Traversing Disorderly Seas: A Conversation with Fabio Brienza of VARAHA

Diving into the quartet's heartfelt reimagining amidst the troubles of quarantine.


In what was one of this year's best release dates on June 26th, Chicago's VARAHA introduced us all to Reves, a re-working of A Passage for Lost Years (2019) standout Severance. This new iteration is the a product of purity and camaraderie between the musicians involved, each of which recorded their parts from the comfort of their home to bring forth a soaring composition of eloquent melody. Featuring the likes of Sarah Pendleton (SUBROSA), Kim Cordray (SUBROSA), Mitch Harris (NAPALM DEATH) and Sam Applebaum (VEIL OF MAYA) among many others, Reves comes a cohesive, well-layered listen that unfolds with each passing time.


Music aside, VARAHA reconnected with renowned artist Travis Smith to present the cover for A Passage for Lost Years in a new light, representative to that of the contemporary world. Though the artistic changes are simple in scope, there's more to be seen and more to be felt as you observe it through an analytical lens.


We talk to VARAHA frontman Fabio Brienza on how it all came to be:

In reimagining ‘Severance’ as ‘Reves’, you’ve welcomed a maelstrom of talent from the comfort of their homes onto a heartfelt track from last year’s ‘A Passage to Lost Years’. How did this all come together in organic fashion?


Brienza: I need to rewind to March 22 and the Illinois Governor “stay at home” mandate in order to to fully address how this all came to be. It’s been a journey, to say the least. The dawn of the pandemic was brutal: tours cancelled, shows cancelled, all unable to rehearse, unable to access recording studios, unable to see each other or our friends. We were all stuck at home in self-isolation hell. So with 'Reves', we simply did something together in order to connect, and to feel involved and engaged, inspired and alive.


It kinda all started from a Facebook post by Nick Sadler (Daughters). Nick posted about the upcoming Isolate/Create Project, and challenged me to do a Remix - I accepted, I fired up my old glitchy Mac, and used whatever music gear I had laying around at home to make it happen. I recorded vocals with my phone’s voice memo app, and I attached a thrift store Casio keyboard to my guitar pedalboard! I had fun. I was hurt both emotionally and psychologically during those early days of the pandemic, and doing this exciting Daughters/Varaha collaboration kinda helped me snap out of it - and exactly because of it, I developed a sudden mindset and philosophy to keep staying creative and positive, and to post daily art, play-thoughts and ideas on my personal socials - I did that so to stay motivated, active, and sane. I did that to stay connected with the artistic community, having a wish to hopefully inspire others at home or a thousand miles away to “just do it”, and to keep creating while in isolation rather than just waiting for time to go by. Time is all that was given to me, I wanted to make good use of it and it didn’t matter if the ending product was crap. It was all about doing, and building, and creating instead breaking down and falling into depression. To be honest, it was just my way of coping and healing.


Immediately after the Daughters Remix went public, Steve Joh at Prosthetic Records asked us if we had any Varaha out-takes from “A Passage for Lost Years” for a possible single release - sadly we had nothing.


Around the same time, I started reading a lot of the lyrics from our album, and realized that a lot of the imagery within represented something completely different to me, due to the lonely self-isolation days. The whole journey of APfLY had achieved a brand new meaning. I started re-arranging some of the stuff, so that it would sound more “self-sufficient”, so that I could play it alone at home - and that’s when 'Reves' was originally written.


Then, one magic day, our publicist Becky Laverty tweeted a picture of her having an amazing time at Roadburn Fest 2019, as she was surrounded by a lot of my friends (specifically, the SubRosa gals, whom have been dear friends and allies for many years now). Seeing that picture was the turning point for me. I looked back at the DIY Daughters Remix, and then at the orchestral suites from APfLY, and at my whole journey, and I said out loud “Fuck it! Why can’t we do this again.. but remotely?… almost like a remote family reunion!”


So I reached out to all our friends and simply told them “hey, I have this crazy idea: Let’s all join forces and do something meaningful - a long distance quarantine track! Just record at home with whatever gear you got, even if it’s a cell phone recorder! Let’s all just make it happen!”


Everyone was stoked to join the cast and to do this DIY productions... I think we all simply needed to do something together, to be busy with something, and to stay creative and engaged - at least that was my personal experience and my necessity. My soul truly needed that.


To facilitate the execution, I once again asked Chuck Bontrager (concertmaster of the Hamilton Musical) for his guidance due to his experience as faculty of the Marc Wood Orchestra Camp. Chuck help me coordinate and map out everything: we created MIDI guides, music sheets, and demo references. All the performers and I simply just text each other a lot, and we had video calls, and sent each other voice memos via text messages, and we all just made it happen little by little, because sometimes all it takes is love, strong effort, and perseverance. Sound engineer Nick Broste (whom had previously recorded the orchestral suites in “A Passage for Lost Years”) took the helm of audio production once again, collecting all the files, and made 'Reves' what it is now. Travis Smith also joined the “family reunion” and it was so special that all these artists from all walks of life joined forces and did something together during some very uncertain times.


The musicianship flows seamlessly throughout ‘Reves’, speaking to the camaraderie between you all. What can you comment about this partnership?


Brienza: There is a lot of trust involved, paired with professional experience, and the ingenuity to just do it and to have fun with it. For example, I requested each performer to give me two recorded takes: one was dictated by my music sheets, but for the second track, I asked for 20% improv. To establish the improv, we had a fun back and forth of voice memos and phone calls, so that everyone could have have a voice within the creative process, yet at the same exact time keeping into consideration that all counterpoints should not interfered with the vocal line, which (unlike any other Varaha production thus far) is the focal point of the song. So yeah, we were very specific about the musical parts, but we also endowed each other the trust and the respect and the benefit of the doubt to try things out and to make a collective effort, bringing everyone’s idea to the table before it was all submitted cohesively to the mixing cutting board.


