Album Reviews

Darkwater – Human

Album:   Darkwater – Human

Released:  March 1, 2019

Genre:  Progressive Metal

Posted by:  Lacy Mucklow/Phoenix

Rating:  5/5 Stars

For fans of Swedish progressive metal band Darkwater, it’s hard to believe that it’s been 9 years since their last album, Where Stories End.  Ever since the rumors were swirling about the album being recorded, I had called “dibs” on this album to review for at least 4 years now, and now the time has finally come that Darkwater’s latest offering, Human, is now released.  Featuring Henrik Båth (vocals), Markus Sigfridsson (guitars), Tobias Enbert (drums), Simon Andersson (bass), and Magnus Holmberg (keys), the quintet is back at it again.  But that begs the question….now that 9 years have passed, do they still have what it takes?  Have they kept their sound or gone down a completely different path altogether?  These questions will be answered as we dive into Human….

Starting off the album is the appropriately-named track A New Beginning.  It starts with a lovely piano intro, but then about 30 seconds in, blasts you away with the rhythm, riffs, and synths to further set up the song.  The first verse begins, as the vocals enter; Henrik‘s range is known for soaring highs, but he keeps in the lower octaves throughout most of this song, and at times hearkens back to a sound very akin to Khan-era Kamelot.  The chorus of this song is trademark Darkwater, clearly letting the listener know that the blueprint of the band still remains even as they move forward through a lengthy period between albums.  As the second verse kicks in, the bass is very prominent with rim beats before returning to the full band sound through the second chorus.  The song would not be complete without time signature and key changes, which can be seen as the instrumental interlude commences about halfway through the song, driven first by a Hammond Organ solo, segueing into a guitar solo, and then to an arpeggio-laden delight between the keys, guitar, and even bass at times as they layer and complement each other’s lines.  The third chorus enters again with additional counterpoints, changing the content of the chorus in a more victorious declaration as the song comes to an end. (watch the lyric video below)

In Front of You is the second track, that is a slower, gritty piece, beginning with some thick chunkiness that you can sink your teeth into.  Before the introduction is over, however, it changes gears to a very soft portion with a bass-driven line, added to delicately by the piano and drums before the vocals enter for the first verse.  There is a slow build into the chorus that has a Middle Eastern pentatonic flair in it. The second verse comes in, shifting again to a soft approach, showing the winding path that this song musically takes the listener on, balancing both light and heavy elements throughout.  It builds again through a bridge and chorus, into the instrumental interlude that plays on the song’s main motifs.  When the guitar solo comes in, however, the melody takes a different path yet again, as does the keyboard solo following.  The introductory riff returns at length before the chorus reprises a third time, closing with an instrumental outro.

Alive (Part I) is only a minute and a half, and is a precursory introduction to the next track.  It begins with guitar alone and vocals enter almost immediately with the melody.  A few keys are added into the piece as this short ballad of sorts lilts to an end, only to burst into Alive (Part II) with an abrupt wall of sound, antithetical to Part I. Beginning with a downtuned, chunky introduction, this song is a poignant piece that reflects on depression and suicide, and finding the reasons to live.  The first half of the verses are in the lower octave, while the second half is sung in the higher octave for a contrast, and the choruses are very solid and catchy with solid rhythmic undercurrents.  After the second chorus, a slower bridge arrives with a mournful guitar solo that captures the essence of this song.  The introductory riffs reintroduce themselves before a breathy break into another interlude preceding the last chorus, ending with a lamentful synth patch of strings that powerfully close the track. (watch the powerful music video below)

The longest song on the album, clocking in at nearly 12 minutes long, is Reflection of a Mind.  It starts out with a music box-like keys entry.   A snare roll indicates the next entry of the clean guitar melody that is soon followed by a full band, orchestrated introduction that is not over the top, but is rather a tasteful pathway being laid down for the coming first verse.  Ominous strings continue as the vocals begin and build into some wonderful counterplay with the keys and guitars as the second stanza begins until the punctuated, syncopated chorus gains ground.  The energy continues into the second round.  A new bridge begins into another chorus as the introduction is quoted again and the instrumental interlude continues in a kind of gothic style.  However, this song’s length lends it to many twists and turns, as a new section altogether begins with new vocals rife with luxurious harmonies.  After this, a piano-laden section begins with gorgeous ethereal vocals, after which the guitar takes over with arpeggiated lines that are then turned over to feature the keys.  Not following a typical metal song structure, yet another section introduces itself with a new melodic direction about 7:45 minutes into the track with an easier tempo and is a little more laid back in approach.  However, it continues to gain steam as the song continues, but after a couple of minutes, scales back to piano and vocals only with beautiful orchestrations resuming their presence once again.  The song picks up with the main chorus once again with a bombastic ending to this epic masterpiece.

Insomnia is the sixth track, and not only does it share a name with a Kamelot song, this piece sounds like it could have come out of the Epica/Black Halo era (and that’s a compliment).  With a distorted guitar and keyboard-led introduction, this song has an upbeat tempo and is a great follow-up track to Reflection of a Mind.  With soaring vocals and smatterings of a sitar here and there, this song has a great groove to it, with wonderful moving bass lines in the chorus.  The vocal lines have great depth in the lower octaves and soar brightly in the upper octaves, giving a huge range throughout the song.  There is a melodic guitar solo about halfway through the track, followed by a keyboard feature, as they come back together for the song’s finale.  Scaling back to vocals with light synths and drum accoutrements, it develops back into the last chorus to an eventual fade-out.

