DARKEST ERA – An Irish Fire Burns
Provisionally named Nemesis, Belfast, Northern Ireland-based Celtic folk / traditional heavy metal quintet Darkest Era formed in mid-2005. Penning inaugural cut ‘Battle of Cul Dreimne’ at their very first practice session, an unintended Celtic flavour would permeate the group’s future material. “Basically about five years ago, we just formed while still at school,” explains guitarist Ade Mulgrew. “Myself and the singer ‘Krum’ were playing in a rock and metal covers band and decided we wanted to write some original material, so we just got together with a few musicians from around the town who wanted to write original metal as well, and then just started writing pretty much straight away. That was under the name Nemesis, which we released one demo under in 2006. Then in I think it was in 2007 around April when we changed our name, and changed drummers.”
Citing early Iron Maiden, Thin Lizzy and Irish folk music as influences, that mid-2006 demo was self-titled. In April 2007 though, Nemesis changed its name to the following: Darkest Era. “Basically, there’s a ton of other bands that have used the name Nemesis,” the axeman says of the name change. “It’s pretty common – there’s hundreds. After about a year or so we decided we were gonna take it a lot more seriously, so we needed a new name that was gonna be original that wouldn’t cause any confusion or whatever, but also a name that would reflect the change in musical direction. The tone was shifting a little bit, and it was just a natural step really. I think Candlemass were originally named Nemesis even, so it wasn’t an option to stick with the name once we wanted to take it more seriously.”
How would you describe that musical change Ade? “It was a little bit darker, a little bit more epic. Originally, it was quite formulaic New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. The first demo was quite rough and raw but as we went on down the line, we started exploring new music and took a little bit more of an influence from that, things like Viking-era Bathory and traditional folk music as well. Touches of these other subgenres like doom metal and black metal started working their way into the music. We were very young at the time we started off, only 16 or 17, so after a couple of years we started to get a stronger idea really of what we wanted to create ourselves and a better idea of our own identity. It just became darker and more epic and a little bit more melancholic, and just became a lot more focused as well with what we wanted to write musically.”
Darkest Era cut four-song debut EP The Journey Through Damnation in the winter of 2007, the EP experiencing global distribution via German label Eyes Like Snow Records from February 2008. “That was our first recording as Darkest Era, our first EP release,” the guitarist reflects. “There’s four tracks on there which were very representative of what we were doing at the time, but it was a transitional period as well because some of the tracks on there were the first songs we wrote. It was originally gonna be a self-release to the point where we actually printed off a 1,000 copies of the CD at the start of the year. We had already got some interest around Europe with a demo surprisingly, especially in Germany and Greece. It stirred up quite a bit of interest which we were surprised by because it was just a demo. When we posted up a few songs from the EP, it started to build even more of an interest and got a little bit of a buzz going. We were contacted then by a fella called Torsten from Eyes Like Snow Records, and he expressed interest in releasing the record under his label and giving it worldwide distribution. We agreed because it was a great opportunity for us, so we released that, and the CDs we had printed were kept exclusively for selling at gigs in person. Yeah, that was cool. Torsten put in a lot of work promoting us in the underground webzines and DIY magazines and everything. It was an important step for us, an important record, and it pushed us along that little bit further and brought us to the attention of the world media at that stage.”
The composition ‘Another World Awaits’ features guest violin by Elyghen, then a member of Italian folk metal assortment Elvenking. “Yeah, that was quite cool,” Ade admits. “Actually, I enjoy the first couple of Elvenking records. He was living in Ireland at the time, and I think he still is. He knew the chap who produced the record, so with one of the tracks we thought we could maybe experiment with a little violin on there, and he agreed. He came up and did it, so that was quite cool.”
2009 international dates saw Darkest Era perform at European festivals including Fist Held High in Germany, Up The Hammers in Greece and Made In Hell in Italy. Containing three tracks, limited edition self-released digipack The Oaks Sessions arrived in March 2010. “That record was transitional,” the axe-slinger opines. “We were trying to move forward as much as possible and we were really searching for a particular kind of sound. We were never gonna never release an album of material like the Nemesis demo or an album of material like The Journey Through Damnation because we hadn’t really found what we were looking for. Basically that came out in February 2008, and then we just spent the winter playing shows around Ireland. From 2009, we concentrated on playing our first shows in Europe. We did Held High in Germany, Up The Hammers in Athens, Greece and then Made In Hell in Italy, so that was our first European charge if you like.
