Some metal bands barely last 10 years, much less 15 years. If a band does get to the decade-and-a-half mark, they’re usually sputtering out or are teetering on their last, diseased and ready-to-give out legs. Rare is the case where an aggressive band mutates, growing stronger, more unstoppable and more menacing with every passing riff, scream and album. Darkest Hour are such a case.
The Human Romance is the Washington, DC-based band’s seventh album and first for new label eOne. It presents Darkest Hour at their best: fangs bared and ready to pounce through the vehicle that blends thrashy melodic metal with something unworldly.
With their long tenure on Victory Records in the rear view, Darkest Hour are primed to reinvent themselves. “The band is a more grown up version of what it was,” guitarist Mike Schleibaum says. “It’s hard to pinpoint what ‘grown up’ means exactly, but we know what the difference is.” The fans will know it when they hear it, too. “Growing up” does not mean “watered down” or “toned down” or a “lesser” version of what they once were; it means that they’ve taken 15 years of experience in the studio, on the road and in the music business and distilled it into a fearsome monolith known as The Human Romance.
It’s an album that should top “Top 10” lists among metal critics and magazine editors when all is said and done.
But it wasn’t an easy road to hoe and this type of career (and personal) clarity did not come easy for Darkest Hour. In fact, the members could have easily thrown their hands in the air and called it a day and no one in the metal community, least of all their throng of diehard fans, would have blamed them for packing it in. There would have been no shame in choosing that option, as Darkest Hour have wrapped around the country dozens upon dozens of times, including a stint on Ozzfest.
But Darkest Hour didn’t give up or give in.
“When you are 30 and broke, still chasing the dream and the artistic endeavor of being in a heavy metal band, you get to the point where you think, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ but everyone in the band is addicted. There is no hope. We love it regardless of the misery that comes with being in a band. We are five dudes that are addicted to the misery of band life that we will continue to do it over and over,” the guitarist said.
Even the cover of The Human Romance partially illustrates Darkest Hour’s commitment to making this music at all costs, even when shit gets hard, or as Schleibaum puts it, “miserable.” The art features two embracing skeletons that were fossilized together. “To me, it is a metaphor for life and the addiction of doing music no matter how hard it is. We love it and can never let it go.” Schleibaum said.
That type of unquenchable passion and iron-willed dedication went into the making of The Human Romance. This is Darkest Hour, Version 2.0, which is certainly an upgrade on many levels. “We were able to step back and take something established and re-polish it in a way where we could present it as something new,” Schleibaum explained. “It still got the classic vibe, but the music is a little bit more easily digestible, I mean, it’s not like John [Henry] is singing all the time. The music is a bit more ethereal yet still aggressive as hell.
In their past, Darkest Hour have retreated to such far away locales as Sweden and Vancouver to record. For The Human Romance, the quintet set off to North Carolina to work with Soilwork’s Peter Wichers recording at the Echo Mountain complex in Asheville and Old Towne Recording Studio’s in Winson-Salem. The result is thrashy, American metal with roots in punk rock and hardcore, which is part and parcel of the Darkest Hour sound. Only now, it’s fresher and rejuvenated and the band isn’t tethered to the tyranny of one specific sound or style; Darkest Hour make metal, by their own rules and standards. “Thrash metal has distinct things that make it thrash,” Schleibaum said. “But we bring in some deeper emotional stuff into the thrash sound, and we take both Swedish metal and American metal influence. Sometimes it even sounds like explosions in the sky. There is some melancholy, but it’s bigger.”
Schleibaum isn’t hesitant to admit that Darkest Hour needed to evolve in order to survive at this point, chalking it up to a decade-plus of wear and tear on their bodies and minds on the road. “When you are in your ‘30s, making a metal record, you think about it differently than when you are a kid. Youthful metal has energy, but there is a great thing about marinating in it and working on a sound and working towards something new.”
The Human Romance writing sessions played out like most previous Darkest Hour records, in democratic fashion, starting with guitar riffs that lead to other riffs and evolve once all the band members connect in a room. The album doesn’t end with a long, involved song, which has become a Darkest Hour tradition. Yet, while the song, “Beyond the Life You Know,” is not as long previous closers, but it’s just as expansive and worth sticking around for. “Our last song is always, in my opinion, one of the best ones,” Schleibaum said. “This record, honestly I love them all.”
There is also a 10-minute instrumental song, “Terra Solaris,” which is an endeavor the band has not undertaken since “Veritas, Aequitas,” which appears on 2003’s Hidden Hands of a Sadist Nation. Overall, though, the album has varied tempos, which Schleibaum says makes The Human Romance “more emotional in general.”
The Human Romance, is anything but self-serving; Darkest Hour have pushed their sound to new limits for the fans who have stuck by them for nearly two decades. Our last record was for us, whereas this record is for everyone else and that in turn makes it even more special to us.”
Darkest Hour rose from the ashes of the ‘90s convergence of metal and hardcore and while most of the bands are dinosaurs or are dead and gone, Darkest Hour haven’t yet touched the core of their potential, despite their impressive resume. They’ve done a lot but still have more to do to fulfill their addiction to the music and their commitment to their fans and themselves. Sounds like a beautiful, complicated romance.