Justin Varnes’ “Survival Instinct: The Evilution of the Pack” takes on modern problems


Drummer Justin Varnes is a veteran performer. His work on “The Roseanne Barr Show,” and with notables such as Phoebe Snow, Michael McDonald, and at Madison Square Garden and on National Public Radio’s “World Café” is proof of his professional development. Now, with “Survival Instinct: Evilution of the Pack,” Varnes teams up with other high-caliber musicians to use music as a means of social critique.

Currently, Varnes resides in Atlanta, Georgia. He is considered a top-call sideman for a number of touring musicians. He has performed with Five For Fighting, Mose Allison, Ira Sullivan, David Sanchez and a long list of others. Varnes’ extensive history of having performed with jazz greats past and present, is perhaps augmented by his education at the New School.

The result, as Varnes describes it, is “No genetically modified music.” The work on “Survival Instinct” was recorded without headphones, no overdubs, no splices, all complete takes with no touch-ups.

In some ways, then, the music on “Survival Instinct” is as raw as the subject matter it intends to highlight. Though Varnes is not the only musician to address inequality and other social ills through his or her work, his approach as a drummer and bandleader is a bit unique. A person need only look at some of the song titles to see where Varnes is going in terms of social criticism. One example of Varnes’ unique approach is the song “Fergimore Island, TX Blues.”

The sound and style of “Survival Instinct” by Justin Varnes

“Fergimore Island, TX Blues” has a mouthful for a name, and a rich soundscape. The title refers to the places where police violence has lead to fatalities and often protests after the fact. The song is also a tune of support for officers who protect and serve honorably.

The song itself is a moody, but mid-tempo piece, full of bass and horn. The drums swing hard and thunder in rhythmic triumph. The piano makes a delightful accent, especially in contrast to the bass’ motif. The horn line that weaves itself throughout is particularly moody and serves to underscore the song’s purpose. The song sounds big and serves to highlight socio-political wrongs.

Varnes’ work on “Survival Instinct” is one example of an artist using his medium to tackle that which he sees a problem in the world around him. Here, the sound is as complex and varied as the problems Varnes takes on.

Varnes is joined on “Survival Instinct” by Mark Rapp on trumpet; Luke Weathington on alto saxophone; John Sandfort on tenor saxophone; Nick Rosen on piano, and Kevin Smith on bass.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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