Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Darkness - Permission to Land

Remember the Darkness? "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" was a smash hit not so long ago. Actually, it was seven years ago. Time flies when you're a one-hit wonder with really energetic falsetto-driven pop-metal. That song was a breath of fresh air and it seemed like even those who couldn't shake it's irony-free rendition of glam rock as filtered through heavy metal guitars still fell under it's blisteringly whimsical spell. Sitting squarely at the intersection of AC/DC, Queen and Boston, the Darkness nailed their one-hit moment for all its' three-and-a-half minutes' worth of glory and kept on rockin' as the world's attention boogied on elsewhere. What the world missed out on was a surprisingly good album resting beneath the one-hit surface.

The Darkness are unabashedly a fun rock band. They play with aggressive guitars and pulsing drums, but their songs aren't of the against-the-world antagonism cloth most of the post-grunge rock sound is cut from. That isn't to say they're a straight up revival of the '80s hair metal they visually most recall, because their songwriting most recalls the late '70s pop/classic rock melding of Boston and The Cars. These are rock songs with pop structures and occasionally soaring melodies. If I keep referring to the same bands over and over again, it's because the Darkness wears their influences on their sleeves. There's the AC/DC routine, with big open guitar riffs kicking off songs that pound forward with metronomic drums mercilessly thumping onwards. There's the Boston sound, with a falsetto vocal melody trading verses for cacophonous overdubbed guitar solos that ascend to heaven. Then there's the Queen influence. (It should be said, along with the Boston references, that the Darkness are aping from the early work of these bands, before the '80s convinced them that synthesizer pop was where it's at. Not to take anything away from those bands' '80s sound, but the Darkness are squarely in the late '70s on this count.) The Queen numbers take a threatening guitar riff and subvert it with a danceable backbeat and falsetto exclamations few this side of Freddie Mercury would even attempt.

Where the Darkness succeed is in effortlessly combining their influences. For much of the album, it's a game of match-the-sounds. "Givin' Up," starts off in the AC/DC mode before the Boston-esque guitar solo rises to take it away. "Stuck in a Rut" could have been a Queen song cut off of Sheer Heart Attack that AC/DC oddly decided to cover. "Friday Night" is the Boston tribute the Cars never wrote. "Growing On Me" drops a lost Bon Jovi call-and-response chorus on top of a thundering AC/DC groove. For good measure, the Darkness aren't above coralling multiple reference points from the same artist. "Black Shuck" sounds a bit like an all-AC/DC mashup, with "T.N.T" and "For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)" swapping choruses with the guitar stylings of "Thunderstruck."

The cynic could say this game belies a fundamental problem with Permission to Land: pointing out the sounds of all the bands mentioned above goes to prove that the Darkness have no sound of their own. They are a personality-less entity, shuffling and recycling their favorite songs until they emerge from a bubbling rock cauldron as new. There's a certain accuracy to the cynic's point. One's mental map of these songs tends to place them closer to their ancestral parentage than to the band that actually is credited as writing and playing them on this album. Lyrically, the band treads heavily through re-treaded territory (quick, name the other hit rock song about that "Thing Called Love!") The cynic would then argue that Permission to Land amounts to nothing but nostalgia specialty; a poorer recreation of great bands gone by.

The cynic would be wrong there, however. Yes, at their worst, the Darkness seem like a credible cover band blessed with an inescapable chart-topping hit. If these songs were to be written out mathematically as formulas of their influences, they inevitably end up equalling less than the sum of their parts. But Permission to Land is a celebration of a style of rock music that is, on it's own terms, larger than life. This isn't music for the music snob. It's arena rock, and there aren't enough snobs to fill arenas. Sky-high guitar hooks and epic chord progressions are easy to mock because they come off as either simplistic or bombastic. In a time when arena rock is dying, however, there's no need to scoff at its new blood. Yesterday's arena rock gods are too old to be hip, and the hip kids are too cool to be arena rockers. They may not ever ascend the Billboard heights again, but Permission to Land is a welcome addition to any listener's catalog because they infuse a genre being left behind with a breath of new life. Who cares if its unoriginal? It still rocks, doesn't it?


monikawithak said...

I had never thought to seek out the rest of this album. I'm intrigued. It can proudly say, listening to the clips, that this has moved from the list of "Albums I will never buy" to the list of "Albums I won't buy unless I find them used at a garage sale for less than 20 cents."

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