Northern Ireland’s Darkest Era received high acclaim from critics for their debut album “The Last Caress of Light” upon its release back in 2011 for its seamless hybridisation of solemn Celtic folk metal with a solid foundation of twin guitar-driven NWOBHM influence. Though it was before I was around, Heathen Harvest were among the voices singing its praises, with Navdi awarding it a perfect score (for full review click here) – now, with the release of their sophomore record “Severance,” I suppose I’m adding my own voice to that choir. Darkest Era quite plainly take their marching orders from Primordial, their rather more established Celtic metal forebears from down south in the Republic of Ireland, but they bring their established formula to bear with such proficiency and flair that it’s hard to believe that they’re still only two albums into their career.
Darkest Era cultivate an organic, mossy atmosphere of the sort one would expect of an Agalloch or a Fen, but where those bands frequently digress from riff-driven metal deep into ethereal, airy territory, Darkest Era remain rooted in earthy rhythm guitar work, placing as much emphasis on thrilling the listener with old fashioned rock-n’-roll as the evocation of vast, panoramic landscapes. The success of “Severance” lies in how well it pulls off this balancing act, retaining the best of both worlds. The band vividly conjure images of craggy cliffs and ragged, wind-beaten shorelines without ever becoming needlessly ponderous or soporific, with songs given room to breathe without abandoning economy. “Severance” is an intelligent, sober, serious-minded record, but for all that, also surprisingly fun and easily listenable.
Ade Mulgrew and Sarah Wieghell’s guitar work is deft and playful in its mercurial shifts between styles. At times it’s grounded in great crashing chords and huge distorted downstrokes similar to those found in high-minded epic folk metal acts like Moonsorrow or Finsterforst. “Beyond the Grey Veil” in particular borders on doom metal, such is the extent to which its chords are allowed to linger, forming a backdrop for the vocal melodies.
That said, the ease – the nonchalance, even – with which the band transition into propulsive riffage is remarkable, whether they’re employing euphoric, arcing tremolo lines in “The Scavenger” or punchy, galloping triplets taking their cues from Iron Maiden in “Trapped in the Hourglass.” These too are intertwined with exorbitantly lush leads (the majestic solo that brings “Songs of Gods and Men” to a soaring climax is one of my highlights of 2014 so far) and clean and acoustic interludes at ideally chosen intervals. Special credit is due also to Lisa Howe’s drumming, whose rolling fills and thunderous double kick cement the album’s rocky, weather beaten aesthetic.
Tonally, Darkest Era oscillate between bittersweet melancholy and rousing, chest-beating triumph, and they do so with grace and poise, finding a point of equilibrium that carries emotional heft. The explosive chorus of “Songs of Gods and Men” (“LIGHT A CANDLE FOR THE DEAD!”) best encapsulates the vibe that the band seem to be going for – at once mourning death and celebrating glorious rebirth, commemorating a dark past and ushering in a brighter future. That they carry it off without seeming trite or reductive is due in no small part to the stellar performance of vocalist Dwayne “Krum” Maguire, whose clear, melodious tones belie a surprising strength, affording the morose verses of “Beyond the Grey Veil” the requisite gravitas and carrying off the long notes of “The Scavenger” with equal efficacy.
Darkes Era hit it out of the park with this one. “Severance” is a colossal work, stern and imperious and yet eminently listenable and re-listenable – even in the time it’s taken me to write this review, I’ve found my affection for the tracks herein growing with each successive replay. It’s an album that’s magnificent without being ostentatious in its magnificence – nothing about it is excessive or flashy. It’s just when you listen closely that you realise everything about it went right at every stage – it offers an abundance of songs that are well-written and conceptually creative and in possession of an eloquent melodic vocabulary, played proficiently and with depth of feeling. In a metal scene that can all too often feel like an arms race, records like this one, beacons of quality over quantity, are like sunbeams piercing through stormclouds. Records like this one, when released early in a band’s career, are often referred to glibly as “promising”; when they’re remembered twenty years later, the word more commonly heard is “classic.”
01) Sorrow’s Boundless Realm
02) Songs of Gods and Men
03) The Serpent and the Shadow
04) Beyond the Grey Veil
05) Trapped in the Hourglass
06) The Scavenger
07) A Thousand Screaming Souls
08) Blood, Sand and Stone