Remember anything substantial about Gus van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of the Hitchcock’s classic, Psycho? Me neither. If you’re going to copy or reboot something, you need to bring something new to the table. In 20 years’ time, people will still be watching Predator, Point Break, and Total Recall. No one will be wasting time with the pointless and forgettable reboots. Before I get banished to yet another extra latrine shift by my slave-driving editor, while he mumbles something about this “Not being Angry Movie Guy,” allow me to explain.1 Reign in Supreme Darkness, the second album from Finland’s Vargrav, is essentially a copy of Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse. It follows 2018’s Netherstorm which took a lot of people by surprise with its disciplined and entertaining take on symphonic black metal. Think Immortal, Marduk, Limbonic Art, and the aforementioned Emperor. What impressed at the time was that the guitars and the riffs never played second fiddle to the keyboards and symphonic elements. They complemented without overwhelming. Now Vargrav is back. And everything from the cover art, to the style of symphonic black metal, to the song titles, to the production, mirrors In the Nightside Eclipse. So how does it stack up against a black metal classic?
Not very well, unfortunately. Reign in Supreme Darkness takes the formula laid down by the second wave bands – blast-beats, tremolo picking and swooping, symphonic keyboards — and hews very closely to it. Which is precisely the biggest problem with the album. There isn’t anything here that hasn’t already been done expertly 25 years ago. As a result, what should be a nostalgic trip is replaced by a wearying sense of déjà vu. In addition, the balance between symphony and metal, so carefully preserved on Netherstorm, has been lost. The scale has now tipped too far towards the symphonic side of things. Where Emperor felt original and dangerous, Vargrav comes off as a bit… quaint.
I tried my best to figure out why, so I went back to some of those great 90s albums. Eclipse is frightening and ominous, but catchy as hell. Reign in Supreme Darkness lacks the edginess Emperor provided. It also has no songs that compare to the barrage of riffs in Eclipse’s “I am the Black Wizards” or “Inno a Satana.” Immortal’s At the Heart of Winter is evil and furious, while Vargrav is strangely muted with vocals that fail to match the intensity of those found in, say, “Solarfall.” The riffs themselves also don’t captivate as they should. All the best moments come from the keyboard, like the opening of “Arcane Stargazer” or the lovely midway point of “In Streams from Great Mysteries.” Unfortunately, it sounds at times like the synthesizer is used as a crutch, particularly on songs like “Crowned by Demonstorms.” The result is that where Emperor used symphonic elements to complement the riffs, Vargrav relies on the symphony to hide the lack of hooks. Too much of the album is spent in black metal limbo: furious blast beats, tortured vocals, sound effects popping up everywhere, but little to grab you by the balls. Or better yet, scare the shit out of you.
The really outstanding part of Reign in Supreme Darkness is its atmosphere, aided by a near-perfect production — exactly the right balance is struck between malevolence and lo-fi. The evil mood is palpable and covers up many of the album’s shortcomings in the song-writing department. If ever there was an album to listen to with good headphones, with your eyes closed, this is it. It’s not overly compressed, and like any good black metal record, it’s filthy enough that you wouldn’t want to eat your dinner off it. V-Khaoz’s vocals are suitably croaky, but nothing remarkable for this kind of music.
For an album that so obviously aspires to mimic In the Nightside Eclipse, Reign in Supreme Darkness falls short. Although there is plenty of atmospheric malevolence, that was only a part of what made Eclipse so special. In the areas that count, Darkness is deficient. It lacks the riffs. It lacks intensity. It lacks the fury. No amount of evil atmosphere can cover these shortfalls. This means we are left with a pale copy of a classic. It’s the equivalent of van Sant’s Psycho remake: not terrible, but in the absence of anything compellingly new, fans will simply stick with the classic original.