Having formed upon the date of the Summer Solstice in 1990, there is effectively one real constant with this band regardless of all the turnover that happens within their ranks. That is, Rich Walker, the guitarist and main songwriter of the band, unflinchingly delivers great metal pretty much every time the band puts music out, no matter how sporadic. It doesn’t matter if you pick any of the other full lengths or even the EPs – both Halcyon and Death’s Crown is Victory would be the highlight of a lot of other band’s careers. Still though, New Dark Age has always been the top of the heap, and for my part one of my favorite doom metal albums in general.
The most obvious thing about New Dark Age is its diversity – Solstice are a doom band, and as any good one should do, they can go low and slow with the best of them. What does set it apart is the way the band weaves together an obvious “epic metal” streak ala early Manowar (the aforementioned Halcyon EP and its “Gloves of Metal” cover make the connection more explicit, and this whole album in general is a natural continuation from that work) and an obvious English folk bend to the proceedings. The folk aspect of it is overwhelming – from the riffing itself to the way the vocalist rolls his melodies throughout over & across the guitars, to the interludes. There’s a whole lot of acoustic interludes that drive the record as much as the pounding metal does. Solstice’s prefiguration of it, however, is vastly more nuanced and tasteful than most other bands called “folk metal” in general.
To put it concisely, the reason why most “folk metal” usually sucks pretty badly is because it takes something naturalistic and elegant, strips it of both those qualities and turns it into essentially window dressing; gossamer over what’s essential banal pop metal pretending to be anything but. Solstice is the exact opposite of that, in that the folk influence is the driving, animating force behind the record; the whole thing would simply fall apart without it. The atmosphere the album exudes – the grey skies and the smell of damp, rain-soaked soil from some day in the deep English past – and the individual riffs and melodies stem directly from the idea that folk melodicism informs everything. It’s such a carefully conceived format of songwriting, and the band straddles the line between having clearly put a lot of thought into how the songs are written and arranged, without coming across as overthinking things or lacking the necessary energy or momentum to push things forward. Even the most folky and dare I say, gentle songs on the album still possess a necessary sense of momentum to keep things going. This is ultimately why the interludes are such a necessary part of the album – aside for adding a huge part of the album’s variety, they’re just paced very well and fleshed out enough to where they never drag or feel like filler, as most of these things do from lesser groups.
People often complain about the vocals on this album, for reasons I’ve never really been able to fathom. Yes, Morris Ingram is not the most forceful singer in the world nor a technical all-star. Sure. What he does do very well, however, is that he is a perfect compliment for what Walker and fellow guitarist Hamish Glencross does. He has a pleasing tone to his voice and the way he rolls words and vowels to compliment and contrast the rest of the band is part of what fleshes out the atmosphere this album exudes so much. A more technically accomplished singer almost certainly wouldn’t be able to make the album feel as lived in and vivid as it does. It’s not as dramatic as other doom singers, but he is spirited and gives it his all, and in context? It is an excellent performance that does exactly what needs to be done.
Most importantly, the songs on New Dark Age have it where it counts: the riffwriting is phenomenal – nobody quite writes riffs like Rich Walker does, and there is a smorgasbord of brilliant ones throughout. Equal parts crushingly forceful, and melodically vivid, there’s a very hooky quality to the riffwriting on here that doesn’t feel like it’s trying at all to be memorable – it simply is. There’s a very naturalist quality, all told, that nobody else really replicates (or at the very least, in the ballpark of “as well”). There’s a very fine sense of balance when it comes to the arrangements of the songs on this record – it’s a long one, but outside of arguably the last track, it never really drags at all (and even then I’ve come to enjoy it as much as anything in time) because again, the songs constantly have a sense of driving momentum to them. The acoustic folky songs hit a nice balance between minimalism and momentum, with a lot of care as to how each one (each song in general, really) flows into one another throughout the album. My favorite sequence on the entire record is how “Alchemiculte” – with its keening, low-slung chords and sense of distance drawn between them – segues into “Hammer of Damnation”, its opening riff ringing out like a bell as a direct contrast to it all. It’s one of those moments where if you can’t get up for it, you should probably be choosing a different genre for it.
In general, the album strikes a great balance between the interludes and the iron-bound, punishing loud-and-proud doom metal. You can argue that it does have maybe one or two too many, for sure. That’s definitely a fair argument and I wouldn’t say someone is wrong for it. For my part though, I simply feel that the way everything flows into each other is part of what makes the album special at the end of the day, as much so as that glorious main riff to “The Sleeping Tyrant”; that absolutely fuckin vicious riff that drives the verse of “Cimmerian Codex”, or “LEND ME YOUR STEEEEEEEEEL” in “Cromlech”.
Overall, New Dark Age is a brilliant record; the band’s writing, playing, and performances are in top form throughout. Whatever minor warts it has pales in comparison to the fact that it can give a emotive, vivid experience quite unlike much else out there. Even the production largely manages to avoid the pitfalls that made most late 90s albums sound like plastic, a rare feat. This is a special album and one not to be missed if people somehow have not heard it by now. And if you have, well, you don’t need me to tell you what to do.
Favorite track: Hammer of Damnation