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Thrash. Metalheads love it, to the extent that anything approaching eighties thrash is often lauded as incredible even when it is merely competent. Modern bands like Evile guarantee respect from 'true' metalheads (as opposed to Machine Head fans, I guess) by simply resurrecting this most stale and overdone of genres. But, at the end of the day, thrash is pretty much spent as a pure musical force. Don't get me wrong - everyone likes a bit of thrash, me included. It's just that the vanilla genre has already been absolutely flogged to death, has gone as far as it ever can or ever will, and is simply incapable of progressing without turning into (or drawing influence from) something else. It has stagnated for too long; it has become set in its ways, a rigid formula that offers some good music but absolutely no artistic freedom. It was all the way back in 1986 that Dark Angel pretty laid down the last word, with the complete monstrosity that is "Darkness Descends"; something that condensed the key elements of the genre into a single cogent, unified blast of obliteration. This album is it. There is, indeed, none more thrash.
Whilst "Reign in Blood" is lauded for its influence on the forthcoming new wave of extreme metal, the speed and angular chaos breaking new boundaries, it is "Darkness Descends" that surely must stand as the ultimate thrash album. For within, Dark Angel take every element of thrash and subject it to a sand-blasting, a refining process that strips away all elements of superfluity and leaves a bludgeoning, destructive core open to surveillance. Here are the very purest elements of thrash exposed and conglomerated into a monster. Rather than innovating, Dark Angel extrapolate on a formula, morphing and moulding their music into an enormous and intractably malevolent monument to what came before. You may cry for help. Do they listen? No! They laugh at such pitiful pleas for clemency, and urinate on the faces of old women. Or so I've been led to believe.
The thick guitars and rumbling bass form a dense wall of sound, a churning maelstrom of relentless riffage that storms eagerly forward with blurringly incessant speed. There is little here which can be called technical, and no attempt at dynamics is made; the riffs are, from first to last, low-end thrashing of the most brutally direct kind. Rather than the twitchy angularity of Slayer, Dark Angel focus on thick, almost drone-like pedals, with the riffs consistently based in and returning to the same chord. This pedal is almost entirely delivered using a lightning fast semi-quaver strum, and gives the music an anchored feel throughout; the use of this device emphasises key changes in the music to enormously profound levels, like a seismic tectonic shift has just taken place in your stereo. Where such techniques are not used, the band takes the opportunity to create moments of tension before releasing into the forceful and sweltering rumble - the opening of "Merciless Death" being a prime example, as the band consecutively ratchet up the tension like turns on a rack before erupting. On the whole, the guitars are essentially a solid wall of sound, rolling over and flattening the listener with primal force.
Drums sit, propped up on the riffage; precise and cutting, surging through the black tide; a demon spreading its malevolent wings. Swift and clean beats are delivered with inch-perfect ferocity, surrounded by the churning mass of guitar like galloping hooves within a suffocating cloud of devastation. Gene Hoglan exhibits by far the most effective use of the tried and tested 'polka beat' ever used, taking a much used element of thrash and turning it into a primal force of nature. The overall sound is forbidding and powerful, simultaneously kinetic yet static; a paradox beautifully realised, as the crushing weight of a deep and intractable solidity settles comfortably up against a rush of furious speed. The music thus seems to be in a constant state of explosion; existing in furious cycles like a whirlpool, the rhythms forming hypnotic and destructive motions within the listener, yet remaining anchored - mired deeply within a dark and malevolent atmosphere.
Soaring, eagle-winged above this grinding process of destruction, the naturally fluid motions of guitar solo and the manic yells and cries of vocalist Don Doty emphasize this monolithic immobility; leaping forth with the liquidity and freedom of pure contrast embodied in sound. An absolute favourite technique of mine on show here is to begin a guitar solo with a sudden moment of total (or comparative) silence, before the band begins anew with the crushing sensation of a mountain dropping on your head - the remorseless heaviness and power of the music emphasized to almost unbearable levels. See "Hunger of the Undead" and the title track for two absolutely magnificent examples.
Even when the band slow down, this precise sense of anchored movement remains to batter and annihilate, tightly wound and furious. "Black Prophecies" (eight and a half minutes of ball-crushing ownage) rarely comes close to the speed of the rest of the album, and yet the almost tidal movement of the riffage perfectly demonstrates the complete mastery inherent in Dark Angel's technique. Case in point: the centrepiece riff, a churning tonic gallop that twists out into fierce and deadly shapes before crashing back into place with a fearsome sense of inevitability.
This album is just such a monster on all levels, so over-the-top and devastating it simultaneously typifies thrash and goes hurtling far beyond it. Here, the scaffolding of thrash is seen to twist and mutate; the fast and aggressive riffs and drums moving to yet another level of speed and rage, swelling into a new entity entirely. It's so good that whenever I try to write a review like a normal person, I start tripping over adjectives and knotty phrases left, right and centre, in a futile attempt to encapsulate this... this THING in a way that makes sense. Somehow 'fuckin kickass THRASH!' doesn't even come close to describing the profound and bellowing carnage, as though a single moment of percussive impact were somehow spread ringingly over 35 minutes. In my book this is a true work of art, and deserves its reputation.