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Definitive Darkest Hour - 97%

Zodijackyl, July 3rd, 2009

Darkest Hour's first release since the departure of lead guitarist Kris Norris also sees the departure of the showy and Swedish stylings which he brought to the band, and the addition of guitarist Michael "Lonestar" Carrigan intensifies and emphasizes the thrashy, groovy style that defined the band's sound since their formation in 1995. The album draws from the band's previous works, described by guitarist Mike Schleibaum as "all the aggression and speed of 'Hidden Hands', the melody and songwriting of 'Undoing Ruin', and the technicality and musicianship of 'Deliver Us'." The stylistic unification is rounded out by the band's return to producer Brian McTernan, whom they worked with on earlier records.

John Henry's vocals are captured very well by the production, his tone and phrasing shines, and his intensity is audible. Quite simply, his voice sounds monstrous, a great improvement on past production, where they sounded monotonous and did not fit with the music as a whole nearly as well. The vocals are every bit as powerful as the guitar work which has been the focus of the band's sound, but they complement it very well, between subtle harmony and richer textures than ever.

Ryan Parrish refined his drumming even further on this record, providing a solid rhythmic groove and giving emphasis to the heavy riffing. The drumming is extremely dynamic and well arranged, functioning in tandem with the vocals to progress the song through a guitar riff. Other functions and nuances of the drums are difficult to state simply - they aren't simple, but they are not prominent nor high-profile, they serve the music as a whole very well.

Paul Burnette's bass playing takes a very subtle role in the music, providing thundering grooves at times, such as the opener "Deevolution of the Flesh", as well as a subtle context for guitar melody, which extends to the point of shaping an atmosphere of songs such as "Transcendence". The bass is never the center of attention, but it adds a well calculated mix of rhythm and melody to the magnificence of the music as a whole.

Mike Schleibaum and Lonestar Carrigan are an extraordinary guitar duo, providing both quality and quantity in their non-stop riffing. The riffs are groovy, melodic, and memorable, and their aggressive playing is relentless. There is not a moment on the record devoid of a memorable guitar groove, and the same is true of melody. The guitar work on this record is more focused than any past Darkest Hour release, and it is flawlessly executed. The guitar solos are exceptionally groovy and melodic, yet they do not wander, a style perfectly fitted to the songs as a whole. The guitar solos fit the music exceptionally - rather than relying on speed, sweep picking, and arpeggios as many previously did, they are characterized by excellent melodic phrasing and composition that fits the song as a whole very well. While they are not nearly as showy or prominent a past solos, the songs don't stop for them, they fit in extremely well.

All of these musical contributions are finally combined for an extremely tight album - focused on the heavy riffing with the melody largely coming from the downtuned riffing of both guitars, rather than the melodic counterpoint to a heavy rhythm. The guitar style shows much more of the riffing style of Mike Schleibaum, which characterized Darkest Hour's earlier works with a melodic blend of hardcore heaviness and thrash aggression. The departure from the lead guitar style of the last three albums strips the album of the bright and upbeat feeling which Norris' guitar work was largely responsible for, and there isn't nearly as much purely melodic lead guitar playing. Both guitarists capture the feeling of the music alone, they are both very melodic and thrashy, rather than the former tendency of the rhythm to be thrashy and the lead to be melodic. There is much less of a distinction between lead and rhythm guitars - there are still clearly two guitars, and they work in unison towards the full sound of the music, rather than in contrast.

Each member's performance works towards perfecting the style of the band as a whole, never departing from what made them shine, but further defining the band's sound. The songwriting is fantastic, easily the best that they have done, and the production supports every aspect of the music. The rough areas of past releases have been smoothed out - the extremely aggressive drumming of 'Hidden Hands' no longer overpowers the guitars, no instrument or aspect is overpowering, and the guitar tone finally has a full sound which it has previously lacked. John Henry's vocals complement the music better than ever in both performance and production, with all the raw growl of the early EPs, better tone than 'Undoing Ruin' and 'Deliver Us', and none of the monotonous sound of the awful Swedish production of 'Hidden Hands'. The most impressive aspect of the songwriting is that no instrument strays from the others in any way, for example, the drums aren't thrashy while the vocals are hardcore, one guitar isn't grooving while the other is playing melodic death metal along with Gothenburg style bass (inaudible). The whole band are united in the style they play, not a genre but the sound that fans know as Darkest Hour.

The production combines all of this perfectly. The most notable change from any Darkest Hour album is the atmosphere and feel of the album. The album sounds dark and dreary, the most fitting of any Darkest Hour album, and it couldn't present the songs, the album, or the band any better. The mix is perfect, the performances are very well balanced and composed as a whole, and everything comes together as well as I could imagine. The arrangement contribution of producer Brian McTernan is also superb, earning the band's praise, and very deservingly. There isn't a moment in the album that breaks it, every solo fits in smoothly, every riff fits with the next, and the onslaught of music doesn't stop for anything, it keeps on thrashing.

Finally, founding members Mike Schleibaum and John Henry deserve a lot of credit for building the band's sound for 14 years and defining their career with this album. The performances, production, and songs are extremely refined, but they are in no way dull, bland, "manufactured", or relenting. Schleibaum described the album as having "no hidden agenda, no pop hit, or stylistic departure to broaden the fan base", and it is absolutely true. The album encompasses and defines the style which has been consistent through two EPs and six full lengths - a blend of thrash, hardcore, groove, and melodic death metal that can't be pigeonholed as a single genre, only described as Darkest Hour, and defined by this album. The first time I listened to the album, it reminded me more of the early EPs than their more recent albums. Close to 100 spins later, I can hear a lot in common with every Darkest Hour album. The riffs are reminiscent of those that Schleibaum played as the band's only guitarist in the 1990s, refined through over a decade of becoming more melodic, aggressive, thrashy, groovy, and heavier. John Henry's vocals sound beastly, more powerful on record than even the rougher early recordings, with all the qualities of his more melodic and dynamic performances.

The Eternal Return is the definitive Darkest Hour album, their best performance defining everything that has made Darkest Hour one of the biggest names in more than one type of music simultaneously.