Retro-spective Review: Dark Angel – Darkness Descends

Released: 1986
Label: Combat Records

dark-angel-darkness-descendsWhen historians look back at the original thrash wave of the 80s, it’s usually Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth that get the lion’s share of the attention. It’s admittedly hard to deny the timeless nature of the early works by such seminal acts and it’s obvious these were the bands that defined the sound and style. That doesn’t mean they were the only ones who released genre-defining works however. Case in point was the sophomore platter by California speed freaks, Dark Angel. Cresting the same year as Master of Puppets, Reign in Blood and Peace Sells…, Darkness Descends was that fateful next step in thrash metal extremity, going far beyond anything the “Big Three” were doing in terms of speed, darkness and generalized insanity. Nothing released up to that point prepared the listener for the chaotic, smothering sound and speed presented herein and nothing was remotely as menacing and deadly. Still, the fates conspired to keep this gem out of the spotlight far too often when it should be rightly hailed alongside Reign in Blood as a zenith of the entire genre.

The main ingredients of the Dark Angel sound were speed, more speed and even more speed. The ripping and clawing solos by Jim Durkin and Eric Meyer were equal or superior to anything Hanneman and King were slinging and the riffs were always more ominous, attacking and nerve-wracking. Look no further than the opening of the title track for proof positive. The guitars sound more like insect swarms bearing down upon the listener and are completely devoid of melodic touches, but full of odd time signatures and discordant notes, and when things go haywire at 1:36, it’s the sound of metal’s next step into the extreme. Don Doty had a pretty basic thrash voice, but his odd snarl and edgy delivery heavily contributed to the manic, jittery, off-kilter charm of the material. He perpetually sounds on the verge of a schizoid break, and since the music conveyed the same feeling to the listener, it fit perfectly.

“The Burning of Sodom” should be hailed as one of the very heights of thrash metal for infusing a hyper-punk dynamic into the evil riffs and uber psychotic pace. No bullshit, no melodic touches, just straight up speed running and poser slaughtering from start to end. Equally nihilistic and bleak are “Hunger of the Undead,” which sports a killer bass/drum run amid the vicious riffs and hateful spirit, and the amazing “Death is Certain (Life is Not),” wherein Don Doty spits out his lines with such raw venom and anger, it can’t help but chill the soul.

Dark+AngelThe closest the album comes to a catchy or accessible song is “Merciless Death,” with a somewhat Steve Harris-y bass intro and what may have passed as a catchy chorus in the Dark Angel realm. It has a vaguely anthemic chorus that promises merciless death, but radio play was surely never in their plans with this thrasher.

The biggest weapon in the Dark Angel arsenal was the stunning drum work of Gene Hoglan. Nowadays the man’s resume reads like a trip through the metal hall of fame and he’s widely regarded as a metal legend, but back in 86, he was just the big man behind Dark Angel‘s kit. His thunderous presence sets every song a few notches higher on the quality scale and his nonstop fills, rolls and little touches are jaw dropping. Rarely does a drummer command such a large portion of the listener’s attention, but man, you can’t avoid locking in to what the man is doing. He also had a big hand in the hyper-intelligent lyrics which sent many a metalhead running for a dictionary (myself included).

As with so many promising bands, Dark Angel peaked early and were unable to equal the sheer brilliance of this their magnum opus. While later albums like Leave Scars were impressive, Darkness Descends was always on another level altogether. If you think Slayer or God forbid, Metallica wrote the book on thrash, you didn’t dig deep enough into the darker side of things.  If you missed this thrash titan, you need to get in the time machine ASAP. This one was a world changer.

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