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After a forced hiatus (stemming from borrowed cars and loaner couches), I am in a position again to write here and take up where I left off. It was fortuitous in many ways that this came when it did, as it gives me a chance to try to put into effect some ideas I had for how to go about this process.
Darkest Hour is one of those bands I found myself listening to more by chance than almost anything else. In the midst of my earliest experiences with metal–wherein I was leaping from the then-popular “nu-metal” acts straight into extreme metal of the “death” variety–I was left somewhat rudderless, but still quite fully powered. I turned this way and that, able to listen purely for enjoyment’s sake and nothing else, as I gathered up the sounds that I liked without regard for community reputations, obeisance to or violations of trends or traditions, and without even internal expectations. It was a nice time in this respect–one soured quickly by my first community of musically-oriented folk in the heavier direction. The scattered voices I heard prior were also similarly isolated, and shared that lack of socially inflicted focus.
It was about ten years ago, of course–“The Sadist Nation” had been dropped digitally (before that was actually “a thing” of complete normality), and it perked up my ears. I was still only recently introduced to At the Gates and so the “Swedish sound” was still new to me, and Hidden Hands of a Sadist Nation was quite enjoyable. Of course, it was somewhere around the beginnings of political awareness, too, and 2003 was a moment rife with subject matter for a band whose metal sound was the kind fused with the political consciousness of the hardcore scene (hence “metalcore”). It was a lengthy album,¹ and a relentless one–the songs blasted out until the instrumental closer, “Veritas, Aequitas”, which was a 13-minute (!) ‘epic’ (if you can pardon the usage of that word in this day and age) that employed the guitars of Marcus Sunesson of The Crown and Peter Wichers of Soilwork, both Swedish bands in the style the band has employed throughout their career. Indeed, At the Gates’ own Tomas Lindberg and Anders Björler appeared on the album (in “The Sadist Nation” and “Misinformation Age” respectively), and even Slaughter of the Soul producer Fredrik Nordström acted as producer for the album.
I worked my way backward and around the band, eventually snapping up a copy of the label Southern Lord’s reissue of The Mark of the Judas on clear vinyl, mostly on the back of the beautiful “Part 2”, an instrumental, cello-driven piece the band did on that album. The follow-up to it–the album just prior to Hidden Hands–was So Sedated, So Secure, and has always struck me as the most “straightforward” of their albums, containing no notably, obviously exceptional pieces (ie, like “Part 2” and “Veritas, Aequitas”), and a lost thread as the Devin Townsend produced albums that followed (Undoing Ruin and Deliver Us) broke the band even further into melodically-heavy tracks and abandoned the very hefty runtime of Hidden Hands.
When they returned to the hands of producer Brian McTernan (who produced The Mark of the Judas and So Sedated, So Secure previously) for this album, it felt like a leap backward in style–not necessarily backward in the negative way so much as an indication of a return to the riff-oriented, consistently heavy and aggressive style they’d begun to slip away from with Undoing Ruin and Deliver Us. Not a surprise, I suppose–McTernan’s own ties are more into hardcore, and he has also produced a lot of my more recent fascinations, like Snapcase, Cave In, and Piebald.
“Devolution of the Flesh” rides in on wobbling squalls of distortion and pounds in with the ever-consistent and omnipresent drumming of Ryan Parrish, who has always had a style that fills out tracks more completely than a lot of drummers choose to, not so much in the relentless fill style of Mastodon’s Brann Dailor (if you don’t know–Brann notoriously can’t seem to let any beat pass without a fill that modifies it just a bit) as it is just a very fully-formed and performed beat. Mike “Lonestar” Carrigan has taken over lead guitar duties from Kris Norris, but a large portion of the song is based on riffs and forward movement from them. It does have a bit of a pull in a lead that never quite reaches a solo, and instead feels more like it’s attempting to break away from the riffs. John Henry’s cries of “You’re a plague, you’re a plague/And you feed off the youth but it won’t keep you young”, leave him in the more quasi-personal, but possibly political range they occupied on the last two albums (though one is inclined to belief that prior address of “you war-pig fuck”, for instance, on said prior albums had a specific object in mind). Henry’s voice is fully developed by now, which makes the final closing note that matches his last yell of “You’re a plague” stop the song on a dime, quite authoritatively and juicily.