Where does ‘Reves’ stand in our contemporary world of uncertainty?


Brienza: To me, 'Reves' is the spark, the flicker, the reaction, the realization which perhaps came to be immediately after the pandemic hit us all and cursed us all. 'Reves' is about how each and every one of us has dealt with the curse itself. 'Reves' is a portrayal of the lonesome universality, and a portrayal of many different worlds - small worlds unequivocally left alone at home, left to re-find themselves and ultimately left to find one another…worlds that begged to communicate and to connect and to reconnect. 'Reves' is about loss. Everyone has dealt and coped very differently with the whole pandemic and the self-isolation nightmare, so each one their individual worlds is very different from one another, their experiences are different, so maybe each individual listener may find their own answers within 'Reves' & the answers that they need to hear, or own up to, or free themselves from.


The one only thing we all shared is this universal sense of solitude, alienation, and loss: the curse. This curse, perhaps, is the one common denominator and what gives 'Reves' its ultimate inspirational source. During the pandemic, we all have been faced with the challenge of learning a new side of ourselves, how to adapt it to this new world, and how to find a new world within which we could call our own. 'Reves' is the shared will to keep on going, and to find one small strength to move on. This strength is the “spark and the flicker” which I was referring to earlier... and a spark is life... a spark is hope... and 'Reves' is about survival - sometimes survival is about health and sometimes it’s about coping. 'Reves' is about both.


In addition to reworking the song, you’ve made a small yet significant change to the art from ‘A Passage to Lost Years’. What were you looking for visually when approaching Travis this second time around?


Brienza: If 'Reves' exists within the world of “A Passage for Lost Years”, then the artwork also needed to reflect that. So with the art, Travis and I basically decided to take the journey narrated within "A Passage for Lost Years" and continue it, to grab it by the hand and to drag it right in the middle of 2020. Instead of over thinking it, Travis and I did a lot of quick brainstorming: I told Travis that time had passed, and now the lighthouse is a rotten torn-down building. I wanted to see only rubble and I wanted the protagonist not being there any longer. I did not want to know where he was: he was simply not there.

Cover art by Travis Smith

Instead of seeing the character, I suggested to Travis that we see pieces of paper floating on the water: Those are his letters. It didn’t matter wether those letters were his journals, or his life story, or his love letters…they were now just pieces of paper, floating in the water, as waves blurred-out and cancelled-out all the writing with them. I imagined a shirt floating on the water. Travis said that if the character was not there anymore, then the lighthouse is going to be on fire and the lighthouse should not be rubble but a skeleton of its structure.


He then saw “Light Birds” flying up from the smoke. A few days prior, I mentioned to him that I wanted to see a swarm of birds in the sky (to reveal nature’s rebirth because of the pandemic), but Travis decided that the birds were born from the ashes of the burning lighthouse - a truly magical occurrence. He agreed that we needed that tiny white shirt floating in the water. He then said that since the character was gone, now the glorious dark cloud of smoke should be growing from within the burning lighthouse. In his words:


“The light house, which normally is a 'beacon' now has turned onto something being destroyed. the letters are our unresolved emotions, and the shirt something we had to leave behind."


Travis has illustrated covers for a plethora of genre greats including Opeth, Yob, Katatonia, and tons more. What drew you to working with him initially?


Brienza: I have been following Travis’ art and growth since day one, and his artistic sensibility has always resonated with me: his work is tasteful, balanced, and timeless. Everything he does has scope and meaning. Everything he does is immediately recognizable and stands out. It’s iconic. It’s never just a pretty image but a story being told.

Cover art by Travis Smith

Both covers can appear the same at first glance, yet it requires looking at it through an analytical lens to find the importance in the difference. In a time where streaming dominates the way in which people consume music, why is it important for you to invest in the artistic side of Varaha?


Brienza: Every piece of the puzzle is important because everything works together in order to form the totality of things. Creativity has many outlets, and we have this opportunity to implement and combine all these different media so that it all communicates and works off one another. It’s amazing when all these diverse creative minds come together and work as one - and it’s amazing to witness this process as it happens - it all develops fast and simultaneously. We used the word “family reunion” earlier, and I love the concept because, when it really comes down to it, it’s also about the people. Ever since “A Passage for Lost Years” came out, Travis, myself, and many folks from the APfLY team have become friends. It’s always magical to reconnect with friends on a deeper artistic level, and to see how our strengthened bond facilitate the creative process - Travis is part of that team. I am extremely grateful that Travis was happy to join the family reunion, and I want to believe that it was a special thing for all of us collectively to re-join forces during this unprecedented moment in history.


The same can be said about the bleak yet blissful video that Chariot of Black Moth put together for the track. How did you want to approach that portion of the visuals?


Brienza: I didn’t! I simply and genuinely wanted Chariot of Black Moth to rejoin the “family reunion” from “A Passage for Lost Years” because it was important for us that he was part of the team. We told him to do whatever he wanted with the trailer and to have fun with it! Unlike Travis, who loves to go back and forth with me brainstorming ideas and developing concepts and motifs together, Chariot of Black Moth likes to work independently; I cherish that he loves having full creative freedom with his films - and I trust him with his work with the same trust that all the guest musicians have endowed me when they recorded my music.


The art is as emotionally profound as the lyricism, a result of mutual understanding and partnership between you and Travis. Is this something you see continuing as Varaha grows with passing full lengths?


Brienza: Absolutely. Travis is extremely dear to me now, and is an important part of our journey, of our family, and of our future.

Experience the Fabio Brienza-produced and directed video for Reves below and stream 2019's A Passage For Lost Years HERE.

Cover art by Travis Smith

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