People like to point the finger at Candlemass as being the originator of the idea of epic doom metal as being “slowed down power metal”. This isn’t entirely unfair since, y’know… they were the band who got the band rolling on the subgenre to start with. That being said, I’d argue that it’s more generally applicable to Solitude Aeturnus a bit more than the Swedish band.
Formed in 1987 as Solitude before butting into copyright claims, SA fused the epic doom style of songwriting with the American power metal format and broad sense of melody. They were always a highly melodic band – the most obvious reason being the interplay between the guitars and vocal maestro Robert Lowe who in his prime is one of the only vocalists who comes remotely close to capturing the same sort of approach as John Arch – albeit with the exact opposite emotional effect. However, Solitude Aeturnus never quite had the subtle neoclassical/harmonic minor melodic sensibility Candlemass did, as well as perhaps even more emphasis on choruses than ‘Mass did. Their approach is distinctly American, with a deeply bleak, grim sort of depressive (bordering hard on fatalism) quality to everything the band did that plants them between older doom artists and the regal, grandiose scope of the epic doom style. You can draw a line from, say, what While Heaven Wept and even what Atlantean Kodex does straight back to Into the Depths of Sorrow, and even certain funeral doom bands, such as Worship, were pretty heavily inspired by them.
Through the Darkest Hour, the band’s third album, is… very interesting. What it sees Solitude Aeturnus doing is adopting a bit of a bluesier approach to songwriting. In a lot of respects this album is more “traditionally doom metal” than the first two records were, and broadly speaking the band give themselves more room to let the grooves breathe and play off them than the more rigid approach they’d had before. The production further reflects this by giving the drums a noticeably less reverb-soaked and, frankly, blocky sound than what the first two records had. In general, it feels very much like a work by a band who is simultaneously trying to push their music into a more earthy and obscure direction at times, while at others attempting to adopt some of the trappings of mid 90’s metal.
Therein lies the double-edged sword this album possesses. To be blunt: Through the Darkest Hour simultaneously has some of the band’s best work on it, and some of the outright worst material in their catalog. It’s an album where they definitely experiment with their style a bit, which is commendable, certainly, but it also occasionally gives the impression that they weren’t quite sure where they wanted to go either. It’s understandable given the timeframe; as most people who read this site understand, the 90’s were a pretty lousy time for traditional metal, especially in the United States. As such you have songs like “Perfect Insanity”, which starts out with a really appealing riff – a strangely low-key kinda bluesy one that’d almost pass for a cool grunge riff in a different context – and then drops it for a verse riff that’s basically a Pantera-stop-start staccato figure while they put some stupid distorted vocal effect all over Robert Lowe’s voice. It’s instantly the most dated, worst part of 90’s metal rearing its ugly head that totally wrecks whatever momentum the song previously built up, and it’s absolutely lousy throughout the song. In particular that riff under Lowe singing “Into Oblivion…” all chant like is pretty crappy and so is the band not being able to figure out when to end the song, so they just hammer on a couple chords with some spoken word bullshit filling out the space between them. It’s as if the band couldn’t decide where they wanted to be grim and depressing, or if they wanted to chug your ass off, and the effect is jarring in the worst way. There is also the matter of “Pain”, which generally does that kind of staccato riffing better – the way it and Lowe’s deep, kinda wavering vocal melody during the verses is actually pretty neat, and it has a really catchy chorus, but then it also drops into this acoustic interlude halfway through that doesn’t really “fit” what came before it. That passage, while kinda pretty in its own right, doesn’t really elegantly link back up with the rest of the track, and basically feels like they stapled two halves of a song together and called it a day. It’s frustrating because both would’ve been really good if they’d been sufficiently fleshed out; as is that song feels really fumbling and awkward in a way the best material on here just doesn’t.
So you’re probably thinking to yourself at this point: “why are you reviewing this album if you’re gonna bag on it this much”? There are a couple observations to make in response to that. First, some of the most interesting albums in metal are the ones that are simultaneously brilliant but also glaringly flawed; that there’s such a blatant juxtaposition between the good parts and the lesser ones is usually really interesting, and allows you to reassess what you really value in music as an artform. The other observation ties directly into that: Through the Darkest Hour embodies that dichotomy to a tee – when this album is at its best, it’s full of genuinely stunning, powerful songs that, if anything, soak in a mood that feels distinctly close to home even today. It’s bleak stuff, with the high-flying emotional anxieties and bombast that partly defined the first two records having given way into a dour, relentlessly bubbling sense of pessimism that never really wavers throughout the album’s running time.
