DARKENED – Kingdom of Decay (2020)REVIEW

Elden wrath upheld by rustless colonnade — Most all classicist death metal forms today can be reduced to ashen guile reminiscent of much hotter, consciously aflame works of the ultimate apex riff predator, the mid-80’s thrash-armed teenager; The abrasion of sleek pub metal songwriting via snot-whipping street punk is the basal formulae to reduce classic Bolt Thrower into and as such death metal’s alchemical like-inspired-like attempts beyond to recreate the infamous band’s golden rash of great works most often ends up an inferior product. Neutrality towards (or conscious resistance of) nostalgia might damn those attempts from gaining the station of a worthy pursuit but most of us can yet appreciate the “good fight” to fill the void since the mid-2000’s. As we’ve seen throughout the years rose-tinted eyes for the past and the unrealistic standards resultant keeps the most serious fandom from appreciating direct attempts at tank-blasted war-hammering stuff (see: Memoriam, Just Before Dawn) wherein even I could admit to being a picky cunt about anything that’d deign set athrone. Inspiration, influence, and imitation are three very careful words of war thrown about and in this case I’d shuck them off and instead describe this relatively new death metal ‘super group’, the multi-national quintet Darkened, as a contextual partial resemblance rather than an intended directive. If anything their debut full-length, ‘Kingdom of Decay‘, is a grisly admixture of classic Swedish and British death metal stylistic munitions pinging back-and-forth across the pond (as they did back in the day) leaving a fairly equal set of craters on each side.

Well, as detestable as the term ‘super group’ is, I figure it makes sense as a suggestion of seasoned professionalism shared between folks you’ll like recognize if you’ve attuned yourself to classic Swedish and British death metal and followed some of those key actors beyond their achievements in the 90’s. It doesn’t seem pertinent to reintroduce those connections as I’d detailed most of them last year in review of Darkened‘s ‘Into the Blackness‘ EP and the only major change here comes with the addition of bassist Tobias Cristiansson, who was a big part of Dismember‘s underrated self-titled album back in 2008 before joining Grave around 2010. The rest of the folks involved? Bolt Thrower‘s original drummer Andrew Whale (also of Memoriam), and folks who’d brought us albums such as Excruciate‘s ‘Passage of Life’, A Canorous Quintet‘s ‘Silence of the World Beyond’, and Demisery‘s ‘Hive of Mutation’. Yes, they’ve all achieved plenty since those albums released but Darkened is a bit of a primal sweep aimed directly at the early-to-mid 90’s feeling that is best described as a mix of Grave‘s guttural yet occasionally regal ‘You’ll Never See…’, Bolt Thrower‘s soaring step beyond via ‘The IVth Crusade’, and a bit of harmonized, keyboard-backed grandeur to help pull their auld death noise into something distinct and dramatic. That might all sound particularly novel when I’ve flowered it up but within the competitive and rafter-stuffed annals of Swedish-prompted throwback death metal today ‘Kingdom of Decay’ only stands out by the skin of its teeth.

“Dead Body Divination” kicks off the album for good reason, it is the perfect first impression of what Darkened are doing best across the majority of their debut: Stockholm’d 90’s Bolt Thrower. Sure, my apologies for being reductive but pre-‘Soulless’ Grave jamming ‘…For Victory’ for sizable club would sound quite a bit like this opening piece. Vocalist Gord Olson (AngelBlast, Demisery) is the prime distraction from those comparisons with his slightly guttural phrasing which I’ve always heard as more of an analogue to early Finnish death metal where it begins to resemble an inhale when emphasis is greatest. This is an important point of distinction though again, he could pass for Ola Lindgren at his most noxious. In terms of the compositions that follow no doubt folks will consider bands like (earlier) Slugathor and Decaying for the hail of bulleted sound created when Whale‘s crust n’ thrashing classic sensibilities meet the saturated Swedish guitarists tonality. “Pandemonium” provides a break from the tank-like barrage if only for its slides into melodicism; This actually takes a while to show up on the running order considering the melodic side of the band was more or less the highlight of their first EP, at least for my taste. I’ll admit there is a gap here in my own experience with A Canorous Quintet beyond their second album (and the subsequent continuation under another name) which does appear to inform this record via the compositions themselves. As a merger of worlds that functionally stem from similar pastures, ‘Kingdom of Worlds’ does a fine job of balancing the heft of mid-paced British fantasy death metal and early Swedish melodic death metal progressions but the songwriting doesn’t deliver ‘big’ violent hits, this is subtlety and style with small piques of exuberance throughout.

The use of keyboards first shines on “The Burning” where the otherwise battalion of double-bass n’ roar is initially driven by a set of lead melodies and inspired solo breaks. As the piece jogs towards its more grand feeling the keyboards hit unexpectedly, summoning a cavernous choir to great effect. This helps to emphasize the healthy deal of ‘The IVth Crusade’-sized movements I’ve found within this album and no doubt it’ll help justify my leaning into the incessant mention of Bolt Thrower herein. This is a major point of transition for the album as simpler, slower pieces drag us into the latter half of the album, allowing for different lead guitar chops and pacing that direct us towards the impressive apex of the title track. At this point in the full listen the vocals absolutely need to vary more, I’d been so on board but the cadence becomes well worn and all phrasing bears such similar tone and emphasis that the experience of each song feels far more similar than the holistically considered machine actually is. For this reason I’d probably just have chopped “Of Unsound Mind” off of the tracklist; I do think “The White Horse of Pestilence” is the perfect closing piece for the album so that is a vital endpoint but clipping off 4-5 minutes would’ve avoided at least one pang of tonal fatigue as the full album spun.

There is no escaping the first impression of this album and as such the full experience may not deliver what you are expecting. It certainly isn’t a classic Bolt Thrower record but, it does deliver that level of quality and thoughtful variations on a theme. If you’re keen on albums from Vore, Just Before Dawn, Hail of Bullets etc., this will feel more successfully melodic and less of a ‘worship’ entry. Second glances, deeper listens, and some serious attention should reveal the very Swedish soul of the guitar work which I would probably rather compare to more recent Unleashed than anything else. From that point of view I think Darkened shine a bit brighter than expected, there are a few overtly simple pieces on ‘Kingdom of Decay’ but that’ll be entirely fitting for the sort of folks drawn to the creator’s past and present works. It is an admirable, impeccably professional debut with a fine render that deserves some digging through for its healthy handful of sublime gem-like moments. A moderately high recommendation.

Moderately high recommendation.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
TITLE:Kingdom of Decay
LABEL(S):Edged Circle Productions
RELEASE DATE:September 11th, 2020
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Death Metal

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