Varaha’s Vivid Atmospherics Blossom on “Climax & Exile” + Vocalist Talks Upcoming Debut
For lovers of music, witnessing the progression of a beloved band over the years can yield both fear and joy. It's the anxious excitement that builds over time as each successive live performance demonstrates marked growth in both synchrony and sound… this excitement is what turbocharges music, especially from bands who thrive in local underground scenes but are now peeking out into the wondrous (but still terrifying) limelight beyond. The true surging feeling of fanship has little to do with popularity or "success" in any quantifiable measure, although those things certainly append artistic gains in songwriting, storytelling, and, above all things else, passion for the goddamn music. The real rewards will go to the bands who most honestly translate their hearts into mere vibrations in the air; and as far as industry advice goes overall, some of it may be useful, but there's just no replacement for tireless work, steadfast dedication, and emotional transparency when it comes to generating meaningful music for the minds of many.
That's where Chicago atmospheric metal quartet Varaha come in. I've been following these four for a number of years now. I remember their early shows, chock full of promise and gusto, a band totally in command of their sound but begging to be unleashed in a wider angle to capture so much more. Their 2016 debut Varaha EP served as a great conjoiner to the enthralling live performance, though its scope was not the narrative-length structure the band needed to thrive. Varaha struck me immediately as a group whose talents should be stretched over a feature-length journey… and next Friday, their debut full-length A Passage for Lost Years will hit shelves. This hour-long behemoth of atmospherics reaches sky-high and digs deep toward the planet's core, laced with the lushly pained vocals of frontman Fabio Brienza, and consummates indeed Varaha's position as writers of heavy and dark music, not just creators of it.
Check out an exclusive premiere of A Passage for Lost Years's third track "Climax & Exile" below. Also, I exchanged messages with Brienza who delves deep into the new album's genesis, emotional and musical inputs, and passionate core.
What story does A Passage for Lost Years tell, and what personal meaning does the album have for you overall? Also, do you have a particular favorite (or most meaningful for you personally) song on the album?
Due to my background in filmmaking, storytelling has always had a very strong influence in my musical songwriting process; I treat music as if I was writing a screenplay where each song represents an act within the dramatic structure of the whole album’s narrative… this being said, in “A Passage for Lost Years” I decided to keep the story somewhat open-ended, leaving all meaning and interpretation in the listener’s hands… hoping that the listener will figure out what those stories and visions mean and represent to them -- I believe that every song and every piece of art out there may mean something completely different (and sometimes nothing at all) depending on what’s going on in the beholder’s life, and depending on where they are in their own personal journey. All I can do is simply wish that listeners from all walks of life will approach our music with an open mind, and for them to hopefully find a story of their own within our lyrics… to read our words, and to connect the dots in their own way… to find a link between our imagery and their own personal experiences… to find some sort of strength or solace within our narrative.
As far as my personal thoughts, this album entails many conflicting and ambivalent meanings… and I apologize if I am stumbling/rambling while I answer to all of this… throughout “A Passage for Lost Years,” I re-gave life to many scars within, I made them sing and scream out loud… I made myself very vulnerable. On the flip side, I also worked hard to accomplish many of my personal goals, and I rolled my sleeves so to make them a reality… I sucked coagulated poisoned blood out my wounds, reminding myself of past mistakes, and then spit out that blood on the wall… and I kept on getting myself back up… hoping for all of that chaos to find its own life, a new life, and for that life to hopefully give me the strength to move forward, to help me leave some of the darkness behind, or perhaps to create a Monument of it, so that looking at that blood-splattered wall, I may remind myself of what has brought me here and of what has made me what I am today.
In regards to personal favorite or most meaningful songs, I can name two that are very dear to me: the title track “A Passage for Lost Years” represents the collaboration of every member of Varaha, and is the best representation of us four very different individuals gathering together and becoming one. “Passage” (as we call it) is also the climax of the album -- the most important act within the album’s story arc.