The formally groovier style that the majority of the album has – I mean groovier in the genuine rhythmic sense, not the Pantera kind that is thankfully restricted– gives the band a somewhat looser approach to structure in the compositions here. It’s still verse/chorus, obviously, and very forceful when it needs to be – the first two tracks on here are the most direct, forceful songs on the record – but the band is more liable here to drift from riff to riff, passage to passage than before. In doing this, it allows Solitude Aeturnus more of an opportunity to flesh out the mood and atmosphere, and in some respects it credibly represents the most organic, intuitive songcraft the band came up with. It’s never overly meandering either, in large part – there is almost always a clear direction the songs are going down, and for all of the emphasis that it clearly places on atmosphere, it never sacrifices the purely visceral heaviness of the riffage when necessary. Songs like “Haunting the Obscure” and “The 9th Day: The Awakening” make this pretty clear. It’s also pretty apparent on the best songs on here that a whole lot of thought was put into the way the tracks were arranged and structured, and how they constantly reinforces the hopeless mood that the riffing and Lowe’s vocals constantly evoke.
“Eternal (Dreams part II)” also bears it out. Its intro is initially a tease, the outro of “Dream of Immortality” all distorted for a sec, an aural depiction of a faded dream before the actual main riff of the song comes forth: an utterly crushing, languid riff that’s mercilessly heavy in the physical sense and melodically mirthless in a way that’d rival any of the Peaceville death/doom bands of the same vintage. Lowe’s voice drifts in across the riffing, understated to the point of being almost breathless, with the verse riff and the more rhythmically twisting harmony part (one of the more memorable riffs in their catalog, incidentally) playing off each other in a sort of call-and-response fashion. The chorus brings it back into focus, with one of Lowe’s most soaring, powerful vocal melodies, all mournful and its concomitant despair-riddled riffing (genuinely majestic, without sacrificing pure physical weight) and the rolling double bass all mirroring each other. The solo in the middle is one of the best, if nothing else because it mirrors the wandering, ceaselessly churning mood the rhythm riff and the drumming under it evoke. The second to last verse and then the final restatement of the chorus give way to arguably the most mirthless moment in the band’s career: a lead riff as innately memorable as it is utterly grim and bleak comes bursting force as the guitars and rhythm section slowly build momentum from the break back underneath it. The final verse is probably the most defeated Lowe ever sounds – not as anxious and soaring as the debut, nor with the subtle vengeance-riddled edge that defines himself and the band’s work on Beyond the Crimson Horizon. Rather, just resigned to fate. It’s a perfect song.
“Eternal” is Solitude Aeturnus’s best song. There, I said it.
There are plenty of other good songs on this album, of course – the aforementioned “The 9th Day: The Awakening” features a sitar-driven passage that’s really interesting in the context of when it appears – almost jarringly so at first, and yet as it turns out, the band does a hell of a job in working it in with both the riffs and having a solo passage play off it. It’s certainly one of the most memorable parts of this record, not in an ear candy sense – though it certainly acquits itself well in that regard – but in how the band manages to deftly work it in. Meanwhile “The 8th Day: Mourning” is a masterwork of a song in its own right, drifting in from its languid low-key intro into bludgeoning force; a patient build up on the band’s part that shows a deft command of riffage/melody and arrangement on their part that does a masterful job of creating and exploring a mood throughout. “Shattered My Spirit”, the closer, is another one of the most defeated sounding songs in their catalog – toying around with gauzy textures around the clean guitars, weaving yet another mournful tale with Lowe’s voice. It’s an interesting song in that it does have a pretty blatant soft/loud thing going on – and, not for nothing, the chorus riff rips hard – but it’s also packed with little, subtle variations throughout. The melodic turn it takes into the bridge, with the return of gauzy melodies deftly building on themselves throughout its running, is genuinely evocative and kinda beautiful, if again in an utterly hopeless sort of fashion. As a closer it’s one of the strongest I can think of in doom, and works as a perfect capstone to what the best moments of the record accomplished.
In summary, Through the Darkest Hour kind of puts me in a strange spot. In most respects, this is the one I tend to vibe with the most – their songwriting, at its best, is the moodiest and most intuitive of their career, showcasing a genuine excellence in song structure and arrangement, being able to work crushing riffage in with their typically-brilliant penchant for having acoustic/clean guitars used as mood setters throughout a song. It’s their most intuitive sounding record, to my ears, and its overall sense of atmosphere and tone is the one that’s aligned with my interests the most. On the other hand, the two weak songs on here are, respectively, half-written and outright awful. As is, Through the Darkest Hour is not as consistently good as the previous two records, and mildly overlong as a result, but nevertheless, it would be a shame to write off an album that is, largely, as brilliant it frequently shows. Ultimately it has too many virtues of its own not to at least recommend spending a lot of time with it.
If nothing else, listen to “Eternal”. That really is one of the best metal songs ever written, period.
Favorite track: Eternal
Album rating: 88/100