D.C. metal institution Darkest Hour has gradually metamorphosed into one of the better melodic death-metal bands in the genre today, their years of touring and recording paying off hugely with 2005’s remarkable Undoing Ruin, which boldly side-stepped the American metalcore trend in favor of a sound rooted in the sounds of early-‘90s Swedish metal. Along with Between the Buried and Me, the quintet is the crowning metal jewel of the incredibly crowded Victory Records roster, so it’s no surprise that there was a lot riding on the follow-up to that breakthrough disc. And while Darkest Hour is far from the boldest band around (they don’t so much reinvent the wheel as smooth all the kinks out), they’ve turned into a very likeable act, one with enough skill to impress us with their musicianship and capable of enough melodic hooks to command our attention.
The difference between Undoing Ruin and the new one, Deliver Us, isn’t quite the same drastic leap between 2003’s Hidden Hands of a Sadist Nation and Undoing Ruin, but the band has settled into a comfortable place, creating richly defined songs dominated by the lithe, mellifluous guitar work of Mike Schleibaum and Kris Norris, and enhanced by the vocal work of John Henry, who continues to broaden his range beyond the typical rote screaming we hear all too often. What we get most out of the new record is a sense of confidence, the feeling that Darkest Hour has finally found its musical identity, and heavily derived from At the Gates it may be, the band nevertheless pulls it off extremely well, often brilliantly. Once again, talented Canadian producer/musician/madman Devin Townsend is at the helm, and delivers his trademark mix (spacious, yet unrelenting), but also makes room for more reflective, melodic moments. But a kinder, gentler Darkest Hour this is most certainly not.
It’s only natural that a Washington-based band be preoccupied with the state of the Capital and its nation, and Deliver Us reflects the unease many folks are feeling these days. “You are the only one with the ability to turn this tide / With the capacity to learn the truth and burn the lies,” hollers Henry on the opening track “Doomsayer (The Beginning of the End)”, the combination of aggressive vocals, a furious thrash tempo, and the flamboyant guitar harmonies of Schleibaum and Norris bearing an uncanny similarity to the searing, full-on assault of Arch Enemy. The blunt hostility of “Stand and Receive Your Judgment” is aimed strictly towards a certain President, Henry refusing to mince words: “By the time that you realize the damage you’ve done / You’ll be long fucking gone, you coward, you puppet.” Yet Henry is fully aware the blame rests partly on the general public itself, who collectively elected their leader, and the majestic title track attempts to come to terms with losing one’s faith in his or her homeland: “And to think we created this monster / Crawling in and walking out on us / To think that we craft our own disasters / Falling in and falling out of hope.”
It’s the chemistry of the two guitarists that remains Darkest Hour’s strongest asset, though, and Schleibaum and Norris dominate Deliver Us. Ultra-tight staccato picking, spacious cords, and maniacal divebombs punctuate the unrelenting “Sanctuary”, while “Demon(s)” dares to soften the band’s sound just enough to resemble Dark Tranquillity, chiming guitar notes taking the place of the Swedish greats’ trademark keyboard melodies, as Henry delivers his catchiest chorus to date. “A Paradox With Flies” gets downright mellow before launching into a soaring double-layered melody that sounds more Joy Division than In Flames, but it’s on the dour “Tunguska” that the duo shines brightest, the central guitar hook complementing Henry’s clean singing perfectly, with even some acoustic guitar sneaking subtly into the mix.
If there’s one minor annoyance, it’s Darkest Hour’s almost comical timing when it comes to album cover artwork. Undoing Ruin was designed by Chris Taylor, whose splattery portrait was eerily similar to Pig Destroyer’s Terrifyer, which had come out months earlier. Now comes the pastel colors, flowers, and bones on Deliver Us, created by the extraordinary John Baizley, which coincides with the release of Pig Destroyer’s Phantom Limb, which features, you guessed it, pastel colors, flowers, and bones painted by Baizley. Still, despite such a incredible and distracting coincidence, the band lets the music do the talking, and Deliver Us is their most assured release to date.