According to the press release that accompanies the album, “Vajra was formed by composer, singer and multi-instrumentalist, Ann Marie Pinna during her self-imposed exile in India. The child of a former monk and school teacher, Ann Marie was encouraged to learn about the world around her and to question her assumptions. She began playing violin at age 6 and flute at age 9. She wrote her first lyrics at age 10, and went on to study music theory at Juilliard. Ann Marie believes there is divinity in creativity. Ann Marie has a neurological condition called synaesthesia, where she attaches colour and shapes to sound.” This information is key in understanding the multi-faceted textures and shapes that flow through this complex, deep and often beautiful album – an album that draws upon Annamaria’s time in India and cross-pollinates it with the complex progressive soundscapes of Tool and A Prefect Circle. Superficially the album is impossible to ignore, but, and more importantly, there is depth beneath the surface to keep you returning to the disc to months to come as you endeavour to unveil its many secrets.
The album that the early tracks of this release can most readily be compared to, and this is not a comparison one would ever wish to undertake lightly, is Tool’s unassailable opus ‘Lateralus’, a record so unutterably complex that musicians and fans alike are still attempting to unravel its alchemical mysteries. Varja operate in similar sonic territory: syncopated rhythms, juddering guitar riffs that move from the eerily ethereal to the crushing with consummate ease, and vocals that are delivered tunefully but with unerring force, although a number of diverse elements enter the mix as the album progresses, not least hints of Dead Can Dance whose mesmerising melodies have raised the band to cult status.
‘Inside the flame’ is the perfect scene setter. Utilising a complex rhythmic dynamic to underpin the fast-rising guitar attack and then combining the vocal styles of Maynard James Keenan with Marcela Bovio, the track builds to a stunning climax, the guitars swirling through the mix as Ann Marie demonstrates her vocal dexterity over a soundtrack that will inspire wonder and disbelief in equal measure. Put quite simply no-one makes music like this, the influences as diverse as they are complimentary and the net result being that Varja suck you straight into their world, threatening to keep you there, their sonic prisoner, for the duration of the mystical album they have created. ‘Almost one’ has a lighter touch – more Porcupine Tree than Tool perhaps, the guitars echoing and shimmering whilst Ann Marie explores a lower register than on the previous track. Once again it is the Indian influences, particularly audible in the percussion, that draw the music away from traditional western thinking and structures towards something rarely heard in contemporary rock music. It’s beautiful, melodious and addictive, and yet as you listen more, it is the subtle touches that draw themselves to your attention, the keyboard lines that lurk beneath the surface or the layers of guitar that become much more apparent and you have to simply sit back and admire the skill of a song-writer who can craft songs that work on so m any different levels.
Taking the listener on a sonic voyage the brief instrumental ‘India’ sits somewhere between David Bowie’s most ambient work and Nin’s ‘The fragile’ and then Varja dig deep into the deliciously dark ‘blind’ with its rumbling bass, Indian touches and grinding guitars all combining to make an oppressive, yet fascinating atmosphere, further embellished by the rhythmic hypnotism of the Tabla. It’s a highlight of the album, once again allowing plenty of room for Ann Marie’s vocals to shine out brightly, but while her stunning voice might be the initial focal point, there is so much happening musically that you’ll return time and again just to try to make sense of it all. ‘Intuition’ slows the pace and allows the music to spread in a gently ambient direction, the shimmering sounds and somnambulant percussion all serving to make you a willing slave to the music, dedicated to following wherever it might take you. ‘Erode the will’ is a more straightforward effort, very much in the vein of Stream of passion or the Gathering, but no less beautiful for that, the more conventional nature of the song allowing the listener much needed breathing space following the dense nature of much of what has gone before, and Ann Marie’s multi-tracked harmonies are a thing of wonder, her voice laden with feeling and emotion.
‘3.14’ sees Varja reference the much lauded Dead Can Dance with a song that sits somewhere between the moody trip-hop of latter-day Massive Attack, the Gathering and the aforementioned dead can dance. It’s a slow-burning and subtle effort that simmers and smoulders and then ‘see through you’ breezes into view, pulsating with barely restrained emotions that explode into life with the blazing guitars that dominate the chorus, the song rapidly dissolving into an exotic mix of off-kilter rhythms and heavily distorted riffs. ‘Akkord Pleromy’ is far and away the album’s most psychedelic track as Varja delve into the world of ambient post rock, all echoing percussion and throbbing noise, and then epic final track ‘the apple’ closes the album with further references to Tool and Dead Can Dance, Ann Marie’s vocals delivered with breath-taking beauty over the band’s rhythmic, intelligently constructed music.
Varja are remarkably hard to review. There are familiar reference points littered throughout, but the music evolves and flows around Ann Marie’s sultry, beautifully melodic voice, and every time you get a handle on what you think is happening the band introduce another layer for you to work your way through, the whole clouded in obfuscation and deceptively simple melodies which belie the depth of composition that lies beneath. ‘Pleroma’ is a stunningly beautiful collection that never will tarnish thanks to the multiple elements involved; this is one album you’ll be glad you took the time to explore.
Find out for yourself how good ‘Pleroma’ is: