Review Summary: A truly haunting debut, Varuna is a testament to the creativity and ambition that sets The Republic of Wolves apart from their alt-rock peers.
When The Republic of Wolves dropped their EP His Old Branches
in late 2009, they made an emphatic footprint on the grounds of the alt-rock genre. Their sound, while undeniably similar to that of Brand New, was also indisputably advanced. Just look at the bare facts: if you are a band of relative nobodies creating low quality studio recordings that are being mistaken for Daisy
demos, you are doing something right. Furthermore, The Republic of Wolves established a unique flair that prevented critics from dismissing them as Jesse Lacey zealots hoping to ride on the coattails of a very successful act. By infusing traces of spiritual folk music and showcasing their storytelling lyrics, The Republic of Wolves made His Old Branches
easy to digest, interesting to listen to, and rewarding from both an instrumental and lyrical perspective. The band’s masterful execution in just about every aspect of their music allowed them to take complete ownership of the EP and dictate its direction, which resulted in some of the most bone chilling, inspired rock seen in years. Thus, it came as no surprise when The Republic of Wolves took their place among the most promising new bands in music. That brings us to the present day, where they have self-released their full length debut Varuna
to the masses.
essentially picks up where His Old Branches
left off. It is very dark and foreboding by nature, with echoing vocals, downtrodden acoustic guitars, and thunderous drum beats. However, there are a few subtle improvements that elevate this LP’s quality above that of its preceding EP. One will notice from the beginning that the band utilizes a great deal of restraint in their songwriting. On His Old Branches
, they would often abuse the soft-to-loud formula and sometimes they seemed to get lost while trying to find a balance between their acoustic side and their heavier side. On the contrary, Varuna
is meticulously crafted, with all of its echoing atmospheres, electric guitars, and acoustic ballads carefully mingling like an intricately woven blanket. Appropriately enough, this first becomes evident on “Woolen Blankets”, which, despite a dreary, monotonous start gradually builds to a crescendo of heavy drumming and crashing electric guitars. It is the ultimate instrumental climax, and it is never as choppy or sudden as past songs like “Spill.” The Republic of Wolves also show a clear progression in terms of the record’s production. Varuna
still sounds quite raw at times, as per the band’s desired effect; but the balance between instruments and the clarity of each spine tingling scream is vastly improved. On a record that might be defined by its tangible atmosphere and fable-like storyline, the minor (but noticeable) improvements in the album’s mixing go a long way in making Varuna
what it is: an indescribably beautiful sequence of dark, nightmarish atmospheres that will draw one’s mind to its darkest corner.
For those who have never heard The Republic of Wolves’ music, Varuna
is still an excellent starting point for what should be a long and prosperous career for the young band. Songs like “Sea Smoke” and “Pitch and Resin” illustrate the band’s acoustic prowess which can be traced back to Mason Maggio’s and Christian Van Deur’s humble beginnings with the indie-folk phenomena Tigers on Trains. The Republic of Wolves’ darker edge can really be felt throughout the album’s entirety, with the blazing title track of an album opener, “Varuna”, setting the tone immediately for later moments such as the furious, hell-bent screams of “Greek Fire.” The band is perhaps at their best, however, when they take the immense scope that is Varuna
’s atmosphere and expand its sonic palette with haunting sound effects. The best example of this is undoubtedly the French titled song “Tuez Le Tous, Dieu Reconnaitra Les Siens”, which for those interested in its meaning, loosely translates to, “Kill them all, God will recognize his people.” The song commences with discordant acoustic strumming, followed by Maggio’s croons of, “So we played our game, and we dug our grave, shouting curses at the dirt until the messiah showed his face.” To call the song a slow burner wouldn’t be quite accurate, because when the song hits its stride, it doesn’t burn
with an electric guitar riff or a moment of instrumental intensity…it scares the living hell out of you
. Like a blacksmith’s hammer tempering a sword, the sound of pounding metal enters in the background accompanied by the sound of rattling, dragging chains that seem to mimic a spirit wandering the earth for thousands of years, his tortured soul bound to the Earth by the weight of his sins. These are the kinds of images that Varuna
is capable of conjuring up in one’s mind, and it inspires what is, quite frankly, frightening
thoughts on an astoundingly consistent basis. And the best part is, they can do it in a number of ways: screaming, singing, humming…even just the instruments can speak to the listener in such a way that the dark, dispirited aura of Varuna
is on constant display.
has a fault, it is that the album is so intensely focused on itself that it leaves room open for more variation. Because the record is something of a concept album, with thematic ties between the music and the lyrics, it tends to take on a centrally unifying sound. Of course, this also serves to the album’s biggest strength: it’s gloomy, bitter atmosphere. But it still stands to reason that The Republic of Wolves could have incorporated a greater scope of styles, seeing as Varuna
tends to focus on the one style in particular that the band has mastered. This speculation can be fueled to an even greater extent by fans who have heard what Maggio and Van Deurs are capable of with nothing but an acoustic guitar in hand, as the two were able to compose a completely natural and uplifting aura on their past endeavor’s debut, Grandfather
. However, this is more of a what if
scenario in terms of what could have accentuated Varuna
’s darker moments, and it doesn’t take anything away from what this immense album accomplishes with striking efficiency.
As a whole, Varuna
stands as one of the best debut
albums to be released by any band in the past few years. The Republic of Wolves take what made the EP His Old Branches
so engaging, improve some minor flaws in their songwriting and production, and mix in some of their own indie-folk influences. What we end up with is a profound, sweeping accomplishment by a band that has found its identity and has already taken off running with its unique ideas and sky-high ambitions. The Republic of Wolves have shown that they are more than just a Brand New cover band, and they now have one hell of a debut album in Varuna
to prove it. These guys are for real.