There’s a favourite guitar trick of the band’s (based on its relative commonality, I’m guessing it’s that of founding rhythm guitarist Mike Schleibaum) in “Death Worship”–an opening guitar that comes in for a moment with the band as a whole but drops to one channel (in this case, the left) and plays off the song’s primary riff with no accompaniment, the sound deliberately thinned to emphasize this and thus underscore the re-introduction of the rest of the band when it ends. When the charging riff and Parrish’s pounding drums come in, the sort of folk likely to say “These songs all sound the same,” are likely to open their mouths–which is really what I mean about the album: it’s a return to consistent kinds of songwriting, not in the sense of uneven quality on previous albums, but in a greater expansion of sonic palette (including the strange, ideologically questionable but largely successful moments that John actually sang, in a sense, on some tracks). The drop to a single channel guitar is employed a few more times in the track, as it allows the riff to be highlighted before it becomes part of the song’s entire sound. It’s a signature move, really. There are still threads of the extreme melodicism that Townsend’s production introduced to the band, with Carrigan’s two-tone see-saw lead that draws the ending half of the song outward most clearly echoing this, even if he was not present for those sessions.
There’s nothing quite like a good latter-day hardcore or death metal wordless roar employed correctly, and “The Tides” makes use of one, Parrish giving just a moment’s reprieve from the aggressive riffing to allow John Henry to open his throat and bellow over the firmly rhythmic riffing that is so indicative of the band’s style. A flurry of tremolo riffing and climbing chords draws clear and very solid lines behind Henry as he does some of his most tempo-defying vocals, pausing between lines, and holding them despite the rapid and clear beat Parrish (as ever) puts behind him. Carrigan gets to drop his first solo–the kind that Norris used to lay into the band’s tracks on previous albums to the joy of many. It’s a full set of tapping waves, and leads into a solo from Schleibaum that more closely resembles the distinctly blues-based approach of 70s heavy metal–bends and high notes, certainly, but more picked strings than tapped ones. One of the best parts is hearing the sneer enter John’s voice as he howls out the final words, echoing his prior chorus ending ones, but taking them further: “And you fool and you fake/Like it’s all been arranged/And you wax and you waaaaane”–and you think it’s going to go on, but it just ends on that last word, and somehow it makes sense afterward.
I do believe “No God” was released prior to the album as a lead track, and made clear to listeners (me, at least) that the album was going to be riff-heavy again, with the furiously mechanical drumming of Parrish drawing a clear tempo for the song under the strongly defined chords of the introduction, rapid bass kicks turning to a blast beat and Schleibuam and Carrigan cramming as much as they can into each of his beats. The chorus, though–as is often the case with metal, a distinctly irreligious (to put it mildly) tone develops: “Keep waiting, keep waiting for”–and then the song drops, not to a breakdown, but to the booming of defined and clear beats: “NO God to release you/NO God to make you fall to your knees” which a lightning fury of falling fingers brings back to verse. The sudden change in feel, the squealing guitar lines and double-tracked vocals on the first two words seem intended to leave no doubts as to Henry’s meaning, though the song actually marks the appearance of a beautiful and somewhat unexpected solo: the rising wave of flowing tremolo picks that seem to crest like undulations in a surface that remains unbroken, the higher notes curved off to avoid any sense of piercing. While the stick-poking provocation of the song might’ve been at least a partial motivator, it also makes sense as a single track when Schleibaum’s sizzling solo wails its way out and establishes, finally, the band’s sound for the album. When Henry finally starts repeating “There’s no God to bear your burdens/There’s no God/There’s no God/There’s no God/No, it’s all an illusion”, it feels like an antitheistic declaration in anthemic form.