“Irreparable” also has a very special place in my heart. “Irreparable” is that dream that I have always kept locked inside a box, buried deep within… I was raised in Rome, and I grew up listening to classical music, to the magnificent tunes of Ennio Morricone, and to many other amazing and melodramatic Italian composers… It was simply a part of our upbringing: if you were raised in Italy during the 1980s or 1990s, you simply knew the work of Dario Argento, of Sergio Leone, and of all the Italian neorealism directors inside and out. As I grew older, I discovered metal: Heavy Metal was an awakening that changed everything, and that constantly shaped me and re-shaped me throughout my adolescence as well as my adulthood. However, even when I was a metalhead teenager, I always dreamt of hearing my “metal music” being performed by a real orchestra… there is something special about the texture and the imperfections of classical instruments… they dig deep within you, they raise you up with their warmth, and then they weigh you down in the abyss with their mass… I simply wanted to hear my music create those same tense vibrations, those loud highs and soft lows. Flash-forward 20 something years later, and “Irreparable” is that promise being kept… it is a gift to my teenage self… it is the marriage of my two ambivalent worlds and mindsets merging into one.
“Irreparable” was also written during a very life-changing period of my personal formation, and it’s both a eulogy to the person that I once used to be, as well as an anthem to the person that I have become -- it is both a reminder of my mistakes as well as an effigy of my strength and victories -- as time goes by, and as we get older, the scars grow deeper, and sometimes the hardest thing to do is to try and get used to that “new self” which we have somehow become.
What’s different between the full-length and the EP, sound-wise? Did Varaha learn any new techniques, skills, or methodologies when writing A Passage for Lost Years?
Sound-wise, I think that the main difference between the two, is that the EP was more so a rough draft of what we could do: we recorded it very modestly, independently, and quickly, and then we simply handed over all the music files to Adam K. Stilson whom worked his magic and reshaped our sound. We trusted Stilson, and it was truly amazing to work with him: he was a non-metal-centric producer and we were very excited to see what he would do to our sound. We love his dark wave project New Canyons, and we knew that he’d understand the sensibilities that we were hoping to convey.
With A Passage for Lost Years everything changed… or perhaps got bigger: due to the length and complexity of the record and of all the guests involved, pre-production was absolute key to success. We spent a lot of time mapping out everything, we demoed each song six times at different BPMs (so to find out which BPM felt more natural)… I also spent a couple months mapping out the orchestral arrangements together with William Aldridge at Third City Sound Studios -- finalizing all the music sheets, rehearsing, as well as creating MIDI reference files in order to get a rough idea of what the final product would sound like before the orchestra went into the studio. We decided to record the orchestra with Nick Broste because of his expansive experience in the field, and to record the soloist with Mike Lust… so now here we have multiple sound engineers and three different studios involved, and everyone had to be completely in sync with everything.
When we finally entered the marvelous Decade Music Studios to record the “metal tracks,” once again under the wise guidance of Adam K. Stilson, we all agreed to use our own gear (as things got more serious with Varaha we all acquired a few new toys down the road), and we also agreed to avoid releasing a record that felt over-produced or sterile. Although everything was mapped out, we still collaborated extensively together with Adam and the guest musicians, trying out new ideas during both the recording sessions as well as during the mixing process. We really wanted to keep that organic element alive… so yes… in regards to new skills and methodologies, I believe that we focused a lot on being extra prepared and organized… and at the same time, we were also ready to erase the drawing board, and to change everything at the very last minute. In the end, it’s not about us or our about our personal musical stubbornness, but rather about what each individual song needed, and about the will to work on it together, so that each song could find its own life. Obviously, this process delayed our release date by a few months, but we are grateful that it happened.
Give us some details about how the orchestral elements on the new album came together -- how was it working with members of The Oak Park & River Forest Symphony Orchestra? What special dynamic do you think the orchestra’s inclusion on the album adds?
