Sometimes being a little derivative on the surface is a good thing. It certainly helped the cause of Darkest Era, a newish act out of Northern Ireland presenting in their full-length debut The Last Caress Of Light. Their sound, which can simplistically (and lazily) be described with the formula of “Primordial minus the black metal plus Thin Lizzy and NWOBHM,” garnered the attention of Alan Averill, who subsequently helped to get them signed to Metal Blade. Metalheads often use such a signing as an excuse to cry “hype!”, but Darkest Era deserves the big time support in every way possible, and fans should take notice. Like, now.
So just how did our Irish compatriots respond to this sudden visibility? They fuckin’ ran with it, that’s how, recording one fantastic goddamn slab of folk-inspired metal and somewhat positioning themselves as the missing link between the spirits of Thin Lizzy and Primordial. While the music here is certainly closer in design and execution to the latter (rhythms have the same intense Irish folk feel), Darkest Era contains zero black metal elements and their focus on dual lead guitars is more than reminiscent of Phil Lynott’s legend, particularly the title track of Black Rose. So despite many of the rhythm guitar riffs having a very Primordial feel to them, the overarching mood of the music is somewhat different. While Primordial condenses the sorrow and rage of their country’s entire history into each song and album, Darkest Era’s music seems to have come to grips with this history. If Primordial represents the whole of the Irish nation(s), Darkest Era represents its people. It may take several listens for the music to sink in past the above formula, but once it does, the full captivating beauty of this cultural interpretation will shine through.
The band’s collective skills and obvious passion for their art bleed through their compositions, as is evident from the opening notes of “The Morrigan.” Guitar lines by Ade Mulgrew and Sarah Weighell move in and out of support and lead roles depending on what vocalist Dwayne “Krum” Maguire is doing at the time, backed up by a stellar rhythm section in bassist David Lindsay and drummer Lisa Howe. (Maguire, by the way, is as emotive and nearly as skilled as the aforementioned Averill, but in a very different way that befits the band’s less bleak aura.) The structure of each song generally revolves around instantly memorable choruses, but is bolstered by an acute sense of dynamics, allowing each track to build through the bridge and beyond. Early highlights, such as the heart-wrenching melodies of “An Ancient Fire Burns,” the NWOBHM-ish gallop to “Heathen Burial,” or the biting dual lead action, reveal the band’s deft touch for songcraft, but really they only hint at where the album will take listeners in its latter minutes.
This slightly back-heavy nature will add to the subtle learning curve that already exists on The Last Caress Of Light. While those earlier tracks are of high-to-outstanding quality, it is really the album’s closing trilogy that solidifies the proceedings. “To Face The Black Tide” follows the formula of earlier songs but ups the ante with a glorious arrangement, the album’s most moving and chilling chorus – Maguire is in top form here – and a masterful climax. Following is “Poem To The Gael,” a wisely-placed folk track that acts less as a palate-cleanser and more as glue for the two epics that surround it. Last comes the constantly building title track, “The Last Caress Of Light Before The Dawn,” a brilliant crescendo of vocals, rhythms, and intense melodies that will have those arm hairs standing on end. Individually each of the three songs is a highlight, but as a trio they reveal the band’s true talent.
An almost scary characteristic of Darkest Era is how much potential can be heard on The Last Caress Of Light, despite this already being a very highly recommended purchase. If the band further hones their unique elements and continues to improve the intricacies of their songwriting, there is little doubt in my mind that they can and will move their status from “recommended purchase” to “for the goddamn ages.” As they exist today, derivative riffing and all, they are crafting stunning music, resulting in what is easily one of the debuts to beat in 2011.