I’m gonna go ahead and say it: making good music is hella difficult. Us reviewers have it easy; the only skill our trade requires is writing good. But an album has so many steps where it can falter and bring down the entire Jenga tower. The musicians have to be able to play their instruments reasonably well. If they have a vocalist it’s double the trouble, judging by how many albums are tripped up by the vocals. Songwriting is a balancing exercise in and of itself; riffs, bridges, structure, all without sounding too derivative and trying for some originality. Then when you finally have everything put together, you have the recording and producing process, and it may still fall into traps of sounding lifeless or generic. It’s a miracle any good albums are produced at all!
Take Italian sludge peddlers Varego. There’s plenty of pointers that I Prophetic should be a rousing success. Their style of reverberating gloom with thick riffs and heavy hooks is solid and interesting, their meatier songs betraying inspiration from Mastodon. “The Abstract Corpse” and “When the Wolves Howl” are the primary suspects, the latter particularly punchy with a galloping riff that exudes energy. The Italians pack plenty of variety into the album’s running length, switching up tempos and heaviness, and using more atmospheric elements in the back half. The first part of “Silent Giants” uses a loosely staccato plucked riff that echoes around and around. All ingredients for a delicious little album, you’d say.
Yet the band seems unable to capitulate on these strong points. The quality of the riffs does not extend to the songwriting overall; the framework here is pretty cookie-cutter, without the courtesy of a neat transition or spectacular solo to make up for it either. Bridges often consist of messing around with the track’s main riff a bit until it’s been long enough to play the chorus again. Furthermore, while the instrumentation is generally competent with the bendy guitar a highlight, the vocals are an obvious weak link. The pinched timbre reminds me of Crone, but without the emotion in the delivery and lacking in the punch and power required to make the heavy riffs work.
Varego seem aware of the vocal issue too, as they employ production tricks to cover it up a little, but instead draw attention to it, like a conspicuously out-of-place rug concealing the bloodstains at a crime scene. The title track is the most egregious example, with a myriad of filters applied to the vocals that just make them sound like they’re coming from under water. Production is not the band’s strong suit overall though, sporting a muffled, mothball sound that dampens the impact of all elements at play, but the drums most of all, as the toms and bass hits lack weight. The drums seem to lean back in the mix as well, even though they are more than competently executed; a prime example of the band not knowing quite where their own strengths lie.
I might be overly negative about I Prophetic, but this stems from frustration. I’m a sucker for heavy sludge with great riffs (see also my recent Hollow Leg review) and this has the potential to go down that road with some neat atmospheric elements to spice it up. But Varego keep putting spokes in their own wheels and drawing attention to the bad bits, and away from the good bits. With lackluster writing, production issues and vocal shortcomings consistently neutering the album, there’s no way I can recommend I Prophetic to anyone but the most die hard fans of sludge riffing.