Melodeath bands often fall into the trap of monotone execution, plying their Entombed trinkets and Insomnium baubles with every riff of every song. Poorly-produced Winter Jari bobbleheads might make a nice collector’s item, but unless you’re
the American Wintersun utterly convincing in your ripoffs, playing songs that never form their own identity is a one-way ticket to the Dumpster of Destiny. Darkfall, est. 1995, register on the more vitriolic end of the melodic death spectrum, though they may protest otherwise.1 Their sophomore release At the End of Times stands out for its malleability and pure viciousness, providing a level of intrigue to a summer rank with meloclones hawking their plastic wares in the dying heat.
Though their debut Road to Redemption was uninspired, Darkfall had the good sense to build their follow-up around Road’s most successful component: its brutality. Opener “Ride Through the Sky” mixes Amon Amarth with some of Road‘s thrashier moments, but it is “Deathcult Debauchery” and “Ash Nazg — One Ring” that excel by showcasing the Austrians’ intoxicating mix of Hypocrisy and Bloodbath that serve as AET’s banner moments. Thomas Spiwak, the lone surviving member of the band’s original crew, helms a vocal assault that services the music’s extremes, reminiscent of Peter Tägtgren and Tommy Dahlström (Aeon) in mind if not always in body. How Darkfall utilize their breadth of melodic influences shifts across AET, but each is deftly incorporated under this constant abrasion. Rather than cut individual tracks of single-minded worship, the travails of “Blutgott” may find their way across the intersection of Amon Amarth and Insomnium. The chorus of closer “The Land of No Return MMXVII” relies on a rough 90’s Gothenburg melodicism that is implemented obliquely, dumbed down by ineffective death/doom chugs.
Here we see Darkfall tip their hand: when the Austrians let off the gas pedal, the album begins to unravel. At the fore is the guitar-work of Stephan Stockreiter and Sascha Ulm, surprisingly inconsistent for a veteran band. Darkfall corrupt all brutality with ineffective and out-of-place melodic sideshows that rarely feel natural. “The Way of Victory” opens strong, but patches in these flat, wandering noodles that caused me to simultaneously cringe and laugh on my initial listen. When AET embraces the weight of “Ashes of Dead Gods,” Darkfall (mostly) drown out these inescapable squealing grotesqueries with music that actually is quite interesting. Yet only the slightest crack in that facade results in a patchwork mishmash of unfocused riffs and filler accents that do the savagery of the album a disservice. Worse yet, the lead tone is bag-over-the-head ugly. Coupled with their pervasive nature, it’s like stringing up one of those neon signs with the cursive letters, blaring “Look at me, I suck” at all hours of the night.
Part of the blame lands at the feet of Peter Fritz, Andy Classen (Rotting Christ, Tankard), and anyone else involved in the production because AET sounds awful. I typically avoid chainsawing an album’s score simply for production issues if the surrounding musicianship offers something worthwhile, but AET is a different beast. Its atrocious 160 kbps is muddled and miserable in almost every situation, but excessively so without the full thrust of the music to distract from it. Tracks peak with regularity, crackling across multiple sets of cans. The lead guitars themselves are unrelentingly miserable, though the beefy, black/death style rhythms suffer no such fate. It’s as if someone snuck into the studio after hours to play a prank on the engineer, but no one caught it before release. Given the capability present throughout the rest of the album, it’s a damn shame. These vocals breathe evil, the melodic undercurrents like that of “Welcome the Day You Die” find respectability when relegated to the background, and Thomas Kern’s blasts grind bones into dust. Not every death riff may be perfect, but the wealth of ideas here deserves better.
At the End of Times is an incredibly frustrating album. Part of me really wants to like this record, despite the drawbacks. On paper, Darkfall bring a lot to the table. In execution, a few glaring, insurmountable issues deform what should be a fantastic experience into an entirely unenjoyable one. It’s rare that I suggest a melodeath outfit drop the melo — the world can always use more melo — but Darkfall are better off without it. Their output cannot survive it.