Here’s a melancholy truth: Most lusters fade. Sparks cool. Sheens dull. Some things, though? They stick with you.
Such has been the case with The Last Caress of Light, Darkest Era’s 2011 debut album. Too often, with the unending barrage of new music, we — and by “we” I’m thinking particularly of those of us who fancy ourselves anything like music critics, though it is sadly true of me as purely a listener, too — let ourselves get swept up in whirlwind infatuations that burn out quickly, leaving behind little lasting trace. Darkest Era’s first album has been a steady friend, though – a frequent travelling companion that asks little but offers great depth, great warmth, and wordless understanding. For anyone who feels the same, breathe easy: If you love The Last Caress of Light as I do, then you will also love Severance.
In most important ways, very little has changed in Darkest Era’s sound, which remains something like the Platonic ideal of a three-way collision between Iron Maiden, Thin Lizzy, and Primordial (although there’s also a clear kinship with the stoic misery of Mourning Beloveth and Graveyard Dirt). If The Last Caress of Light was a heralding sound sent trumpeting across a wide space, Severance is the returning echo: The sound is the same, except older, and perhaps sadder with the secret wisdom of what happens elsewhere, in those lands of other sorrows.
Surely a huge component of that difference is the guitar tone, which on Severance is darker and heavier than it was on The Last Caress of Light. There’s a palpable, tactile edge to the otherwise mostly rounded guitar tone, a grit like the remnants of old, sanded wood that’s been wiped mostly clean but remains marked with the memory of its cherry finish, its walnut lacquer, its sun-burnished glow. In addition to this differently hued production, Severance also shifts the songwriting focus slightly from the voice to the guitar. Riffs, leads, solos, and interwoven guitar/bass conversations are even more central to the narrative of these songs than in the past. That’s not to say that Krum’s golden-lunged vocals (the band’s not-at-all-secret weapon) are somehow underplayed, because they are still as bold, pure, mighty, and emotive as ever; it’s just that the songs make space for them differently.
Perhaps with all this talk of downcast feelings, I’m painting Severance as some self-consciously pained, self-flagellating exercise in miserablism. It would be a cardinal error to read Severance in that light, though, for what Darkest Era does is at every turn marked with joy. The band’s songs move with a swift jubilance born of deep devotion to heavy metal classicism in the Iron Maiden mold. Yet, even when the album hits its most aggressive notes — e.g., the wickedly cool tremolo lead on album opener “Sorrow’s Boundless Realm” or the vituperative kick-off of “A Thousand Screaming Souls” — there’s always a twinge of melancholy that colors everything.
A perfect example is “Beyond the Grey Veil,” which has a patient, methodical ascending riff that pulls deep from a draught of resignation, sounding like a Sisyphean march up a great hill, step after tired step. It’s a simple move that speaks volumes from a band that seems to understand intuitively that no destination is ever assured, though it remains convinced of the value of the attempt to find one at all. The gradually building choral effect of the song’s backing vocals is a lustrous unfolding; a place where it’s always springtime, with gauzily rent clouds raining the thirsty earth to a green beyond measure.
Though Severance relies less on huge, triumphant choruses than did the debut, Darkest Era has sharpened its songwriting prowess, adding equal parts sophistication and surprise at every turn. “Songs of Gods and Men” opens with a textbook Primordial flutter, but soon drops it as if it were a momentary aside, and by the time the song arrives at its immensely powerful climax, you can’t quite recall exactly the steps that led you to that place. The closing section of “Trapped in the Hourglass” offers another such perfect diversion, as a wonderfully dejected guitar lead mopes its way into a stirring, strident Maiden gallop. Again, none of the individual components are shocking, but the craft is canny enough to erase the traces of its operation.
And then, of course, there are the hallmarks of Darkest Era embracing their simplest, most steadfast turns of phrase. Krum turns in some fantastically soulful singing on the sparse midsection of album closer “Blood, Sand, and Stone,” while “The Scavenger” pulls that great trick of theirs, playing — just as in “Heathen Burial” from The Last Caress of Light — an almost reverse-polka rhythm (with a fast one-two on the downbeats instead of the upbeats). It sounds academic on paper, but in practice, it electrifies.
So as an album, Severance is darker and heavier, but these songs are also allowed to breathe without encumbrance, and with plenty of open textural space. This serves all the better to highlight the dialogic quality of the guitars and bass, which often work in complementary tandem, but just as often separately, as if each string is feeling out a new path of sadness. Severance is the sound of a remarkable band wholly at peace with itself, despite — or perhaps because of — earthly upheaval and transience.