Whenever a veteran band announces that they’re going to “go back to their roots” on their new album, it’s often enough to make one cringe. The prospect of their returning to their early sound is even more discouraging when a band’s been around for a good 15 years and has only just recently put together a string of good records after years of mediocrity. Such is the case with Darkest Hour. After an extended formative period when they slowly developed their own identity, the Washington, D.C. band hit pay dirt when they collaborated with esteemed musician/producer Devin Townsend on 2005’s Undoing Ruin. Following the lead of Swedish bands Soilwork and In Flames, the band figured out that if they worked harder at emphasizing their melodic side, they’d easily distance themselves from the rest of the melodic death metal clones that plagued the American metal landscape in the early 2000s. 2007’s Deliver Us was just as strong, if not more so, Townsend continuing to mold Darkest Hour into a solid metal act capable of both impressive musicianship and undeniably hooky singles.
Two years later, though, the band took a big step back with The Eternal Return. Reuniting with Brian McTernan, who produced their not-exactly-memorable debut, So Sedated, So Secure, Darkest Hour reverted to their old sound and wound up churning out exercises in aggression rather than melody, coming off as stale and faceless in the process. Even mainstream bores like As I Lay Dying sounded better than that album did.
So it comes as a nice surprise that Darkest Hour wasted no time, as they returned to the studio to record their seventh album (that they left Victory Records to sign with the higher profile E1 was probably a factor), in proving that The Eternal Return was just an aberration. It certainly doesn’t hurt that influential Soilwork guitarist Peter Wichers helms the new record, either. After all, if there’s one band Darkest Hour has drawn from the most over the years, it’s Soilwork, and Wichers, who is no slouch when it comes to producing, knows exactly how to mold a band like this. As a result, The Human Romance has the entire band sounding rejuvenated.
Most importantly, though, the songwriting is improved in a big way. If The Eternal Return taught us anything, it’s that melodic death metal devoid of hooks is utterly pointless; it’s supposed to be melodic after all. So when “The World Engulfed in Flames” (a Freudian slip if we ever saw one!) kicks the record off with some of the strongest twin guitar melodies we’ve heard from Darkest Hour in a while, we instantly know they’re back on track. Granted, their formula is a simple one, but it’s one they can do well when they want to. Brutality is put on the back burner in favor of some good old dynamics, and as the track gracefully segues into a classy-sounding bridge, it dares to approach the refined style of Killswitch Engage. After guitarist Kris Norris left in 2008, The Eternal Return had many wondering if the band would ever find that balance of aggression and catchiness, but the Mike Schliebaum and Mike Carrigan prove more than capable throughout the entire album, their riffs, melodies, and leads clean-sounding and placed front and center by Wichers.
After resorting to a boring death growl on the last record, vocalist John Henry brings the kind of range he showed on Undoing Ruin and Deliver Us, shifting from guttural roars to mid-range snarls and, thankfully, returning to the odd cleanly-sung passage as well. As a result we get songs like “Wound”, “Beyond the Life You Know”, and the terrific, single-in-the-making “Love as a Weapon” that show there’s a lot more depth to Henry’s vocals than those of other similarly-styled screamers. Interestingly, though, the most exciting moment on The Human Romance has no vocals. At more than eight minutes, the instrumental “Terra Solaris” is a real stretch for a band accustomed to putting out songs half as long, but this is one gorgeous piece, Schliebaum and Carrigan leading the way with some of the most arresting melodic passages that Darkest Hour has ever done. No, this album doesn’t deviate from the melodic death metal formula one bit, but it’s by all means a welcome return to form by one of the better American melodeath bands out there.
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