The four orchestral overtures within A Passage for Lost Years feature guest appearances by Chuck Bontrager (Concertmaster for the Chicago production of "Hamilton: An American Musical”), Nora Barton (Mucca Pazza, Mono) on cello, Nick Broste (Mono, Wilco) on trombone, Bruce Lamont (Yakuza, Brain Tentacles) on saxophone, Nicholas Dellacroce (Bongripper) on synth/sampling, Ali Hunger (Velcro Lewis) on theremin, Monica Benson (Bugler at Arlington International Racecourse) on Trumpet, as well as Kristina Lee and members of the Oak Park & River Forest Symphony Orchestra.
It kinda all snowballed all at once… sometimes I still can’t believe that I pulled it off, but allow me to give you a little backstory so to give you a little perspective of how it all came to be.
As discussed earlier, I have always wanted to compose for an orchestra: to date, one of my biggest dreams is to score soundtracks for film… so right before entering the studio to record the Varaha EP, I had that first opportunity to give it a run: I told my bandmates: “hey guys... I want some of my orchestral stuff in here... maybe I could try and write a piece for cello and keep it simple, and maybe I can ask Bruce Lamont to add some sax!” So, I simply sent out a few messages, I contacted Joise Boyer at Round Rock Symphony, and “La Mela” came to be… a year later, Empire Productions in Chicago needed a local opening act for Xasthur (acoustic), and booking was trying to figure out who to add on that bill… so they reached out to me asking if I wanted to perform some of my solo soundtrack stuff similar to “La Mela"... and I blindly said yes, not thinking about what I was getting myself into.
I thought that I had plenty of time to prepare, not realizing that the show was around the corner, and that I barely had a month to get together an orchestral ensemble and to rehearse the suite… but on that day, I finally got that “motivational deadline” which I needed in order to get my orchestral endeavors started. Just like I did with “La Mela," I simply reached out to my peers in Chicago; I messaged sound engineers Mike Lust, Greg Norman, Nick Broste, and old-time friend Bruce Lamont, asking for help and referrals… in the end, I ended up gathering a small chamber orchestral ensemble to perform with me, and it was one the best feelings in the world to hear my orchestral music being played in a live setting.
A few months after that, Varaha signed with Prosthetic Records. I told myself “That’s it! Go big, Fabio… this is your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! You can do it!” And that’s when I decided to write all the orchestral suites and to hopefully include those songs in the Varaha debut LP… it was a crazy idea, ambitious, and immensely challenging, and I am very grateful that my bandmates were supportive, and that my peers within the Chicago community were excited to help me out, and to support me in achieving my vision. During the orchestra pre-production and production process, I received a lot of guidance by my co-director William Aldridge, as well as by Kristina Lee, boardmember of the Oak Park & River Forest Symphony Orchestra. Lee and Aldridge both performed with me during my solo performance opening for Xasthur, and have been my coaches ever since… but I am not going to lie: when all the classical musicians entered the studio and simply looked at me, asking for direction, I froze on my feet… it was extremely intimidating.
I am very grateful that Kristina Lee, Nick Broste, and William Aldridge gave me the confidence and the support that I needed, in order to get over that immediate anxiety and stress -- they helped me physically adjust all the music sheets as I was making last minute changes on the fly, and run them by the performers, and they made me feel comfortable and confident about how things were going. In the end, we ended up recording everything very efficiently and quickly. I am very grateful of everyone involved that believed in the music, and that walked in excited to help, and to work on something non traditionally classical… so yeah… if you ask me how did that came together? All I can say is that it was a step-by-step process... I took that first step, I believed in people, folks gave me a chance, I worked hard guided by those around me, and then I rolled the dice, I went all-in, and hoped for the best.
In regards to the dynamic of the orchestra within the album, I think that, just like in a film, every story needs its highs and lows: the explosion of a building is so much more powerful when it’s preceded by the subtle cawing of a far away bird… a cry is so much more painful if it’s preceded by the silent dying of a loved one… by all means, there’s also nothing wrong with a story that is fast and loud and distorted and that constantly screams at 1,000 miles per hour -- because there’s a time and a place for everything… but in this story… in our story we felt the need to portray all the elements of the narrative arc… to portray ethereal moments of silence, as well as loud moments of aggression, to dance the audience throughout the album's entire journey.