“Bitter” is a blistering blur of a minute and a half, at first seeming it will be a continuance of the threaded melodies in thrash, but it’s beaten into an absolute flurry of aggression after only twenty seconds, the kind of song that screams “mosh pit” to me, even as a non-mosher–it would describe the chaotic swirl of the worst of slam dancers happily and easily, even sliding in the vague atonal squeals of a Kerry King style-lead for a few moments.
“Blessed Infection” has a great opener, pounding down a slowly falling melody, then turning to the brief, near-staccato chords Darkest Hour knows best, though Carrigan infuses them with some clear lead playing. Another strong contender for tracks to lead with, the centerpiece is a pair of closely tied solos that again exhibits the two different playing styles present–but it also leaves room for one of my favourite games in music–is this a typo or a clever indication of how flexible English is? “Contagious and spreading/It’s blessed infection”–is that a deliberate contraction, or a mistaken possessive? Either works–even works in the context of the lines surrounding it.
“Transcendence” is the song that most appealed to me in-and-of itself when it appeared, the chugging rumble of Parrish, Paul Burnette’s bass, and one guitar riffing low is used as backdrop for subtle sparks of guitar that seem to draw arcs instead of lines between the beats, as if they are weaving over and under each of them. That they are done in that almost-immediately-muted riffing style Schleibuam has always favoured only helps the impression that they are trying to sneak in between beats. “It’s a self-made misery/It’s a blatant blasphemy/But all we need is a little transcendence to mend us/But all we have is sedation that numbs all our senses”, Henry comes as close to singing as he ever does on this album–it’s an excellent chorus, not reaching too far outside the bounds established by the instruments, while still rising enough to be phonetically punctuated with emphasis on each monosyllabic word. A subded, watery moment part way through that is hammered back down by clearly spaced instruments gives the whole track a greater balance, too, without, again, losing track of the song itself.
Recalling the relentless anger of Hidden Hands, “A Distorted Utopia” has one of the absolute best riffs on the album–it’s very light on interest in melody as it starts, Ryan’s drums consistent but polyphonic and heavy. But it’s that riff dives below the surface and tugs rapidly at the lower end, rising only slightly to halve its speed and undercut its own height with a firm and definitive set of low notes. It’s the kind of riff that drives metal’s best “heavy” moments–not a completely standard, tired trope, but one that is both familiar and viscerally engaging. Carrigan puts in another of his smoothed out liquid solos that won’t break the surface, and it ends with the scattered, jagged guitars of a momentary breakdown that avoids the archetypal one of modern “hardcore” to remain relevant to the song.
It’s another recall of the consistent tone of So Sedated for “Black Sun”, Parrish drawing a clear and largely “simple” beat that Schleibaum, Carrigan, and Burnette leave inviolate, vines and ivy crawling across it as decorative rather than defiant in their more varied tonalities. The two guitars pair up for a dual lead solo, but keep the actual pitches rather in check, higher than the rest, but sticking within a reasonable range of each other, or at least not making too sudden a jump at any point.
There’s honestly no chance, I think, that Darkest Hour can ever top “Tranquil” from Undoing Ruin as a closer, as it deals with the drums in one of my favourite ever ways–the kind that will inspire the desire to pound out the rhythm alongside it, much like one might feel the desire to punch the air in expression of extreme joy or success. It’s interesting, though, that “Into the Grey” musically straddles “Tranquil” and Hidden Hands closer “Veritas, Aequitas”–it’s a normal length, fully vocal song, but it has the rising tones and pulsing drama of “Veritas”, as well as the alternating aggressive, “normal” passages of “Tranquil”. It has the appropriate sense of final drama to close the album and is utterly appropriate in its placement, the kind that fills a room and spreads across it, drops in a note of menace and threat in its final moments then just hangs and lingers when it suddenly ends.
