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Dark Angel's "Darkness Descends" is quite often seen to be some kind of godly masterpiece of this genre, but I beg to differ and I never really understood what's so special about it. It's extreme metal's biggest problem. Any band that's not a popular band develops a cult following full of extreme fanboyism. "Darkness Descends" is essentially Slayer's "Reign in Blood" minus all the good songwriting, lyrics, themes, and vocals. Everything that made Slayer's groundbreaking album memorable is missing here.
I must admit the album does have some merits for what it is. On first hearing it, it's extremely fast and lives up to its hype of being a really fast thrash metal album. This is exactly where Dark Angel lost the plot completely as they got carried away with it and forgot to implement the bare essentials of any good album. The lyrics are horrible and never make any attempt to be taken seriously. The vocalist doesn't quite know what he's doing, resorting to random, aimless screaming over the riffs with the occasional high-pitched scream. They sound tame compared to Tom Araya's hellish, blood curdling screams with Slayer. The vocals are pretty weak by any standards and offer nothing in terms of memorability.
The album's biggest flaw is actually its biggest strength. Yes, it's a technical feat for this genre but has no lasting musical value. The riffs themselves are plenty, but I can't recall a single riff worth remembering. The endless train of fast riffs are indistinguishable from each other and every new riff is just a slight alteration of the previous one. This approach is abused infinitely, creating a false impression of 'variety' for the easily impressed and simple minded folk. Gene Hoglan's drumming is spectacular if only you fancy hearing the same crushing blast-beats pounded over and over again. The man's skill could be and has been used much better in other albums. The band tries its best to mask its shortcomings in the songwriting department by focusing on sheer speed and brutality. This approach loses its novelty quite quickly.
The guitar tone itself is not very interesting compared to other albums like "Pleasure to Kill" or "Persecution Mania", both of which had a visceral, abrasive guitar tone that is lacking here. The drums sound a little better, being a repetitive, endless assault on the senses. "Darkness Descends" and "The Burning of Sodom" are perhaps the album's brightest moments only because they're at the very beginning of the album. As you get to about track 3 or 4, you realize soon enough that the band is a one trick pony, trying to impress you with its inherent 'shock value' like a low-budget, independent zombie gore flick with lots and lots of blood splattering and cheap special effects.
"Hunger of the Undead", "Merciless Death" and "Death is Certain (Life is Not)" are all semi-decent thrashers with one or two good moments. They just don't have the same effect on you as the two tracks at the beginning. The band can only work the same tempo so many times before it gets tedious and repetitive."Black Prophecies" sees the band explore some progressive tendencies. The tight musicianship is commendable but the lack of composition skills and vision is a dead giveaway as the song barely keeps you interested over its 8 minute length. "Black Prophecies" quickly becomes an excursion into boredom. "Perish in Flames" does little to break up the monotony as it can basically be substituted with any other song in the album.
The album falls well short of classics like "Master of Puppets", "Peace Sells" or "Reign in Blood". People have to remember, its inherent quality as a really fast thrash metal album alone doesn't make it a classic. You see, the more thrashier doesn't necessarily mean better. If you're a new listener, it's easy to get carried away by the speed, but give it time, let the nostalgia pass and you'll eventually realize just how mediocre this is. Just like any other genre of music, good songwriting applies to even extreme metal, and that is where this band falters and this is what keeps "Darkness Descends" from being remarkable today or even back in thrash metal's heydays.