Some people see the recent wave of metalcore bands as a healthy time for American metal, but many others consider it to be an absolute plague, a blight on the metal landscape, obscuring more traditional forms of the sound while lesser talents steal the spotlight. No question about it, over the last two years, the number of American metalcore bands has skyrocketed, the formula of aggressive thrash riffs meshed with hardcore (i.e. screamed) vocals repeated ad nauseam, and it’s gotten to the point where dozens of these bands have become so interchangeable, it’s enough to give up on the sound entirely. The kids are earnest, no mistake about it, but if they want to last longer than a couple of albums, they’re going to have to learn that it takes something much more bold to rise from under the metalcore heap and flirt with more mainstream success. Shadows Fall, Chimaira, and Trivium have all made that crucial jump by incorporating vocal melodies into their music, and while that gimmick doesn’t always work for everybody (Diecast, for instance), it’s an indication that something has to be done about metalcore; it’s only recently started breaking through to the mainstream, and it’s already well past its saturation point.
Compared to most of their young peers, Washington, D.C.‘s Darkest Hour can be called veterans of the metalcore scene, with three albums under their belts, and it’s on Undoing Ruin, that ever-so-crucial third record, that they make their big stab at metal supremacy. However, unlike Shadows Fall, Darkest Hour have headed in the complete opposite direction; instead of embracing “clean” vocals, the quintet has gone back to their metal roots, and the end result will surprise many skeptics.
The band has always displayed hints of classic Swedish metal before, but Undoing Ruin embraces the Gothenburg sound of the mid-‘90s completely, drawing on the tight, relentlessly fast, technically slick styles of the progenitors of the sound, At the Gates, In Flames, and Dark Tranquillity. Playing a very key factor in all of this is producer Devin Townsend; the mad genius behind Strapping Young Lad is also one of the finest metal producers today, and knows a thing or two about crafting quality Swedish metal (he masterminded Soilwork’s explosive 2002 album Natural Born Chaos). Darkest Hour’s latest sounds as if the man put the band into a tiny room and squeezed every ounce of metal-fueled passion out of them, because this exceptionally taut album completely transcends bland metalcore, and bursts at the seams with searing guitar solos, breakneck rhythms, and dizzying riffs.
Guitarists Mike Schleibaum and Kris Norris dominate the record, delivering potent dual harmony licks, spiraling arpeggios, ornate melodies, deft solos, and powerful chords. “Sound the Surrender” rivals anything Dark Tranquillity has done recently, the guitarists’ staccato picking and vocalist John Henry’s screech (not unlike At the Gates’ Tomas Lindberg) offset by subtle hints of keyboard melodies. In contrast, “This Will Outlive Us” is purely an exercise in speed and precision, Schleibaum and Norris opting for more atonal, Slayer-style soloing, complete with swooping divebombs that evoke the great Slayer duo of Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman. “Convalescence” comes close to sounding like the In Flames of recent years, with its more open chord structure and the slightest hint of vocal melodies in the choruses, while “District Divided” goes for a considerably more bludgeoning sound, the guitar duo drawing from 1980s American thrash metal. The lengthy closing track “Tranquil” ends things on a very high note, the song’s arrangements bordering on progressive, as the twin guitars, bring the disc to a stirring climax with their midtempo harmonies.
Somewhat overshadowed by the fantastic guitar work, Henry’s lyrics prove to be especially strong, namely on “District Divided”, which addresses the gentrification problems in his hometown (he was left homeless after his own building was purchased), and on the positive-thinking “Paradise”. The thoughtful lyrics cap off what is a very well made album, probably the best Swedish metal CD by a bunch of non-Swedes you’ll hear in a while, and although it’s not a direction that is easy for casual listeners to digest, it’s an admirable move, and fans of good, honest metal will be thrilled. If anything, it’ll get the metalcore kids listening to the real classic stuff instead.