Back in the golden era of the mid-2000s, one of my best friends played me a song by Darkest Hour called “Convalescence” that immediately shot a bolt of adrenaline through my metal subconscious after I heard vocalist John Henry scream “Oh, confinement binds you/ Nothing scares me/ Nothing thrills me.” While observing the artwork for Darkest Hour’s Undoing Ruin, I found myself amazed by this band’s undeniable passion to push heavy metal into uncharted territories of ruthless aggression and melodic elegance.
For those unfamiliar with modern metal, the mid 2000s saw a new wave of American metal bands churn out monumental releases at levels not seen since the historic thrash movement of the 1980s. Harkening back to the late 1990s, Darkest Hour helped innovate the genre of ‘metalcore’ with a guitar driven attack of malicious riffs, duel harmonies, rapid time changes, and groundbreaking vocal performances. Rising in popularity alongside Killswitch Engage and Lamb of God, Darkest Hour gained a loyal following yet flew under the radar when compared to the mainstream success garnered by their contemporaries. This is where the music industry truly pisses me off; Darkest Hour has fought an uphill battle throughout their career to keep the music alive despite the brilliance of their catalog. I stand by my next statement; Darkest Hour deserves the same notoriety and acclaim experienced by Killswitch Engage and Lamb of God. Let’s put it this way, I recently stood in the photopit during Darkest Hour’s set at the Rockstar Mayhem Festival and they stole the show by commanding the stage like they were possessed by the music.
Despite the overbearing odds, Darkest Hour ultimately triumphed in the face of adversity by releasing one of the best albums of their career. After signing with powerhouse metal label Sumerian Records, Darkest Hour’s latest self-titled LP showcases the veteran act taking creative risks and pursuing a more accessible sound without losing the melodic Swedish death metal influence and manic Slayer essence of their identity. Straight up, way too many bands nowadays take the safe route in order to satisfy their fanbase. For a band eight-albums into their catalog, why not try to push the envelope when everyone else avoids it? The recording debuts of drummer Travis Orbin and bassist Aaron Deal re-energized this group’s creative fire and solidified its strongest lineup to-date. In my opinion, Darkest Hour is one of 2014’s pivotal releases and metalheads everywhere should hear this dazzling display of world-class songwriting that separates itself from the conformity currently plaguing the metal scene.
In an exclusive interview with Pop-Break, I sat down with Darkest Hour co-founder and guitarist Mike Schleibaum for an in-depth conversation exploring the group’s self-titled masterpiece before they co-headline a national tour with Unearth in October.
Starting off with the lyrical line “Fuck Waiting Around To Die” from the track “Rapture In Exile,” I couldn’t think of a better statement that represent this band’s fighting spirit throughout the years…
Mike Schleibaum: I’ll tell you some shit that I haven’t told anybody. Originally, the song called was called “This Track,” which doesn’t fit and it’s obviously weird. We wanted to write the most pissed off, angry, and vehement song. We have a lot of melodic and radio shit on the album but I wanted to go in all directions just to break this shit open. That song came from a very bleak place during a very hard time for the band. It’s funny to me how the label and fans grabbed onto it. It wasn’t the name of the album; it’s just a lyric and part of our song. That’s the theme that everyone grabbed and I think it’s because that’s the theme we all felt. Eight albums into our career, you have to take some chances. Everybody is telling you, ‘Oh god, if you do something crazy than what are you going to do?’ It’s like fuck it, because than I’ll be dead so I’m going to do some crazy shit. I want to push the barriers and break of the mold of what we’re doing creativity.
Especially for the longtime listeners, I think your fanbase recognizes how much work has been sacrificed over the years to keep the music alive…
MS: I don’t know if people understand or realize what it’s like for bands to be away from who they love, their families, and the sacrifices that people make just to keep bands alive. I think there’s a lot of bullshit, fakeness, and facade put up in music because it’s show business. People should respect band’s that put their lives on the line so they could hang out with their fans in the parking lots after shows, and make their art for you just so you could talk shit about them on the internet.
I know your patience must have been tested after the recording process for Darkest Hour took two-years to make. Describe how the added benefit of time ultimately helped your album take a turn for the better?