Regarding the collaboration on A Passage for Lost Years with Nicholas Dellacroce, Bruce Lamont, Nora Barton, and more: what elements of atmospheric metal did these folks bring to the table for Varaha?
First and foremost I believe that at this point in Chicago metal is not a genre; metal is rather a community that is made by many very different individuals.. each one of them with their stories, their different upbringings, their different tastes in music (metal or not)… sometimes the music is almost secondary -- we share Chicago, and that’s what’s important. Time goes by, yet we still gather and share our experiences and our strengths while being enriched/changed by one another… Nick, Nicholas, Bill, Bruce, Nora, Chuck, Ali, and everyone else brought in their knowledge, their backstories, their support, and their sensibilities to the table… they believed in the music written on the sheets and then they amplified it with their own voice… in the end, we simply collaborated in creating something that represented our collective experiences… something that transcends a musical genre and the limitations that come along with it.
What does the Varaha style of “atmospheric dark metal” offer for fans of black metal, doom, and other metal subgenres? Can you describe the gothic twist, too, on the new album?
For those who like slower, dark, or pensive music, we hope to give you a sound that is both dark as it is hopeful... it’s okay to be one with the dark, and it’s also okay to try reach away from it. In the end, we simply hope that the listener may close their bedroom curtains, shutting the world outside, and in our music to find some kind of connection... a tiny bit of solace or respite -- we hope to offer a chance to discover lost keepsakes of old and careless times... or a chance to confront undying inner demons, as they look back from the mirror in front of them.
As far as the gothic twist, I don’t know... we were all raised listening to 1980ss rock and dark rock. Personally, I was raised listening to Nick Cave, Kate Bush, The Cure, Dead Can Dance, and especially to Depeche Mode (who were/are titans in Italy)… perhaps a lot of that musical baggage has subconsciously found its way into our sound. A lot of it is circumstantial too… for example, some of the “dark twist” within my music is actually inspired by my longtime interest in Warp Records and other IDM artists’ catalogs; I lived in London for a few during the late 1990ss, and I immediately recognized that there were some very extremely dark and nihilistic sensibilities in music of Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, or Autechre -- at times those artists were actually darker in sound than some of the “gothic” bands out there... in the end, “gothic” means many different things nowadays, depending on who’s listening and on how its aesthetic is presented to the world.
Tell us some about the song we’re premiering, “Climax & Exile” -- how did this song come together, and what meaning does it have in the context of the album overall?
"Climax & Exile" was actually written in 2014 and was initially meant to appear in our debut EP. Only after we finished the writing for A Passage for Lost Years, we decided to include it in the album -- we spent a lot of time re-arranging some of the parts, extending others, and I also re-wrote some of the lyrics so as to connect them to the rest of the album in regards to theme and setting.
Because of its more obstinate cadence, straight-forwardness, and more-so “upbeat” vibe, to me "Climax & Exile represents" the “inciting incident” within the story arc… it’s the moment when life rubs salt into the wounds of the protagonist, and he or she realizes that “all hell is about to break loose."
As Varaha’s frontman, what is the most satisfying element to performing live?
It’s funny, I was having this same exact conversation with Chuck Bontrager, and also with Bryan Gold (bass) last week.... although we come from very different musical worlds, in the end, we all agreed that it’s all about the crowd.
Gold and I both feel like there’s no better feeling than to be playing in front of a full house, to feed off the energy of the room... Gold added: “it doesn’t matter if you miss a note: it’s about the energy, that energy makes you hit the notes harder… it’s almost like a trade of stamina between the performers onstage and the energy fueled by the crowd.” I couldn’t find better words to describe that feeling: Bryan is absolutely right.
Bontrager and I also discussed about how to keep that energy vibrant day after day, when you are performing the same setlist on tour and such (and oh my… in his case, Hamilton is a three-hour show). Bontrager agreed with me saying that it’s all about the crowd -- these folks are getting out of their house, and are paying money to come see you… sometimes for their first time… some of them traveled many miles and many hours to see you: we owe them our best and we owe them a powerful performance.
