draped in thirty years of commitment, Karasavvas’ passionate performance across the album is near-operatic, feeding off the drama of the music using it to satiate the hunger of his conviction as he spews sermons of darkness from upon high a pulpit of skulls. The presentation is nothing short of cinematic, particularly when the record really starts cooking around track four, “Cimmerian Priesthood.” Those tremolo waves of intensity become full of explosions, bursting like gaseous swamp air to flame. The synths twinkle in the distance like the glowing embers of St. Elmo’s Fire, beckoning a realm that Varathron fully leap into by the climax of the record’s midpoint, the unlikely and spellbinding conclusion to the otherwise Patriarchs-esque thrashing black madness on “Immortalis Regnum Diaboli.”
While hints of psychedelia have worked their way up quietly in the background, the mushrooms growing amongst the blood and moisture along the marshland floor of the Temple really take hold on the serpent-charming climaxes of “Immortalis” and “To The Gods Of Yore.” There’s a Floydian use of space between the sounds that rips the record wide open and, in addition to bringing to mind images of The Voice Of Steel wrapped up in a gyro, exposes just how large the hall Varathron have constructed in their swamp truly is. The architect analogy holds as the album progresses, each song daring for a little more–both in progressive exploration of sounds, interlocking melodies, and in riffing feats of glory. The band know their impressively high ceiling and push themselves just a little harder, delivering the extra tzatziki sauce just when things peak. This is the wisdom of wizards who know how to construct an altar around their roots and their strengths to deliver more than just an album, but an experience carefully and meticulously mapped out from beginning to end.
Perhaps one of The Crimson Temple‘s most selling elements is that no matter how lost you are in its corridors, you will always have a place to hang your jacket–this place is littered with hooks! It’s an effortlessly enjoyable listen, with the melodies just taking ahold of the ol’ ears and guiding them right through the halls and grand chambers. Songs like “Crypts In The Mist” and “Swamp King” have simple and effective choruses–so much of that heavy metal classicism still in focus. The standards of Pounding Drums, Catchy Beat, and Memorable Riff are up to their old tricks again, all stacked up together in a trenchcoat and taking control of the drivers’ seat of a copper-plated Rolls Royce. Or was it a temple in a bog analogy we were going for here? I digress.
While Varathron doesn’t boast nearly the prolific discography of their countrymen in Rotting Christ or quite the full lean into pagan dramaticisms of a band like Kawir, it’s as though they’ve taken their time in crafting their own identity in a way that feels inspired in parallel to some of the conclusions of their peers rather than in any way derivative. They’ve found a serpent of strength flexing its way through their path, and Varathon have quite wonderfully and tastefully taken to wrapping the framework of their compositions within a sonic compendium. A symphony, if you will (and you will), though to slap a label like “symphonic” in front of the black metal Varathron plays and call it a day, however, feels a discreditation. No, this is 100% Hellenic black metal and it bleeds it with every note and in every instrument and in every voice, written and played with as much pride and vigor as ever. With their latest album, Varathron prove the fire that lit the altar in the mire so many years ago not only remains well-tended, but fed and grown to increasingly glorious proportions. Gaze deep within the flames, discover the power and majesty of The Crimson Temple.