And now, the award for this year's "November Surprise" release goes to...The Darkness!
Yeah. That band.
Of course, follow-up albums to highly-regarded debuts aren't supposed to be this good, especially in the metal world. After all, bands are supposed to be self-induglent on their sophomore records; they're supposed to have big choirs and loud orchestras and songs about the high-life and success and money and all the things that are associated with newfound wealth. Such records are supposed to be bigger than life, bombastic as all get-out and filled to the brim with excessively long epic-rockers that don't really sound a thing like the previous record. That these records are often more popular than the record that preceded it isn't surprising--nor is said band's disappearance from the music world shortly thereafter.
But The Darkness have escaped from falling victim to the dreaded excessive follow-up curse, and they've done so for two reasons. First, the band assigned production duties to Roy Thomas Baker, a man who understands the proper techniques for making successful pomp and over-the-top rock; after all, his productions helped make Queen a household name. More importantly, though, the band's music was already decadent, over-the-top and bigger than life. Just take a listen to their debut album Permission to Land; it's full of great rockers about the bad-boy aspects of rock-and-roll, all highlighted by some excellent guitar pyrotechnics and Justin Hawkins' super-sweet falsetto. Though slagged at the time as being a "parody" metal band, many people looked past the cynical press and discovered that The Darkness is the real deal.
One Way Ticket to Hell...And Back is a quite succinct, compact record. While their debut was a blast of retro-rock that recalled the best (and worst) of early 1980s rock, for One Way Ticket the band has eschewed those tendencies in favor of a deeper, less superficial-sounding record, opting for songs with grander arrangements. Songs now feature orchestras and string sections, and only a few numbers (most notably "Girlfriend" and "Knockers") recall their debut. This is where Roy Thomas Baker's magic is felt; at times, especially on "Seemed Like a Good Idea At the Time" and "Blind Man," the similarities between The Darkness and Queen are not only noticeable, they're unavoidable. (This is not a bad thing, either.) But when you hear the bagpipes on "Hazel Eyes" or the orchestra on Hawkins' singing is better than ever, his falsetto swinging higher and higher, and after a few years on the road, it's even stronger than before. The man can sing, damn it. Maturity's a helluva thing, and for The Darkness, maturity is a blessing.
This newfound sonic maturity also falls in line with the band's lyrical maturity; gone are the songs about lust and love and drugs and debauchery and jealousy; instead, they sing of maturity, cleaning up their act, settling down in deep relationships, and, yes, going bald. That they're already addressing such subjects by their second album is an amazing feat; most bands wait until their third or fourth album to do so. Such topics often indicate a band's decline, here, it's an indication that the band's getting better, because, well...they're not making silly rock songs like "Love on the Rocks With No Ice" or "Get Your Hands Off Of My Woman." The band's newfound sense of maturity serves a grander purpose--seriousness. If Permission to Land made it easy to dismiss the band as a bunch of novelty-act poseurs making parody metal, One Way Ticket to Hell...And Back finds the band kicking the naysayers in the balls, proving to the world once and for all that The Darkness is a serious band. That the band can do so without losing any ground or coming off in a silly way only exemplifies their point.
One Way Ticket to Hell...And Back is indeed a surprise treat. Those expecting Permission to Land, volume two will probably be disappointed, but for those who had writ this band off as being nothing more than an amusing joke will certainly be surprised. I know I was. As surprising as it is for me to admit, this is easily one of the year's best records.
Artist Website: http://www.thedarknessrock.com
Label Website: http://www.atlanticrecords.com