When it comes to celebrating this city’s alternative music past, metal plays second string—if that. A Washington City Paper feature on D.C.’s doom metal history took an extensive look at local players who’ve wielded great influence over the slow-moving course of the genre’s evolution, but never received the accolades bestowed upon go-go and hardcore heroes. Not much has changed since then, even with the critical success of the 2011 gut-wrenching documentary about the tumultuous life of Pentagram frontman Bobby Liebling, Last Days Here. For every ode to D.C.’s doom forefathers there’s a couple dozen hardcore fans eager to film their “unique” spin on the history of harDCore. And that’s just doom, to say nothing of the city’s metal practitioners who’d arrive generations later—like metalcore mavens Darkest Hour.
Formed in 1995, Darkest Hour occupy an interesting space in D.C. music history. The first proper label to release their music was Art Monk Construction, which is better-known known for spindly post-hardcore than the kind of pummeling percussive assaults Darkest Hour dabbled in since their earliest days. (The connection isn’t as unusual as it might appear: Poke around the scans of their 1996 demo on Discogs and you can see Darkest Hour shouting-out Art Monk band Frodus alongside local metalcore precedents Damnation A.D.)
Darkest Hour would go on to sign with Victory Records during the controversial punk label’s halcyon days in the early 2000s. By that time they solidified their presence as a part of the New Wave of American Heavy Metal, a scattered collection of groups that expressed as much of a predilection for melody as they did hardcore’s corrosive aggression and extreme metal’s industrial-strength force. Darkest Hour never achieved the commercial success of, say, Avenged Sevenfold, but they’ve had their moments. They’ve released not just one, but two songs in support of the Washington Capitals—2008’s thrashy “Let’s Go Caps” and last year’s heavy footed “Rock the Red (Washington Capitals Fight Song).”
Twenty-two years in and Darkest Hour are still holding it together as a the workingman’s NWOAHM band. When metal site Invisible Oranges ran a “definitive ranking” of NWOAHM albums last year, editor Joseph Schafer astutely pointed out that only a few bands managed to crossover, most dissolved, and, somehow, Darkest Hour have kept a career going by the skin of their teeth. Last year founding guitarist Mike Schleibaum launched an IndieGoGo campaign to raise funds for the group’s ninth album. Darkest Hour raised more than $70,000 for Godless Prophets & the Migrant Flora, which comes out this week through vaunted underground metal label Southern Lord.
The sound of chaos swirls throughout Godless Prophets, but Darkest Hour perform with a robotic precision. Travis Orbin’s percussive landslides and Schleibaum’s blustery guitar solos—passages fueled with frisson, which dip and dive like a fire hose set on maximum power and let loose—find each other and stir up a thick wall of sound that shows the group’s composure, even as Darkest Hour make a convincing case that everything could fall apart at a moment’s notice. Tense and complex, the songs on Godless Prophets feel right for this moment. The tracks are anxious and suffocating enough that you could imagine co-founding vocalist John Henry tearing out his throat in order to heal the pain he projects through guttural howls.
Yet there are moments of brightness that flicker throughout Godless Prophets. There’s the chords that hum during a calm moment on “None of This is the Truth,” and the cascading melodic euphoria that closes “The Last of the Monuments.” Henry may bellow about nihilism and violence on “This is the Truth,” but Schleibaum’s glistening guitars during the tune’s end suggest a sense of hope, too. Darkest Hour have weathered the highs and lows of a lengthy career and seen peers go down in flames, but they still manage to find something to look forward to—and impart that in their music.