We here at Last Rites Music Listening (And Sometimes Writing But Often Yelling About Seeming Minutiae) Emporium HQ strive for accuracy and timeliness. We aim to stay abreast of consumer trends. To anticipate the discerning listener’s need before she realizes it. To speak to the proverbial schmuck on the street. But sometimes, the machinery falters. The pistons (not to mention the neurons) misfire. A worthy new album strides up to the factory gate but we are lost in our own foolishness and it walks on.
Point being: Northern Ireland’s Darkest Era released their third album – and first in eight years – early this fall, and we were derelict in our duty to report to you, the people, that it is rich and full of regal, defiant sorrow. Wither on the Vine follows directly in the footsteps of the band’s prior albums, combining heavy metal thunder with Celtic folk and hints of both windswept black metal and epic doom. Darkest Era’s membership is unchanged since 2014’s Severance, and that continuity results in songwriting and instrumentation that pulls all voices into conversation with each other.
Darkest Era’s music tends toward the moody and downcast, but never in a way that wallows in self-pity. Instead, theirs is a sadness that walks beside a stirring determination to move forward. Sarah Fielding’s and Ade Mulgrew’s guitars are in a constant state of kinetic travel, racing or tumbling or leaping along like rain coursing down green hillsides. Cameron Åhslund-Glass’s drumming is fluid and malleable, sometimes sitting into grooves like the patient, crashing tide, and at other times urging the rest of the band forward, almost rushing a snare crack on the upbeat of the first note of a measure instead of the fourth. Daniel O’Toole’s bass swings deep and low against the reeling guitar, but often sets out in its own melodic counterpoint, suggesting a new direction and balancing the momentum with a purling rumble.
Music as possessed of this stern and stately grandeur runs the risk of ponderousness, but Darkest Era’s rolling, seamless drive is light on its feet and even joyous in its clear-eyed embrace of melancholy. The clarion vocals of Krum Maguire have always been the centering pull of Darkest Era’s music, and on Wither on the Vine his voice is as clear, powerful, and impassioned as ever. He doesn’t particularly sound like Robert Lowe or Alan Averill or Jorn Lande, but in his pensive low range, commanding tenor, and overall expressiveness, he moves through similar sensibilities. One of his vocal highlights is the sections of “A Path Made of Roots,” where his wordless, searching vocal moves in tandem with the guitars.
“Tithonus” unfurls patiently, with a languid yet insistent melodic drive that feels spiritually akin to some of Iron Maiden’s most contemplative pieces of the millennium (like “Dream of Mirrors” or “Where the Wild Wind Blows”). Wither on the Vine is excellent from start to finish, but things get especially cooking on the back half. The lead guitar line on “The Collapse” is the sort of achingly rhapsodic melody that you might expect to hear on the other side when Thin Lizzy expands the folk medley section of “Róisín Dubh,” and the multitracking of Krum’s vocals on the chorus is like a keening lament echoing through golden halls. “The Ashen Plague” bolts out of the gate with stormy blastbeats, and maintains some of the album’s most fiery energy, while the title track closes things out with a meditative ballad that grows into a softly martial valediction.
Darkest Era’s music is one of those things that will bring out of you what you bring to it. Your own musical history and memory will likely find its own echo, but to these ears, Wither on the Vine is a perfect meeting of voices as disparate as Thin Lizzy, Atlantean Kodex, Primordial, Solstice, and Slough Feg. Hell, if I listen in just the right light, I can find some My Dying Bride in there. But what I find at the core, however and whenever I return to this darkly glittering, immensely warm and welcoming album, is Darkest Era. Five people, five hearts, five voices, and maybe they’re looking out at the sea or maybe they’re looking at each other across a rough-hewn table or maybe they’re looking back at you as you listen. The question is: will you meet them where they are?