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Darkest Hour has come a long way musically since 1996, when it released a cruddy-sounding debut EP, The Misanthrope. In fact, the D.C. metalcore quintet has significantly expanded its sound since 2004, when it was assigned to toil in the Ozzfest brunch slot. On Deliver Us, Darkest Hour behaves like a heavy-metal Blob, absorbing various influences—British metal, Bay Area thrash, the District’s politically charged punk, and most important, melodic Swedish black metal—becoming what’s now a singular and formidable creature.
Anyone who was familiar with Darkest Hour’s more straightforward hardcore roots might be surprised, but there have been hints of the music’s complexity and attention to melody in the past. The band’s previous album, 2005’s Undoing Ruin, made a respectable blip on the Billboard 200; as a testament to the band’s growing popularity, A-F Records released Archives, a collection of Darkest Hour’s early works, and Victory Records reissued its second album, 2001’s So Sedated, So Secure. Set against those albums, Deliver Us puts Darkest Hour one step closer to giant, pyrotechnics-filled arenas, about which all metal bands dream—even ones with crusty, anti-capitalist roots.
For the second time, the band has handed production duties to Devin Townsend, frontman of Strapping Young Lad, who seems happy minding the boards while his main band is on hiatus. The record sounds expensive but never slick, and the band’s varied styles are complimented by Townsend’s taste for experimental, proggy excess—sudden time-signature changes, wacky studio banter, brief but noodly guitar flourishes. The lush sound certainly goes down easier than previous Darkest Hour discs, which is partly due to the increased number of melodic riffs churned out by guitarists Mike Schleibaum and Kris Norris. But the main difference is vocalist John Henry, who now mixes some actual singing along with his usual metalcore growls.
Henry hinted at this talent on Undoing Ruin, but on Deliver Us he offers full, swelling, harmonious choruses; he hits notes so hard you’d think they’d spilled beer on his cassette of British Steel. The first clue that he’s acquired new powers comes halfway through the second track on the new album, “Sanctuary,” as Henry croons—croons!—“If you can hear me/Come and let me out/Oh, please break me out/And give me sanctuary.” It’s as if he’s crying to be freed from a sect of Hardcore Vocals Loyalists and allowed to give his pipes a chance to soar. (In fact, he’s actually railing against the military-industrial complex, evincing a political bent that’s been a mainstay in Henry’s lyrics.) As if to dispel any doubts that it’s a Darkest Hour song, though, Henry quickly returns to dissonant form, and Ryan Parrish fires off some Dave Lombardo–esque drum blasts.
Still, the album continues in a more euphonic vein on the rhythmically intense single “Demons(s),” which boasts some impressive fretwork from the two guitarists, and even more harmonious vocals: Henry employs not only the guttural grunt but the scream-sing and, ultimately, the majestic, apple-grabbing sustained notes on the song’s chorus. Indeed, when he sings lines like, “And one of these days, we’ll no longer/Betray ourselves in any way/And we’ll all take the same way out/So don’t give up on me/We can all pretend it’s just a dream,” it’s hard not to tag the track as part of that genre whose name rhymes with “chemo.” True, parts of the song do bring the band dangerously close sonically to the likes of Trivium and Atreyu; I once wrote that Henry’s vocals sounded like a vomiting Rottweiler, and a few fans will probably miss those old, retching-dog days.
Yet if the album is catchier and less cacophonous than Darkest Hour’s previous efforts, the band could hardly be tagged as sellouts. Deliver Us is still a very jarring listen—certainly angrier than anything a popular metalcore band like Shadows Fall could contemplate producing. And the band needed the increased attention to tunefulness: On its 2003 album, Hidden Hands of a Sadist Nation, it stuck with black-metal tropes and barked vocals, resulting in a numbingly uniform product. After a dozen years, numerous lineup changes, and bankrupt labels, they’ve earned the right to craft an album that effortlessly careens from mellow guitar meditations to metallic salvos to anthemic choruses—in the case of “A Paradox With Flies,” all in the same song.
At any rate, the members of Darkest Hour seem to be having too much fun to worry about how they’re perceived. You don’t even need to watch one of the making-the-album “Webisodes” to notice how much of a good time they had goofing around in the studio. That sense of fun comes through on the album’s first song, “Doomsayer (The Beginning of the End).” During the song’s first break, Schleibaum and Norris engage in an unbridled Malmsteenian workout that would earn them five-star ratings on Guitar Hero’s expert mode. And on “Tunguska,” the two finish the song off with some Slash–Izzy guitar interplay that recalls the best days of the Gunners. Perhaps because they don’t take themselves so seriously, the members of Darkest Hour can so easily reference the Los Angeles metal of Guns N’ Roses and the Göteborg metal of At the Gates in the same song. To them, it’s all just metal, and every subgenre is just something else to absorb and incorporate into an ever-growing aesthetic.