2015-09-16

Album Review: The Darkness - Last Of Our Kind

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org
Album reviews typically start with some basic biographical information about the band. But, I'm not going to do that with a band as well-known and written-about as The Darkness. Everything interesting that could possibly have been written about the history of the band has already been written. Besides, I did the biography thing when I reviewed Hotcakes.

I must remark, however, that Permission to Land was such a landmark album on so many levels that anything and everything the band has done since is inevitably compared to it. "Oh, The Darkness have a new album? How does it stack up to Permission to Land?" The answer is: It's different.

No artist wants to be pigeonholed, but when you wear catsuits, play Les Pauls through cranked Marshalls, and deliver the most earnest falsetto screams in the business, it's kind of hard to branch out. So, there will always be a contingent out there that just wants "all 'Stuck in a Rut,' all the time." If that's your bag, then The Darkness has plenty for you... on their other albums. On this one, you'll have to settle for "Hammer and Tongs," which, it must be emphasized, is classic Darkness to the bone.

The rest of the album seems to answer a question that I'm certain I asked, but that perhaps never would have occurred to anyone else, excepting the most rabid Darkness fans: What would it sound like if the band took the general concept of "Trojan Guitar," from the relatively obscure Hot Leg album, and fleshed it out to the length of a full album?
  • Medieval imagery - check.
  • Progressive song structures - check.
  • Soaring vocal melodies - check.
  • Irony and humor - check.
  • Great performances - check.
Last of Our Kind delivers the cargo, even as it allows the band to explore some (for them) uncharted waters. There are enough new additions to the Darkness' arsenal that each deserves a brief discussion.

First, guitar sounds. By now you must know that The Darkness has always been reliable for exploring the many great sonic possibilities of the electric guitar. Last of Our Kind finds the band exploring even heavier sounds, huge, chunky, absolutely gain-saturated modern Marshall grind. This isn't a Plexi cranked to 11, it's the most modern, bass-heavy grind available in contemporary hard rock. And it's gorgeous. Electric guitars layered on top of acoustic ones has always been a band staple, but here the band ups the ante, allowing either track to enjoy the "aural spotlight." And, of course, the mandolins.

Next, and possibly the most pleasant surprise for me, personally, is bassist Frankie Poullain's lead vocals on "Conquerors." This must have taken an admirable dose of courage, sort of on the order of sitting in with Eddie Van Halen and playing a guitar solo, or giving a physics lecture with Stephen Hawking in the audience. Gulp. But his vocals are great, soulful, rich, and - would you believe it? - he actually has an admirably broad vocal range. Now, typically, when "the other guy in the band" sings lead vocals on a track, it feels jarringly different. But Poullain is no Ringo, and the song feels great in the context of the rest of the album.

Finally, let's talk a bit about composition. After all, The Darkness isn't the only band that ever set its foundation in classic rock riffs and falsetto; so why did they ever hit it big, anyway? For my money, a lot of this has to do with Justin Hawkins' remarkable and inventive sense of melody. Somehow, he manages to pull surprising and resonant melodies out of even the simplest of guitar riffs. This just might be the secret to The Darkness' sound. Anyone can play a rock riff, but only a very gifted songwriter can continue to surprise the listener with pleasant melodies twelve years later. That's been the lifeblood of the band's previous albums, but on Last of Our Kind, it enables the band to explore some handedly Queen-inspired prog-rock structures without going full-kimono, 13/8-time-sig, enigmatic scale, etc. etc... While the riffs dance deftly from big, open, arena riffs to fast-and-tight metal lockstep, to soft-and-clean, it never feels complex or pretentious, only pure and earnest, like the best rock is expected to be. Meanwhile, Justin holds it all down with cohesive vocal melodies that take the edge off some of the more challenging changes.

So on their latest album, The Darkness manage to challenge themselves, push themselves into new territory, and deliver a decidedly different Darkness album. And it works. Never once will the listener feel that it's not the Darkness, or that the band has lost its soul, or (god forbid!) its sense of humor.

(Interesting side-note that I haven't seen noted elsewhere: Last of Our Kind is a concept album about medieval battles - why is there a spaceship on the cover? That's the band's classic sense of irony cranked to 11.)

Indeed, Last of Our Kind is something new and refreshing from a band that has always tested the music world's willingness to see them as anything other than a throwback. And every time, song after song, album after album, they prove why they are so much more than that. At least on that level, The Darkness has produced something true-to-form.