Personally, it is feels very exciting and satisfying to set foot on that stage, and to put on the mask… and when I say “mask," I am not implying that we are being “fake” onstage… instead, I almost see it as a theatre performance: you dress for the play, and then you lose/loose yourself… you put on the mask, and you become someone else… you become naked and vulnerable and colossal and monolithic at the same exact time… it’s bizarre. On stage, you are part of the band and you all become one. There’s no room for “I”… you focus, and you perform as a unison.
Also, what is the most challenging part (if any) of being front-and-center, especially considering the complex new songs from A Passage for Lost Years?
Rehearsal is everything; I rehearse over and over at home and with the rest of the band until I feel comfortable playing all the parts blindfolded and deaf. I also started working more actively with a vocal coach to help me zero in the clean vocals… as we started working harder with Varaha, it became an immediate responsibility for me to be on point with everything while playing live, as well as out of respect towards my bandmates who are also working very hard to perfection their craft.
This being said, not all shows will be crisp clean and sound-perfect… technical malfunctions happen, and on top of that I’d rather have my “technical performance” suffer in favor of the energy, in favor of the organic rock-'n'-roll element, and in favor of those subtle imperfections which make music feel real. So yeah, feeling has priority over anything else… it’s a dance… a weird balance between thorough preparation and the natural reaction to the moment.
Did the writing/recording process for the new album strengthen your relationship with your bandmates?
It definitely did… and of course there’s a lot of bickering involved as well (laughs)… that’s inevitable: in a scenario where everyone’s idea is deemed important, we worked very hard to include everyone’s thoughts throughout the writing and recording process. Varaha is not a solo project… I have done some solo stuff in the past, and it has always felt “incomplete”… it’s hard to explain… in the end, as mentioned earlier, we had a strong, clinically though-out blueprint, and we also had the will to start from scratch, to try new things, and to listen to Stilson’s feedback… we endowed each band member with the respect to have their ideas heard.
I will say this though: as much as we all gathered, and bonded, and worked together during the production of A Passage for Lost Years, in reality nothing will ever strengthen the relationship between bandmates as much as touring does -- when you’re stuck in a tour van for many hours with other people, riding though the winter storm, that’s when you really get to know each other… and we have been having an absolute blast traveling to different cities, being hosted by amazing people, and meeting concertgoers and other bands in person -- it’s always a big adventure and it’s the part of being in a band that I cherish the most.
How does the success of Varaha’s live performance depend on the dynamic among you four as friends, creative partners, professionals, etc.?
I don’t know. We are still a young band. We are friends, but we also try and keep all personal disputes and disagreements away from the band when the band is in full-on “work-mode.” This being said, we are human beings before anything else… if we were “perfect,” we wouldn’t do what we do, or play the kind of music that we play… even at band practice we have our “off” days, it happens to everyone -- we are not machines. We are four very different adults with very busy lives, many responsibilities and obligations, whom however share the same goal. With that in mind, we simply try and behave professionally when dealing with any unfavorable circumstances or disagreements… especially so in a live setting… we simply got to try and be at our best, and to behave like adults -- it would be disrespectful towards the crowd, the venue, and the booking agents to behave otherwise.
What is the band’s vision after the release of A Passage for Lost Years?
Ha! I am not sure I’m ready to answer that yet.
There’s the album release show in Chicago, and I’m sure some tour dates upcoming, but what are your plans following that then?
We booked seven dates throughout the Midwest around the album release window: we already had an amazing time in Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, and Detroit, and we are looking forward to play our LP release show in Chicago with legendary doom band Dusk (WI), in Minneapolis together with our label mates Ashbringer, in Bloomington with our friends in Minsk, and in Indianapolis with Vukari for a special all-day metal market event, organized by Black Circle Brewing in collaboration with Kuma’s Indy owner Luke Tobias.
As far as the actual LP tour, we still don’t have anything planned -- we would love to tour intensively if the right opportunity arises, and we are hoping to team up with someone, or to join a tour package, and to hit the road very soon… all of that is still in the works and TBA.