Review Summary: Growth with little compromise.
It’s about time that everybody in the scene addresses the elephant in the room: nu-metal is back in full force in the year 2020. 2019 already had almost every popular metalcore/hardcore band release a record that was at least in part filled with low-end seven-string grooves, industrial/synth noises, and rap-like vocals. Some of these have been pretty horrendous, but most range from acceptable, if uninspired, to pretty interesting. Varials’ second LP, In Darkness falls squarely into the last category. An interesting album that features alternative metal influences and a more brooding, restrained sound, it sees the Philadelphia outfit taking their abrasive metallic hardcore and making it much less one-note than their debut.
When looking at their discography, an important track on 2017’s Pain Again was “Abacus”, a moody, slowly-building track where vocalist Travis Tabron shouted over muted, dissonant guitar work, and a trudging drumbeat. The song gradually built to a climax, far different from the other tracks on the album, which were mostly straightforward, breakdown-laden bruisers. The first thing you will notice about this album with tracks like “Wound”, “I Suffocate” and “i against i” is the more tense, slow-burn approach to songwriting and the increased attention to atmosphere. “I against i” is the most cohesive example of this, with terse moments of calm in the pre-chorus before heading into a chorus accompanied by a moody synth progression. “Obstacle III” is an obvious nod to Interpol with the guitar outro. Mike Foley’s bass is dominant tracks, somehow having become more imposing than it was on the last record, and not only provides a strong undercurrent to the rest of the mix, but has some interesting lines of its own to bring character into what could just be generic, burly hardcore bass playing that follows the riffs. Overall, Varials have taken a sound that was an anomaly in a debut album full of pummeling hardcore and integrated it well into their second effort.
While this is still mainly a dark, heavy metalcore album, there is also a heavy presence of Deftones nu-metal/shoegaze at times. The bass-driven grooves of bleeding and rap-like vocal delivery of “Bleeding” is reminiscent of something off of Around The Fur, whereas the lush cleans and hypnotic drumbeats of duo tracks “Romance” and “The Love Machine” would be at home on White Pony. The refreshing aspect of all of this is that these efforts are free of the often awkward heavy-soft juxtapositions and repetitive bounce riffs that plague a record where a band is obviously trying to move away from a stale sound by bringing the 2000s back. Varials maintains their signature drop-tuned, punishing guitar sound throughout the entire record, and fans of their debut LP and earlier work will still be satisfied with the amount of heaviness In Darkness delivers at times.
The latter half of the record is filled with tracks that are more straightforward in delivery, and arguably less adventurous. On “Splinter”, “Deathsong,” and others, there is a strong emphasis on Tabron’s more raw and guttural vocal delivery and crushing breakdowns. “South Of One” features a guest vocal spot from Brendan Murphy of Counterparts that puts the rest of the vocals on the album to shame. More cleans and mids would have been nice to see, but this album mostly goes for guttural lows as it’s defining vocal feature. While having the ability to successfully step out of the box at times, the band as a whole is still not bold enough to entirely change up their sound. The lyrical content of the album remains the same, walking the line between thoughtful and clever turns of phrase and vague phrases seemingly written to do nothing more but convey angst. It’s better than average lyrics in the scene by far, with interesting metaphors and imagery for pain and anger. But nothing ever gets close to a true narrative with something interesting to say about the usual themes, similar to Pain Again.
Looking at it for the sum of its parts, In Darkness is definitely one of the most interesting metalcore releases to come out of 2019. Although flawed by an occasional tendency to play safe with sheer heaviness over the more interesting options within reach, it remains a very solid sophomore album, with experimentation and refinement aplenty in the many tracks that opt for the scalpel over the sledgehammer in being impactful.