MS: We recorded the album a bunch of times. In retrospect, I think all that time was great and it was needed. When you’re waiting to release it though, you want to fucking break shit. You want to go on tour because you feel like every time you’ve made a song, you feel like it’s the best song and than you make another one. Its like ‘How many songs do we have?’ and ‘Do we have enough?’ When you’re in that bubble, you’re like ‘Ugh, I need get this shit done.’ Looking back now, at least I could be proud of what I’m presenting to the world. I could just be like, ‘Oh you don’t like it? Fuck you because I’m proud of it.’ It took time to get to that point.
The new tracks like “Wastelands” and “By The Starlight” explore uncharted territories in terms of melody and John’s vocal style, yet hold onto those core European thrash elements of your sound.
MS: That’s the whole idea. If you know the band, you kind of have to go through this emotional change like ‘Oh, this shit is different.’ Once you get through it, it’s pretty badass. I think that’s the main point, people just need to give this album a chance. If you know the band or think you know the band, art isn’t about what you think you know, it’s about what you’re experiencing at the moment.
Aside from the single’s, which songs off your self-titled were you most excited for listener’s to hear?
MS: “Hypatia Rising,” is my jam. It’s track 14 so it’s hidden in there. I think it’s a cool song because it’s been around forever and it finally came together. It’s like six-minutes long and I fought all these motherfuckers who wanted just radio hits on there. There’s another song called “The Great Oppressor” that’s sick because it’s a classic Darkest Hour jam. There are 15 tracks on the deluxe version and 13 on the normal package and I fought for that because I think all of the songs stretch the whole picture.
How many bands eight albums into their career could still push the envelope of their sound?
MS: It’s best to run a race with the blinders on. Horses wear blinders because they’ll run all over the place when they race. When you’re writing the music, don’t worry about what everyone else is doing and just be yourself.
Talk about working with your producer Taylor Larson for the first time. He’s known for his projects with Periphery and a few other so-called ‘djent’ bands.
MS: He’s a young kid who could take our shit. Most young people couldn’t take the amount of bullshit we’ll put someone through. He had new ideas and he pushed them through because he was passionate about it and that comes from youth. Without that, nobody else could’ve done this.
Describe Taylor’s [Larson] influence on your sound all the way from guitar tones to song structures.
MS: He was involved in everything. We kept saying ‘Fuck you, that sucks’ over and over again. Only a kid could handle that shit. Most adults would’ve been like ‘I’m going home to feed me kids so I’m out of here and fuck you.’ He really hung in there.
John’s [Henry] screaming and clean vocals never sounded stronger….
MS: Taylor didn’t take any shit and forced John to give it his all and get the performance that we needed and that’s what you got. That’s what happens when you have a kid who cares because kids care and they pay attention. I hate to call Taylor a kid because he’s 24-years old and I’m 37. The band’s been around for 20 years so he’s young to us but you need that sense of passion around.
Talk about the impact of having Travis Orbin’s on drums and the versatility he adds to your songwriting.
MS: He taught us how to play slow and speed it up again and play even better. He’s the man. He’s ambidextrous as a motherfucker and he’s a solid and focused musician. We’re all fuck ups and we’re all compulsive and he’s compulsive too so that’s why he fits.
I know the same goes for Aaron Deal [Bassist] who played a major role in the song arrangements…
MS: He’s the old man that calms the storm and brings us another perspective. He helps pull it all together and he’s not so angry all the time so it’s nice to have that around.
How about balancing your guitar riffs and leads with Lonestar? How did you two approach the recording process for this album?
MS: War, it was an absolute war between Lonestar and me. It was like, ‘His riff wasn’t good enough and my riff wasn’t good enough.’ That’s my boy though and we’re brothers. When you get us into a room, we’ll start arguing about riffs and it’s a motherfucking battle because this band is all we have and this is what we’re about. Nobody takes it too personally though.
With a label like Sumerian representing the band and exposing your music to a new generation of listeners, could you describe their impact?
MS: Sumerian did a lot to try to push us forward and they didn’t stand in our way as we made changes. I think that’s the key. A lot of people will say Sumerian had an impact on this record but you know what Sumerian’s impact was? They let us do what we wanted and that was their impact.
Now that your album has been released, what’s on the horizon for the upcoming year?
MS: The album is called Darkest Hour and it’s out now so come pick it up. Check that shit out on YouTube or whatever the fuck you do! It’s music and you need something to listen too when you’re driving in the car. We’re going on tour so come to the fucking concert!