Northern Ireland’s Darkest Era caught the ear of Metal Blade Records pretty early in their career, it seems – prior to this the band had only put out two EPs that I could find any information about. The luck of the Irish, indeed! On this evidence it’s more judgement than good fortune that’s scored them what must be a fairly decent deal though, as The Last Caress Of Light displays a good whack of maturity beyond their relatively short existence as a band.
The driving pulse of ‘The Morrigan’ leads us in at a decent lick, giving a solid hint at the atmosphere of the rest of the album – comparisons to Primordial are inevitable and not entirely unjustified, but Darkest Era, whilst sharing obvious common ground with their legendary countrymen, are actually a very different proposition in truth. All the bodhrán-influenced rhythms you’d expect are present and correct from the hands and feet of Lisa Howe (shock horror, a GIRL! On DRUMS!), but the moment that the vocals start the two bands’ sounds diverge pretty drastically – Dwayne ‘Krum’ Maguire couldn’t be more different to Alan ‘Nemtheanga’ Averill stylistically. Where Alan’s style is rooted in black metal harshness and oratorial bombast, Dwayne hails from a more classic rock background and powers these songs forward with real panache, for the most part, with a warm and deep tone that suits the music very well.
The aforementioned opener and the second track, ‘An Ancient Fire Burns’, actually belie the full scope of this record – both fine songs, but their more rapid pace is slightly at odds with the real meat of the album. Track 3 is where it really opens out – ‘Beneath The Frozen Skies’ drops the tempo slightly, adds a dollop of honest-to-goodness doom to the mixture and really gives Darkest Era their true voice, I feel. Giving the vocals more space to breathe in the arrangements works wonders, as does the increased sense of experimentation in the guitar-work – Ade Mulgrew and Sarah Weighell (blimey, ANOTHER girl!) complement each others’ playing well, locking-in tightly together in the dual-leads and backing each other superbly during the solos and opposing sections. ‘Heathen Burial’ and ‘Visions Of The Dawn’ follow and both expand on this increased musical vocabulary, and set us up for what is, in my opinion, the defining moment of The Last Caress Of Light.
‘To Face The Black Tide’, at 8:30 in length, is anything but the test of endurance you might imagine – it’s in fact the culmination of everything the band have done up to this point. With a vast feel and some truly sublime work from all the musicians involved, and easily the best performance of the whole album from Maguire, this is a first-order doom epic. That’s not to say it’s downhill from here, not at all – ‘Poem To The Gael’ sees Darkest Era fully embrace their Celtic heritage with a mainly-acoustic folky ballad, and the album closer ‘The Last Caress Of Light Before The Dark’ channels Opeth and Agalloch through a filter of Thin Lizzy to stunning effect.
A stunning debut, then – not without its minor issues, but hardly anything worth mentioning without sounding like a miserable bugger. Metal Blade seem to have landed themselves a cracking prospect here – Darkest Era have turned out a record to be proud of, one that grows with each listen into something truly memorable.