darkane redux: schuler’s angel

[Last week, things didn’t go so well for Darkane, but maybe…just maybe…Insanity wasn’t the best place to start. So I’m taking the week off and handing the reins to Twitter’s most prominent Darkane enthusiast, Schuler Benson, who makes the case for the band’s 1999 debut, Rusted Angel.]

Darkane’s sophomore release, Insanity, recently got a much-deserved reaming on Black Rain Artifacts, and that was just over its art. And while longtime Darkane fans seem split down the middle about this, I’m inclined to say the shitty cover is woefully indicative of the songs on Insanity. When I go back and listen to it now, the whole album feels rushed; recently-acquired singer Andreas Sydow still had some settling in to do, and the mentality behind the songwriting favored straightforward thrash numbers broken up by long lulls and needless interludes. Insanity is a passable melodic death metal record, but what makes it feel like a dud is where it’s sandwiched in Darkane’s discography. The band followed it up with the successful Expanding Senses. And before Insanity came Darkane’s debut, Rusted Angel, a masterful combination of the already-established Swedish melo-death blueprint and the deathy thrash of Kreator and Destruction. Rusted Angel has only gotten better with age, and somehow it’s still somewhat overlooked.

To call Rusted Angel the band’s first album isn’t entirely accurate; while it was their first recorded output under the Darkane moniker, the band’s core songwriters, guitarist Christofer Malmström and drummer Peter Wildoer, had already been playing together for years, first in the early ’90s as Demise, then as Agretator, the lineup of which dissolved in 1998. Malmström and Wildoer’s history together accounts for Rusted Angel’s odd duality of seasoned and confident steadiness mixed with an urgent and fresh immediacy. The instrumentation, further fleshed out by Jörgen Löfberg and Klas Ideberg, is muscular and melodic, instantly catchy but complex enough for rewarding repeat listens.

For my money though, the true hero of Rusted Angel is Lawrence Mackrory, a jack-of-all-trades musician in the Swedish metal scene, whose vocal performance here set a new bar for singers like Peter Dolving and Jens Broman (who’d later also do a stint in Darkane), sticking to neither screaming nor clean singing, but occupying a shaky in-between territory that’s as unpredictable as it is satisfying. Honestly, I’d argue that Mackrory’s performance was so original—and became such a crucial element of Darkane’s ouvre—that when he left the band after recording just one album with them, the remaining members’ highest priority in a new frontman was finding a convincing Lawrence Mackrory knock-off… and whether you wanna hear it or not, that’s pretty much what Andreas Sydow was.

So let’s talk about the songs. Wildoer recently relayed on Facebook an anecdote about the night he and Malmström got together to begin writing in earnest what would become Rusted Angel. Wildoer says that the two of them were in love with how “Blinded By Fear” opened, and they let that affinity direct the writing of “Convicted,” which, following an operatic instrumental intro track, ended up opening Darkane’s debut. “Convicted” and “Bound” both ride the fence between melo-death and just-plain-death, kinda like a mixture of Subterranean’s melody and The Winterlong’s faster bits. “A Wisdoms Breed” and “Chase For Existence” have similar makeups, but display the band slowing down the pace just a bit for emphasized theatricality. Then there’s “July 1999,” probably the album’s fastest track, boasting some impressive downpicking, blazing double-bass from Wildoer, and a possessed-sounding Mackrory hollering about Nostradamus or something. The fact that, style-wise, the band is relatively all over the place is actually one of Rusted Angel’s strongest assets. But it’s not just what they’re pulling and where they’re pulling it from, it’s how they’re putting it all together.

According to Wildoer, it was the tail end of 1997 when he and Malmström started writing the record, so in addition to At The Gates, they were surely already familiar with Hypocrisy, Dark Tranquillity and the rest of the bands who’d go on to form the subgenre’s top tier. Melodically, they were taking their cues from some choice artists. But the influence of Darkane’s forerunners, Agretator and Demise—an all-out death metal band and a thrash act, respectively—can be felt through the death/thrash in these songs, too. Also, in addition to Darkane, another Helsingborg band was picking up momentum, and even lent Darkane their singer for a brief time. It ultimately didn’t pan out; Darkane wound up with Mackrory, and the other singer, one Björn “Speed” Strid, would return to his main gig, Soilwork.

oh, what could have been!

Another thing Rusted Angel introduced that’d come to define the band’s sound is the heavy inclusion of orchestration and operatic vocals. While orchestral/choral accents and flourishes aren’t too hard to find in melodic death metal, songs like the title track and “Frenetic Visions” feature them prominently. And honestly, if there’s anywhere the album falls short, it’s when the orchestral elements overshadow the band and create cracks in the record’s flow. They’d eventually get better at balancing it out on later albums.

On the whole, Darkane is pretty slept-on compared to a number of their peers. The band’s lineup has remained the same, instrumentally, since Rusted Angel. Andreas Sydow performed vocals on three Darkane albums (I haven’t mentioned Layers of Lies, but it’s Sydow’s best with the band). And Construcdead’s Jens Broman lent his voice to one, 2009’s much-maligned Demonic Art (which is actually my favorite Darkane release, fucking @ me, you think I haven’t taken shit for it already?). Then, following Broman’s exit, our homie Lawrence Mackrory returned for 2013’s The Sinister Supremacy, a solid, catchy slab that seemed to get zero promotion, at least stateside. Peter Wildoer’s also gone on to do some excellent work as a hired gun drummer, including providing percussion for Old Man’s Child’s choice Slaves of the World, as well as auditioning for the Slayer vacancy left after Dave Lombardo’s most recent exit. According to the band’s Facebook page, Malmström underwent surgery fairly recently to repair a torn ligament (or something) in his finger. It would appear that now he’s on the mend, and hopefully we’ll end up with some new Darkane at some point in the near future.

Now don’t get me wrong… Darkane isn’t At The Gates or Soilwork, but they’ve contributed some of the better music under the melo-death umbrella, and they somehow seem to get less recognition than some of their weaker cohorts (fucking Mnemic had a better deal and better distro/promo way longer than they deserved, but hardly anybody in the U.S. even knew The Sinister Supremacy came out, which is just fuckin’ perverse). If you haven’t heard Darkane before and you’re looking for a good place to start, or if like Jordan, it’s just been a while and you’re wondering if you missed something your first time around, Rusted Angel is a killer place to start. Sharp riffs, impassioned vocals, not completely terrible cover art, and tone for days. Listen up.

Schuler Benson is a writing instructor and PhD student at the University of South Carolina where he studies rhetoric and its capacities in addiction recovery, as well as forces his colleagues and students to listen to shit like Darkane. Tweet at him at @schulerbenson.

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