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Kingdom Hearts! Fill me with the power of darkness... - 69%

Demon Fang, October 17th, 2020

This Darkened Heart takes All That Remains’ debut album and adds some poppy sensibilities to its compositions. You still have those In Flames-esque dual harmonics, those hardcore-drenched At the Gates-y riffs, and Oli Herbert doing his best Paul Gilbert impersonation. However, they’re better developed here as the band – and US metalcore on the whole – has had time to properly mix that Converge fucked At the Gates sound into a smoother affectation. In fact, this is absolutely a milestone in the development of that New Wave of American Heavy Metal sound of the early-2000s, as it characterizes pretty much everything emblematic of its sound.

Songs like “The Deepest Gray”, “Focus Shall Not Fail” and “For Salvation” integrate that pop metalcore structure of having harsh vocals for verses and clean vocals for choruses, although the cleans are quite understated compared to what Howard Jones was belting out the prior year with The End of Heartache. Ideally, they’re meant to be this clean, melancholic contrast to the more emotional harsh vocals. In execution, this only works because they add hooks to the songs through how they vocalize the lyrics. Otherwise, well, let’s just say that they’re way better on the next album. “Tattered on My Sleeve” adds an extra dimension to the clean vocals that wind up serving as a preview of this, as there’s a bit of a siren’s call to its execution. Although, this is a more noticeable contrast because Phil’s screams are more impactful here and quite good on their own terms. He integrates a couple extra ranges and adds some much-needed texture – and more importantly, emotion – to his default voice. As such, the vocal end of the proceedings is most certainly going to pique your interest and never leave your head. You’re welcome.

But the make it or break it moment comes with the instrumentation, and this is where I stop myself short of saying This Darkened Heart is some great amazing album. It’s got the kind of charm these formative albums have – like, some songs are unabashedly poppy like “The Deepest Gray” while songs like “And Death in My Arms” and “Tattered on My Sleeve” opt for that less poppy hardcore sound. For instance, “And Death in My Arms” may have those twin-guitar licks and leads endemic in In Flames’ sound and then break it down so the mosh pit can really go and fuck shit up. It’s a heavier joint with enough of those sugary sweet guitar theatrics – and of course, Oli letting it rip with a ripper of a solo. Although this album largely follows two similar formulae, the first four songs and “Tattered on My Sleeve” showcase these formulae to a goddamn tee with some infectious grooves, vocal melodies and guitar solos that just up and pop right on out of your speakers!

There is one song that deviates from the formula, and it’s the mid-album instrumental. “Regret Not” is an instrumental track which better shows off just how good Oli really is, with this contemplative acoustic passage building up to a melancholic groove before he bends and contorts his guitar like it’s doing a Cirque de Soleil routine before climaxing into a bit of a mournful solo, letting the listener breathe again once the acoustic comes back to end the song. If you’re going to do a mid-album instrumental, why not gun for something like this, you know?

Beyond that, you get those moments that do stick in your head like a few of the choruses and some particularly engaging instrumentation. Said instrumentation is whenever Phil or Oli can construct something truly melodic instead of something vaguely melodic. The latter occurs too often – like, some riffs just end up going nowhere, or that part of the song doesn’t pop into mind nearly as easily as “The Deepest Gray”s and “For Salvation”s choruses or “I Die in Degrees” smooth groove. Like, going through “Focus Shall Not Fail” and “Passion” and all I get is “And Death in My Arms” and “The Deepest Gray”, but with weaker melodies. They don’t climax into catchy choruses, or memorable grooves or anything. As a result, the compositions end up more aimless than anything else. Shit, “For Salvation” is pretty much saved by its chorus since it’s instrumentally similar to “Vicious Betrayal” if “Vicious Betrayal” rounded off the edges of its riffs to a point where there’s no real pop or groove.

In defense of these other songs, they’re lively enough in composition to where they aren’t boring to listen to. But outside of any good moments, they go in one ear and out the other. The highlights are catchy and they’re the ones that really define the sound that we all know as the New Wave of American Heavy Metal. Hell, even the filler songs help as they maintain the sound; they’re simply not as well executed. Basically, when This Darkened Heart is on, it’s on like Donkey Kong. When not, it’s... aight. You know, more historically significant than anything else. But fuck me, those highlights are why it’s such an important album!