Thursday, August 15, 2013

Album Review: Darkane - The Sinister Supremacy






Darkane - The Sinister Supremacy
(2013 Prosthetic)

There are few things in this world that I look forward to as much as a new Darkane album.  Several years ago, when I was becoming bored with music as both a listener and a musician, a friend loaned me a copy of Darkane's then-new debut, Rusted Angel . . . and changed my life forever.  That may sound like the words of a fanboy, but if so, it's the honest truth.  Rusted Angel was far too good to be a rookie release, and yet it was the breath of fresh metal air that I needed.  Even though I listened first for the guitar riffs as I so often do, I couldn't help but notice the schizophrenic vocals of one Lawrence Mackrory, shifting from death growls to black metal rasp to semi-clean thrashy parts.  I was reminded of Chuck Billy's diverse work on Testament's Low, which is one of my favorite albums.  Combined with the awe-inspiring musicianship Darkane offered, Rusted Angel not only became a quick addition to that list of favorites, but also ended up at the very top, where it still resides.

Then I found out that Lawrence had left the band, having been more of a temp in lieu of a permanent vocalist (actually preceded briefly by Speed Strid of Soilwork) and that touring duties and the next album would be handled by Andreas Sydow.  The rest of the lineup remained intact, but the following Insanity didn't really click for me, not only because of the change in vocal style (more of a typical "barked" thrash style) but also what I think of as a more Meshuggah-influenced direction that lacked the melodic guitar work present on the debut.  With each album that followed, more of the elements I liked most returned to the Darkane equation, but it wasn't until Demonic Art - with yet another new vocalist, Jens Broman, out in front - that I really put my fanboy uniform back on.  Having seen the band on tour twice at that point, first with Andreas and then Jens, I was really, genuinely excited for what the next album would bring . . . and then Jens left the band.  I figured that would be enough to kill Darkane or lead to a lengthy delay before a new album would be recorded, but a familiar name reappeared: Lawrence Mackrory.  The Rusted Angel lineup was back together, this time for The Sinster Supremacy.

I intentionally waited a month to write this review, to make sure I was listening to the new album with "fresh ears" instead of as an ecstatic fan finally getting what he wanted.  I spun the CD repeatedly, usually mixed in with other new releases (Hypocrisy, Amon Amarth, etc.) to compare production quality, an area where Darkane has sometimes lagged.  Try as I might, I have not found anything not to like about The Sinister Supremacy.  For all the emphasis I have placed on vocals to this point in the review, it is still the melodic intricacies presented by guitarists Christofer Malmström and Klas Ideberg that speak most to me as a musician, especially the violin-like sustained tones that are a signature of Darkane albums.  Peter Wildoer, who those unfamiliar with Darkane may know of through his part in Dream Theater's drummer search, likewise makes it abundantly clear that he is one metal's best, and criminally unknown for being a man of such talent.  The drums tend to ride pretty high in the mix in Darkane recordings, but the sonic balance on The Sinister Supremacy is spot-on.  It's only Jörgen Löfberg's bass that seems a bit understated, although I think this is due to his part in the evolution of Darkane's overall sound rather than issues with the mix.

The songwriting seems to be more in line with that of Demonic Art than previous albums, with less chug-chug riffing and more melody, but don't take this to mean that The Sinister Supremacy isn't heavy.  Rather, it's the subtle elements in the dual-guitar approach that peak out from shadowy corners to surprise you, not the every-note-harmonized formula of certain other Swedish bands that has grown predictable.  Wildoer's complex usage of cymbals is far more impressive than a double-kick barrage (of which there are plenty, never fear!) and his role in the writing process has never been more obvious.  And lest I forget the vocals that I spent so much time writing about earlier, Lawrence Mackrory proves that his diversity is everything it was 14+ years ago.  There is more emphasis on clean vocals than on prior albums (comparable overall to Demonic Art) and virtually no black metal shrieks, but this is not quite as commonplace as with a band like Soilwork or In Flames.  With a bit more growling and vocal range, I'd go so far as to compare the vocals to Scar Symmetry, but the thrash vibe is far more apparent in Mackrory's case.

Does the "reunited" lineup surpass their original effort with The Sinister Supremacy?  Close, but not quite.  I say that only because, for all their talent, the superb musicians in Darkane have not - and possibly cannot - create something that is as fresh and unique as Rusted Angel was back in 1999.  Fortunately, this is only because of the sheer amount of excellent metal music that has come between then and now, and not because the band is in any way diminished.  Stylistically, it's "melodic technical thrash" rather than "melodic death metal" or another standard subgenre, which makes it hard to describe to a first-time listener.  The writing, performance and production are all fantastic, and it's only because of Rusted Angel's perfection that I consider The Sinister Supremacy to be Darkane's second-best release and thus rated 4.5 out of 5.  If you want something that's aggressive but not heavy-handed, technical without taking a prog approach, and melodic without being "pretty" then this is an album you need to hear.

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