(Century Media 2017)
It is no exaggeration to say that Ventura, California’s Night Demon took the traditional metal world by storm with their 2015 debut album, Curse of the Damned. Channeling the finest of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, but with the band’s own ferocious twist, Curse of the Damned achieved the death-defying feat of taking a musty, dusty, antiquated early ‘80s sound and making it sound fresh and exciting again. The underground hordes reacted with fanatical intensity and wild-eyed appreciation, and Night Demon were rightfully hailed as the best, greatest hope for old-school heavy metal in the USA. After two years of relentless touring around the globe and one key lineup change (co-founding guitarist Brent Woodward having been replaced by Armand John Anthony last spring), Night Demon have returned with their all-important sophomore album, Darkness Remains.
Here’s the truth as I see it after three weeks of dedicated, focused listening: Darkness Remains is a better record than Curse of the Damned. Yes, that’s an audacious statement, and I don’t make it cavalierly. Curse was my #1 album of 2015 and I’ve heard those songs so many times (both on disc and on stage) that they’re firmly imprinted on my DNA by now. But for all of its formidable strengths (and there were many), Curse of the Damned was not flawless. The songwriting quality dipped slightly in a couple of spots, and a few of the riffs were perhaps a hair too derivative of Night Demon’s idols. By contrast, try as I might, I’ve been unable to find a chink in the armor of Darkness Remains. It’s 10 songs and 38 minutes of unadulterated heavy metal glory. Existing fans will instantly recognize this as the Night Demon they know and love, because all of their trademarks are front and center: the powerful yet melodic, straight-from-the-heart vocals of Jarvis Leatherby; those magnificent, glorious old-school riffs (including significant contributions by Brent Woodward before his departure); the kick-you-in-the teeth rhythm section with bass guitar turned way up in the mix and Dusty Squires’ impeccably solid drumming; and the anthemic, catchy, NWOBHM-inspired songwriting that makes you want to raise your fist, bang your head, abuse your air guitar and sing along at the top of your lungs.
Here’s the fascinating part, though. The more you listen, the more you realize that there’s more going on with Darkness Remains than meets the eye. It’s the Night Demon you know and love, sure, but it’s also something more. Something greater. Part of it is the impact of new member Armand John Anthony, whose flashy yet tasteful guitar playing dominates the sonic landscape to a greater extent than his predecessor’s, and who also contributes backing vocals that add another dimension to a number of the songs. Part of it is the production job. A good friend who works in the industry commented to me that Darkness Remains is “the best sounding metal album in years.” I don’t disagree. It packs a wallop, punchy as all hell, breathing fire and shaking you to the very foundation, yet still sounds old-school and organic. It’s got the kind of production values that others will go to great pains to mimic, deconstruct and replicate in the years to come. I can hear the conversation now, of bands walking into the studio, handing their producer/engineer a copy of Darkness Remains, and saying, “Make us sound like that.”
But the real X factor of Darkness Remains is the songwriting. Night Demon have unquestionably upped their game on this record and collected an incredible batch of songs. This is the kind of album that yields a new “favorite song” each time you hear it. The damn thing is just strewn with highlights. Most of the songs are tightly wound, uptempo, sub-four minute tracks that hit hard, hit fast, take no prisoners and leave the listener breathless and stunned at the end. Between track 1 (the amazing lead single “Welcome to the Night”) and track 7 (the raucous “Black Widow”), there is only one song where the band takes their foot off the gas and pauses for breath. That song (“Stranger in the Room”) is a doomier number that is perhaps Darkness Remains’ answer to “The Howling Man” off Curse of the Damned, sporting a crushing Sabbathy riff and an anguished, soulful vocal from Leatherby about this mysterious unseen evil that comes for him, waits until he’s alone, and scares the life out of him. Perfection! Honestly, though, each and every one of the first seven songs is pure quality, the kind of song that makes me think it could be my favorite Night Demon track ever. Also, these songs, individually and collectively, still honor the band’s NWOBHM and U.S. metal influences, but take an important and profound step toward establishing the band’s own identity. There’s no game of “name where this riff came from” anymore. It just sounds like Night Demon, and it’s awesome.
The last three songs find Night Demon spreading their wings and stretching their repertoire in interesting and sometimes surprising ways. “On Your Own” is a straight-up, no-frills NWOBHM rock’n’roll tune that, while certainly not unexpected, represents a significant and very cool change of pace from the non-stop adrenaline rush that came before. Track nine, “Flight of the Manticore,” is a ripping four-minute instrumental that will sound familiar to many who have seen Night Demon play live over the last eight or ten months because they’ve been slipping part of it into their setlist some nights. As a general rule, I’m not particularly enamored of instrumentals, but this one works. It features a lively riff, some cool dynamics, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. The real curveball, and in my view the real masterpiece, of Darkness Remains is the album-closing title track. Trust me, you’ve never heard Night Demon sound like this before. The track begins with a beautiful clean guitar and the effects-laden, haunting, bleak, softly delivered vocal line, “Close your windows, lock your door. There’s a full moon out tonight.” It sounds like Jarvis is singing from the bottom of a swimming pool, or more accurately, from beyond the grave, warning us of the darkness that is to come from within him. It’s enough to chill your blood. The song alternates between the clean parts and a big crashing cascade of guitars and drums, but it never picks up speed and never turns into a burner. About three and a half minutes in, the song begins to fade out during a spine-tingling heroic solo from Armand, eventually giving way to a solitary keyboard hum to close out the record. I nearly fell out of my chair the first time I heard the song. But the next day, that eerie melody from “Darkness Remains” kept returning to my head unbidden, pervading my consciousness and reaching inside my very soul. I get shivers just thinking about it. Yeah, it’s a special song. Maybe not everyone will get it but to me, “Darkness Remains” is one of the most amazing, bold things I’ve heard a metal band do in recent memory. The experiment works big time, and my only hope is the band figures out a way to play it live.
At the end of the day, Darkness Remains is nothing less than a crowning achievement. It takes everything that was good and right about Curse of the Damned and moves forward in a way that will not alienate existing fans but promises to attract legions of new ones. I’ve long been of the opinion that if any younger old-school American metal band has the ability, ambition, and work ethic to break out and achieve success beyond our tiny little corner of the heavy metal underground, it is Night Demon. Darkness Remains is a powerful next step in their plan for world domination. Don’t bet against them. The time has come to be who you are. You have arrived. Welcome to the night …
The official release date is April 21, 2017, via Century Media (USA) and SPV/ Steamhammer (Europe). Preorder bundles (featuring killer shirts, hoodies, silver vinyl and other swag) can be found at this link https://www.indiemerchstore.com/b/night-demon.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~