My perpetual desire to keep up with the new, the strange, and the inventive in the metal landscape betrays one of my greatest sins as a genre fan: I quite often forget to tip my hat to good ol’ heavy metal. Sure, I have nearly every Maiden record memorized front to back and I endeavor to wear my Motörhead shirt at least twice a week, but I tend to push modern homages to metal’s roots to the wayside. I think my ignorance is a byproduct of a general disinterest in new takes on traditional metal endemic to the current scene, and occasionally the metal community (and myself) needs a good ass-kick of a record to whip it into shape. Darkness Remains, the sophomore effort of California’s Night Demon, might not be that proverbial boot to the rear, but it is undoubtedly an effective reminder to keep an ear open for new traditional metal releases as impressive as this one.
Night Demon’s take on heavy metal plays like a happy medium between Iron Maiden and Diamond Head, sporting the galloping rhythms and soaring melodies of the former and hard rock influence of the latter. The guitars and vocals are, expectedly, the driving force behind Darkness Remains; the riffs flow briskly from swift palm-muted patterns to big, stadium-filling power chords, with the hooks being shared between the harmony-happy lead guitars and Jarvis Leatherby’s distinct pipes. This guy is a great frontman, at times sounding like a more proficient Gene Simmons while possessing a level of grime that’s a perfect fit for the genre. The lead guitar harmonies, meanwhile, are impressively adaptable, morphing from the huge, sweeping Maiden variety to upbeat, Thin Lizzy-esque hooks depending on the mood of the track. If you love classic metal, you’ll dig the hell out of Night Demon.
Each component of Night Demon is so solid that they could have easily gotten away with phoned-in pop song structures, yet with nearly every song the band makes an attempt to shake things up by kicking the tempo up (or down, in favor of a driving mid-pace) in the second half. This strategy almost always works in the band’s favor to deliver a shot of adrenaline to the proceedings. However, even when the tempo hikes instigate the intended reaction, it’s hard to ignore that some of them are carbon copied from other tracks (compare the riffs of the tempo changes in “Welcome to the Night” and “Hallowed Ground”) or that some build to an exciting crescendo before promptly fizzling out (“Life on the Run”). Even when they seem half-baked, I’m still happy whenever these tempo changes make an appearance as they universally make the compositions more engaging, if not outright better (“Black Widow”).
Tempo variations aren’t Night Demon‘s only tool when it comes to making Darkness Remains a compelling package. There’s an ominous undercurrent that runs just underneath this record’s surface; it rises periodically, such as in the somber mid-point of instrumental “Flight of the Manticore” or the doomy “Stranger in the Room,” and culminates in the downbeat closing title track. This song is an extremely interesting choice to conclude the record with, a ballad with an epic feel that recalls the Western film work of Ennio Morricone. It hints at a greater sound that’s begging to be fleshed out on future albums, but for now, the brisk brevity of this release will more than suffice. Tracks like “Maiden Hell,” which stuffs as many Iron Maiden references as it can into three minutes (going so far as to mention “If Eternity Should Fail”), are reminders that Night Demon’s priority lies in crafting a fun, old-school romp. It would have felt more authentic if it hadn’t been mastered so goddamn loud, but with spot-on guitar tones and an audible bass, Darkness Remains sounds better than its DR5 suggests.
Despite some very minor songwriting flubs, Darkness Remains delivers pretty much everything you could want from a traditional heavy record. It’s a blast to listen to from the start and holds up quite well over repeated listens thanks to its occasionally intriguing atmosphere. Perhaps more importantly, I see much more potential in Night Demon than in their modern contemporaries to transcend homage status and become something truly special. This album is already a notable improvement over their debut, and I’ll certainly be keeping an ear open to hear if they can raise the bar once again for round three. Until then, I’ll be blasting Darkness Remains.