WORDS : EMANUEL MATOS

The 2000s were a period of metal extravaganza where we witnessed relatively new bands achieving chart stardom and the unstoppable growth of subgenres that had until then remained relegated to small venues and independent labels, metalcore being the most notorious.

The term “metalcore” in itself brings wildly different associations to people’s minds, depending on their date of birth and how closely they followed the work of various unsung heroes that contributed to the evolution of the genre. Washington D.C.’s Darkest Hour earliest work fits that description – one foot in the metallic hardcore’s genesis bands like Earth Crisis and a hand hailing the melodic sense of Nordic metal such as Dimmu Borgir.However, their third album, 2003’s Hidden Hands of A Sadist Nation, took a sharp turn in a different direction.  

One look at the album’s nine song titles gives away the whole concept: to expose the United States bloodthirsty war machine’s rotten truths and what the group describes as “a culture of violence”

Written in the aftershock of September 11th and the Afghanistan War, and released only a few months after the beginning of the US-led coalition war against Iraq, it’s a vivid depiction of a festered period of American history. One look at the album’s nine song titles gives away the whole concept: to expose the United States bloodthirsty war machine’s rotten truths and what the group describes as “a culture of violence”.

Opening track “The Sadist Nation” introduces us to the no holds barred approach that is kept throughout the album, both musically and lyrically. Thrash and death metal are omnipresent, yet the rawness of hardcore is still perceptible, primarily via the guttural vocals of John Henry and the brutal drumming of Ryan Parrish. The song also features guest vocals by Tomas Lindberg from notorious metal band At The Gates, informing us that the Swedish influence goes beyond the instrumental.

Sweden is a big part of Hidden Hands of A Sadist Nation. Recorded and produced in Gothenburg by Fredrik Nordström (who by 2003 was a studio reference in the world of melodic death metal), the album features guest solo work by several Swedish guitarists and is heavily influenced by Scandinavian metal without sounding entirely derivative. Darkest Hour co-opt several aspects of the Swede metal soundscape while keeping keyboards and symphonic-written parts out of the picture, therefore not alienating their hardcore following. This meant getting support slots for bigger metal tours while not being ostracised from more punk-oriented bills or festivals.

The anti-establishment stance on songs like “Oklahoma” – inspired by an episode of abuse of police powers where the band was wrongly arrested and charged with possession of drugs and transporting alcohol across state lines – solidifies the punk attitude that blends surprisingly well with the metal instrumentation. It also fits a period of transition for heavy music scenes where fans were receptive to sonorities imported from other genres.

Although fast and ruthless seems to be the album’s motto, some of its most memorable moments are the melodic ones

Although fast and ruthless seems to be the album’s motto, some of its most memorable moments are the melodic ones. “The Misinformation Age” is a genuine instance where unstoppable rage finds a match in the melancholy of melody, with a brilliant chorus that sticks to your subconscious and a late solo by guest Anders Bjorler (The Haunted, At The Gates) that turns the track into a highlight.

Confident in their melodies and their focused approach, Darkest Hour close the album with an instrumental track that nears thirteen minutes. “Veritas, Aequitas” is a metal opus that not only sees the introduction of the piano – an instrument the band would reintroduce in later albums – but also brings their Swedish love story to a wholesome ending with additional guitar solos by Peter Wichers (Soilwork) and Marcus Sunesson (The Crown). The slower pace and soothing composition provides the necessary stress relief and room for reflection, a deliberate move that displays the group at their most mature.

More than pioneering musicality or milestone influence, the relevancy of Hidden Hands of A Sadist Nation comes from its terrifying premonitions

More than pioneering musicality or milestone influence, the relevancy of Hidden Hands of A Sadist Nation comes from its terrifying premonitions. “Fear what’s next” are the last words vocalist John Henry proclaims on record, and more than seventeen years later we’re witnessing the wicked results of America’s unchecked policymaking, both domestically and internationally.

On a more positive note, the Washington band also anticipated the gigantic influence that Scandinavian metal would have on underground music as a whole. Released by Victory Records, the historic label responsible for the early releases of metallic hardcore legends such as Hatebreed, Integrity and the aforementioned Earth Crisis, Hidden Hands of A Sadist Nation is a predecessor to a lot what would become of that label and metalcore as a music genre.

While a lot of artists where embracing post-hardcore or diving into emo in the early 2000s, Darkest Hour opted for an extreme but refined sonority, introducing their fans to melodic death metal. The move was consistent and didn’t raise any eyebrows at the time, yet it helped to lay the foundations to a bridge that would allow deathcore to enter the scene and make a considerable splash years later.

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