Opening with a heavy, deliberate introduction, The Journey is up next.  About a minute in, the first verse begins with a wintry scenario, setting up the song’s theme.  The chunky undertones continue through the verses, but lightens as the chorus arrives with soaring vocals. The second stanza continues but in the latter half, vocals up the octave for added emphasis as the drums create some great snare and tom fills throughout this section until the second chorus enters.  Then the song changes completely with dripping synths and bass leads in a starker section of the song, before some gritty spoken vocals enter after which the sung vocals are another channeling of Khan before the next segue that really feature the syncopations of the drums and bass, with the remaining instruments entering for a continuing instrumental section that shows off each instrument in their own respective highlights.  A third verse then begins, followed by a victorious last chorus and instrumental finale.

Burdens changes gear altogether, starting with a beautiful acoustic guitar introduction, and soon after the vocals join in with the balladic beginning.  After that first segment, it kicks in high gear in a different key with the entire band driving the song forward with some groovy riffs.  The first and second verses enter, each in different octaves, with the chorus following, laden with vocal harmonies, guitar features, and rhythmic complexities, repeating their styles again through the next verses and chorus. During the instrumental break that follows, there is a neat call-and-answer between the guitar and keyboards, until the introduction with acoustic guitar and vocals reprises again.  However, it grows musically into second, new instrumental interlude that features guitar and keyboard solos that trade off and eventually converge at the end of the break.  The chorus re-enters and repeats until the instrumental motifs end the song, ultimately with piano alone carrying the song to a poignant end.

Turning Pages is the ninth track, and the second longest song on the album at just over 10 minutes in length.  It takes off at the beginning with a nimble guitar entry augmented by piano.  Things speed up as the second introduction digs in with deep grooves and light strings dancing over the top, then scaling back to keys, then adding bass and light drums.  The first verse begins after the nearly 2 minute intro, where there are some nice scale ascensions throughout the verses and set up the chorus that has a catchiness and accessibility that is memorable, despite its hidden complexities.  After a second round, an instrumental portion featuring the keyboards then follows, later including the rest of the band with some bass grooves and guitar accents.  After this instrumental, the following segment of the song is very Queen-like (The Show Must Go On) in its feel.  A guitar solo follows, again trading off with a keyboard feature, and then takes it up a notch with a shredding guitar solo and heavy accompaniment until the synths take over to set up the reprise of the chorus – but this time, taking a different tack with soft vocals only with light basic chorded guitar accompaniment, effortlessly gliding into the same guitar/piano entry heard at the beginning of the song.  As the song nears the end, it crescendos again into a choral finale, a delicate piano contrasting the end.

The closing track, Light of Dawn, is what I would call the quintessential Darkwater song.  It starts with keyboards, and after about 30 seconds in, the rest of the band joins in a progressive complexity that is a feast for the ears.  After about 1:40 minutes of the total introduction, the vocals enter for the first verse, remaining on one pitch and is reminiscent of Circus Maximus‘ sound, and as the verse continues, it variegates and has a very active bass line underneath, with a string accompaniment bridging the segue into the chorus, which holds the greatest Darkwater essence.  A new bridge follows the chorus, with cascading piano and syncopated rhythm underneath as the next verse continues, being particularly reminiscent of  Tallest Tree from Calling the Earth to Witness (2007) not only in sound, but even in lyrical reference to their past legacy.  The chorus reprises and a lengthy instrumental break ensues, featuring all the instruments in a wonderful showcase. A new verse follows the interlude, and then a string quartet section is featured as a sonic cleanser before the heavy chorus enters once more, followed by the introductory motif. Piano and strings gently bring this song – and the album – to a close.

To answer the questions posed at the beginning of the review, Darkwater not only returned with what it takes, but came back at it in spades on Human.  They have retained their trademark sound, yet transcended it with years of preparation, maturation, and execution to near perfection that has kept their sound fresh and modern.  This is an album that has percolated for a long time, brewing an album to the perfect flavor.  Although it clocks in at a whopping 78 1/2 minutes, it doesn’t seem that long when hearing it, as it takes the listener on an audial journey of highs and lows about the essence of humanity.  Aside from the introductory Alive (Part I) track, no song is shorter than six and a half minutes, giving the listener more than their money’s worth.

Released again on Ulterium Records, Human was mixed and mastered by none other than Danish producer Jacob Hansen, whose golden ears always bring a delicate balance to all of the instruments so that they are all heard clearly without overpowering each other. Darkwater are master songwriters and bring their bag of tricks to make each song interesting.  Each member shines in their own respect.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard Henrik sound as great as he does on this album – even past Darkwater albums or other projects he’s sung on over the past years – and that’s saying a lot.  His vocals are better than ever, bringing each song to life in an amazing way, and I think his usage of the lower octave most of the time really works to his advantage and fits this album well.  Markus‘s guitar work continues to be world-class, and he definitely has not lost his chops in either the songwriting or performance realms.  As a rhythm team, Simon‘s bass and Tobias‘s drums could not be tighter, and as Tobias holds down the foundation impeccably regardless of the needs of each song, it’s such a refreshing pleasure to hear Simon‘s bass at the forefront of solos and driving sections of songs, rather than being relegated to the background; even when he is not at the forefront, you can still hear him clearly in the mix instead of being drowned out.  Magnus‘s keyboards are like the icing on the cake.  His prodigious playing of various sounds from classic piano to spacy synths bring a layering and texture to each song, which brings them to another level altogether.

I was expecting a lot from this release, but wasn’t sure what to expect.  I didn’t know if I would love it or be sorely disappointment after such a long wait.  I’m very happy to report that this album exceeded my expectations, and that if you are a Darkwater fan, this album is a blind buy and must-have for your collection.  If you have never heard Darkwater before, this album will make you a fan right out of the gate. If not, you might need to have your pulse checked. This album brought perfection to the table, and can only be given a perfect score in return.

Music Video to “Alive (Part II)”

Lyric Video to “A New Beginning”

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