Darkest Hour, I’ll admit, tripped me up when writing–who amongst those who read this would find either gratification or even perverse confusion in my ownership of so many of their albums? Who would think “Of course”, or “Why in the hell…?” on seeing that, rather than maybe “Oh,” or “I have no idea what that is”? It was, then, somewhat lucky I found myself in a forced hiatus now–how, in particular, was I to touch on this band, one I know will not ring out with the non-metal folks, of whom I know many, or with the metal folk I do know who don’t even have this name bouncing around much in their circles?
It called out for a re-arrangement of my approach to writing about an album–it’s exhausting and frustrating to try to literally describe an album as it happens, and sometimes feels like a lot of effort for an end result of questionable value to any reader, as well as the kind most subject to both “correction” or disagreement in the least helpful of ways–my description, written as factual explanation, failing to coincide with another’s experience does little to elucidate why it is I’m listening in the first place. Certainly, I attempted to weave commentary in as possible, but it made the act one of a kind of dread. Darkest Hour is a comfort to me, in a sense–their albums are all ones I enjoy, and none run off into territory that feels unlike the band, though they mark themselves out as separate quite readily all the same. Ending up finding all of them on vinyl that was not only coloured but coloured differently for each release was truly gratifying.
I remember passing “The Sadist Nation” to a group of hardcore-complainers (that is, complainers about hardcore, not people who were hardcore about complaining) nervously, wondering if it exhibited all of their concerns about the tiresome clichés–though it has a sort of “breakdown”, it passed muster, even as it fell out of favour for being too in keeping with the ever-melodic sounds of Sweden (that it has vocals from Lindberg wouldn’t help that notion). I also remember the worst review I’ve ever read on the perennially internally-inconsistent AllMusicGuide (which has a habit of saying things like “A really great album” and then rating it 2/5–indicating sometimes someone other than the rater is writing): it dismissed Hidden Hands of a Sadist Nation on the grounds that John Henry’s death metal-inflected hardcore yelling (it’s very dry, somewhat hoarse, and is closer to an amplification of hardcore styled barks than it is the inhuman growling of death metal) sounds like it does. It was quite useless in this respect–as if someone said, “This Bill Evans album is stupid because I hate pianos.” Well, that’s lovely–someone who has interest in a style or genre that is known for that very instrument could warn the unfamiliar that it sounds as such, then evaluate the material in that context.
It was the only complaint I ever felt was worth sending AllMusic, as it was the most worthless review I could imagine–and a very strange blot on their discography on the site: one and a half stars amidst largely positive reviews that stay at 3.5 and 4 following it (though the reviewer who tackled So Sedated shared my feelings about its rather lackluster songs–similar to my sentiments about the Foo Fighters’ One by One, but that’s something else entirely).
In any case, this is probably not the first album I’d suggest to most people looking into this band–even of the post-Kris Norris (for some reason, vaunted as the only reason the band was ever worth listening to, which I’ve found ever-confusing, as it seemed to only apply on 2/3 of the albums he appeared on) set, of which I’d first suggest the last entry, The Human Romance. They’ve always been a very sincere band, though–not feeling like they are trying too hard to reach metal folks, embrace hardcore, or otherwise be anything they aren’t. John Henry’s early look was very short hair and thick black-rimmed glasses (though he’s now seen without those frames and with long hair)–and they’ve been seen on tape discussing Sex and the City, with fun poked at each other but little judgment. Their appreciation of their Swedish forebears was obvious in sound, but embraced openly with all the choices made for Hidden Hands. The Eternal Return, though, is a bridge backward to link the Townsend-produced albums with the material to follow.
¹I do have it on vinyl now, and I own most of Darkest Hour’s oeuvre on vinyl–it’s the only 2xLP, though Victory did press it with the re-recorded version of “For the Soul of the Saviour” that was on the deluxe edition CD re-release of the album–but that isn’t at all what pushed it over the edge.