Consistency is an under-appreciated quality in the world of heavy metal, and for any band striving for consistency, it becomes harder to maintain as more music is written and more albums are released. From the venerable Massachusetts metal scene, practically every band the region has produced has faltered somewhere along the way, including scene godfathers Killswitch Engage, Shadows Fall, and All That Remains. The only band from the area left with an unblemished record is Unearth, the group that has virtually always been the exception to the rule. When their three big contemporaries strove for melodicism and accessibility, Unearth chose to get heavier, more technical and more intense. Their last three albums—2004’s The Oncoming Storm, 2006’s III: In the Eyes of Fire and 2008’s The March—- have all served as testimonies to the sheer, unbridled excellence that Unearth always produces. The group has returned with another statement of greatness, Darkness in the Light, proving that consistency does not equate with being formulaic.
The staples of Unearth’s career are present in fine form on Darkness in the Light. Like The March before it, this album is bursting at the seams with awe-inspiring guitar solos that will get every listener’s blood pumping. Be it the tasteful flair of Ken Susi or the frenetic shred of Buz McGrath, every single solo on this album is an attention grabber. The unmistakable bass tone of John “Slo” Maggard gives every track a full, layered feel that few bands can achieve. On top of everything is the inimitable roar of Trevor Phipps, giving his best vocal performance since The Oncoming Storm. Not only does Phipps have a stronger overall sound to his voice than on The March, but he is also able to vary his tones and styles a great deal, without the overproduced feel that occurred on In the Eyes of Fire. Phipps also delivers the most intelligent, emotional and unforgiving lyrical onslaught of his career on Darkness in the Light, ranging between the deeply personal topics of internal conflict and scathing rebukes of societal injustice. It’s familiar ground for Phipps, but never before has he tread it with such passion or ferocity.
However, Darkness in the Light does have plenty of elements that set it apart from the band’s previous output. Immediately noticeable is the return of Susi’s backing clean vocals, which have not been heard since The Oncoming Storm. The inclusion of these clean vocals is not a cheap attempt at greater accessibility, though. Rather, they serve as tasteful accentuation to Phipps’ primal screams on vital lyrical passages. Of greater significance, though, is the overall tightness of the record and its stylistic variety. These come courtesy of Killswitch Engage drummer Justin Foley, providing the drums in studio for Unearth following the departure of drummer Derek Kerswill last year. Capable of playing with both remarkable subtlety and extreme brutality, Foley is the happy medium between the organic, groove-oriented play of Kerswill and the intricate, technically-focused play of Mike Justian, Unearth’s drummer from 2004 to 2007. With Foley behind the kit, Unearth churns out songs of every style they’ve produced in their history. Technical thrash, assaultive hardcore, and well-integrated melody all blend together on this record, defining the band’s sound in a way that hasn’t been done since The Oncoming Storm.
Many have predicted that Unearth would stumble and lose their credibility during the past seven years. Those doubters that still remain will be left in waiting once again by Darkness in the Light. Continuing their trend of consistency and refining the minor missteps of their older work, Unearth have proven once again that they are uncompromising in their standards and stalwart in their musical vision. Very few bands in modern metal have maintained the level of aggression and rawness that Unearth continue to produce, and that will be one of the band’s defining characteristics until they retire. Darkness in the Light is the latest declaration of Unearth’s greatness, and a sign that there is only more top-notch metal to come.
// Notes from the Road
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