Review: Darkest Hour – Godless Prophets & the Migrant Flora

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The Washington, D.C. melodeath/metalcore veterans in Darkest Hour have a new album, and they engaged Kurt Ballou of Converge on production duties. If that combination intrigues you, you’re likely to be pleased with the jugular-ripping – yet catchy – results on Godless Prophets & the Migrant Flora.

I’ll always associate Darkest Hour with those halcyon days of the early 2000s when combining elements of Swedish-style melodic death metal with influences from hardcore still seemed fairly novel and some marketing wizard had yet to proclaim the arrival of a “New Wave of American Heavy Metal.” The band caught my attention with their sophomore effort So Sedated, Secure and especially their full embrace of At the Gates worship on Hidden Hands of the Sadist Nation.

Over the years, as many of the other bands great and not-so-great who came on the scene around that time fell off the map, Darkest Hour carried on and evolved. The band moved farther away from hardcore and toward an increasingly melodic metal sound while going through its share of lineup changes – guitarist Mike Schleibaum and singer John Henry are the only mainstays. After their fifth album, the Devin Townsend-produced Deliver Us, and the departure of lead guitar player Kris Norris, I must admit I largely lost track of the group.

That changed in the summer of 2015, when I caught Darkest Hour on their 20th Anniversary Tour for a sold-out show at the Bottom Lounge featuring reunited Chicago hometown heroes Dead to Fall in support. Henry, Schleibaum, and company still brought the goods live and their performance sent me digging back into both my old favorites and the newer records I’d missed. What I found in the more recent output was a mixed bag: Darkest Hour had admirably grown and tried new elements in their songwriting, but – as is often the case with metal bands as they age – the newer albums lacked the urgency and anger of the early stuff. The self-titled eighth album was oriented around mid-tempo grooves and hard rock influences, almost entirely forsaking the band’s thrashy hardcore roots and emphasizing clean vocals more than ever before.

All of this is to say, I was very pleased when I saw Darkest Hour was getting together with Kurt Ballou at his God City studio to record their new crowdfunded full-length. I figured if anyone could capture this band’s energy in concert and restore some of the grit to their sound, it was the guy who helmed classics of metallic hardcore like Cave In’s Until Your Heart Stops and much of his own band’s output. I was also glad to hear Norris was contributing to the record – though Mike “Lonestar” Carrigan, who replaced him in 2008, is still the primary lead guitarist – signaling a connection back to the era when this band captured my attention.

Opening track “Knife in the Safe Room,” the first song released to the public, went a long way to justify my optimism. It’s a vicious, fast-paced ripper of a tune that immediately brings to mind the glory days of 2003, with the welcome addition of Ballou’s intense yet clearly nuanced production style. The riffage is concise and infectious, showing a return of the band’s speedy hardcore-influenced side, and complemented by a solo with shades of Kirk Hammett. Drummer Travis Orbin provides all the requisite propulsion, occasionally stepping back to punctuate the beats with a series of choked cymbal hits. Henry sounds as pissed off as ever over society’s excesses and injustices, calling out to “Drown any semblance/Of power, of privilege, of state.” It all resolves in a breakdown that’s chunky and aggressive without falling into cliche. Suffice to say, this is a promising start for anyone who is a fan of not just Darkest Hour but metallic hardcore in general.

The band keeps up the pace for much of the first couple minutes of second track “This is the Truth,” with a nice opening fill from Orbin and guitar parts showing off their continued appreciation for At the Gates-style melodeath, plus even an occasional tinge of black metal. However, the song brings more dynamics into play through sections of groove, a melodic interlude, and a soulful lead break. For “Timeless Numbers,” a snaking, mid-tempo riff predominates, bearing a certain relation to Converge’s own punky technicality. The slowed pace allows the bass from Aaron Deal (formerly the drummer of Salome) to come to the forefront. This song is one that comes closer to the stripped-down style of the self-titled album, but to my ears it’s made far more engaging through the greater complexity of the music and the unrelenting venom in the vocals.

Like the similarly named second track, “None of this the Truth” returns to thrashy territory, slowing down for a melodic interlude. “The Flesh & the Flowers of Death” feels like an outtake from the At War with Reality sessions and features  the best solo of the album. “Those Who Survived” is a hook-laden apocalyptic vision that brings to mind prime-era Lamb of God.

However, the album loses a little steam when seventh track “Another Headless Ruler of the Used” brings us back to early-aughts Scandinavia for diminishing returns. The solid chorus and solo can’t quite overcome the feeling that the song has crossed the line between enjoyably reverential and generically derivative. The next track doesn’t help matters, as “Widowed” is one of those instrumental interludes seemingly just there to remind us metal dudes have a sensitive side too by deploying a finger-picked acoustic.

Fortunately, the proceedings get more interesting again with the strong dynamics and melodies of “Enter Oblivion,” including an eerie, bass-driven break. “The Last of the Monuments” comes off like Dark Tranquillity with a touch of groove metal. This song also reintroduces understated clean vocals to the mix, offering welcome variety without suggesting any particular commercial ambitions. “In the Name of Us All” brings back the ferocity of the opening track while allowing the Converge influence to come through full force – the main distinctions being the vocal delivery and the speed metal solo. The album closes on a satisfying note with “Beneath it Sleeps.” The longest song on the album at 5:15, it nicely sums up where Darkest Hour currently stand in a display of high-velocity riffage, appealing melodies, and dynamic shifts all fired off with technical precision and unflagging passion. At last, the track stalks across the finish line with a muted, yet somewhat unsettling, extended outro in the tradition of Slaughter of the Soul.

The cliche of the new album as a “return to form” doesn’t quite apply here, despite the reference points in Darkest Hour’s earliest records and the fact that this is undeniably their finest work 2005’s Undoing Ruin. Godless Prophets & the Migrant Flora also bears the marks of the intervening years of experimentation and successfully brings in some fresh sounds, thanks to the collaboration with Ballou. This album often feels like the culmination of a long career from a revitalized band, but – more importantly – it’s a collection of hardcore-influenced melodic metal that would be impressive from any group. It may not break much new ground, but for those who enjoy this style, it will definitely give your neck a workout.

4 OUT OF 5 FLAMING TOILETS OF HELL

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Godless Prophets & the Migrant Flora is out March 10 through Southern Lord.

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