“We were just writing little bits and pieces in the meantime and just trying to promote ourselves as much as possible, because Eyes Like Snow is a great label but it’s a very, very small label. We had to help ourselves obviously as much as possible as any band should, so we spent a lot of time promoting ourselves on the web and through correspondence and playing some shows. We played some shows around the UK as well which were quite good, so that took us into maybe the winter of 2009. At that stage, it seemed right to just go for the album. We wanted to put out an album, so in January we wrote a couple of songs quite quickly and then put out The Oaks Sessions. Then the rest of the album was pretty much written from January through to August right up until we were in the studio. So yeah, it was a transitional period where we were playing as many shows as possible and trying to break into Europe and then also have a think about what we would want our album to sound like. On paper it looks like we didn’t do much (laughs), but I guess behind the scenes we were working quite hard.”
‘Children Of The Gods’ originally appeared on 2006 demo Nemesis, the track being especially re-recorded as a bonus track for The Oaks Sessions. “It doesn’t fit that well with the other two songs which is why it’s listed as a bonus track,” Ade notes. “We just felt that we had a little bit of unfinished business with that song. I think that we felt we could get something more out of it if we recorded it again just in the arrangements mainly, and we also thought it’d be a cool thing to have on there because the Nemesis demo was long since sold-out. It was never intended to be on the album or anything like that though.”
On August 5th, 2010, it was publicly announced that Darkest Era had signed a record contract with Metal Blade Records. How did the deal come to fruition? “Basically, it was Alan Averill from Primordial,” replies the guitarist. “He started doing some A&R work for Metal Blade around the start of 2010, but we got to know Alan from Primordial through the scene and stuff. We played with them whenever they recorded a show and that kind of thing, so we were in quite close contact. We were one of a handful of bands who he took to Brian Slagel himself when he started doing A&R. Brian Slagel just liked what he heard; I think Thin Lizzy is one of his favourite bands ever, so he liked that aspect of our sound – the twin guitars and Irish style harmonies. Alan brought us to the attention of them, and then after a few months we just thrashed out a deal. We had other deals on the table actually, so we were just trying to weigh everything up and see what we could do and everything. Yeah though, it was pretty much the best offer we had; it was a great offer, and we just really felt that Metal Blade would have the resources and the attitude that would help us get to where we wanted to go really. It was only a few weeks after that it was announced that we were in the studio, so it’s been fantastic so far.”
At the end of August, the Irish outfit travelled to Powys, Wales, recording debut full-length The Last Caress Of Light at Foel Studios with producer Chris Fielding. “It was fantastic actually, a great experience,” Ade remembers fondly. “It was a cool part of the country to be in because we were just up in the valleys with nothing to worry us or distract us. The nearest village was five miles away or something and the scenery was beautiful, so we really had nothing to do but work on the record which was conducive to a concentrated working environment. The reason we chose Foel was really because Chris had a track record as a studio producer there. We also followed the records that Chris had produced, and what we’d heard just from friends’ personal experience with him. He seemed like the kind of guy that we’d be able to work really well with. A relationship with a producer is important, and he was just such a great guy; very, very capable, and just knows exactly how to achieve sonically what you’re looking for. He’s just great at his job and he’s a really cool guy as well, and we had a lot of fun. My memories are of just mucking around in the studio, trying out different things and having a laugh. We were working from 10am to 1 or 2 in the morning so it was very intense, but it was just an all-round great experience. The environment had so much great gear and just a great sound in the studio, and then we had a lot of self-satisfaction from hearing the songs come together.”
“Pretty much, it normally starts with myself and Sarah who have a writing partnership if you like,” intimates the axeman in relation to the songwriting process. “Normally one of us will have the initial idea, and then we will jam it back and forth and work out guitar parts. It then becomes a little bit more fully formed and then we just open it out for jamming, so we’ll try different drum patterns, experiment with drum and bass, and then we try a vocal melody or whatever. It’s quite natural, but it starts from a guitar idea generally. Different songs work differently though; the closing track on the album (‘The Last Caress Of Light Before The Dark’) for example is 11 minutes, and it started off as more of an idea for a concept where we wanted to have a song with three distinct movements if you like.
“Sarah had the outro riffs which we worked from, so it started off as an idea for a structure, a flow. The first riff was the outro riff and then it came that way, so sometimes it’s just an idea that you have in your head and then you try to piece it together with whatever you can when it comes to you. We had I’d say about 80% of the record done before we went into the studio, but when we were over there we wrote quite a few riffs, lyrics, solos and worked out a few vocal ideas and this kind of thing. You work better under pressure as well, so that helped too. When you’re there and you’ve got to do it, it helps you work a little better.”
As previously noted, the Berlin-based quintet possess both Celtic and folk influences, influences Ade is only too happy to share. “From that perspective, probably Irish musicians like Planxty, Christy Moore and this kind of thing, and just the old folk songs. It’s more really about the atmosphere, but it ends up sounding a bit more like European folk metal bands like Eluveitie or Skyclad or something. Those kinds of folk bands are influences and pretty much just old Irish folk in general, but it’s by no means really a folk metal band I don’t think. People tend to read that and get a bit confused, and think it’s something that it’s not. We don’t use traditional instrumentation in the songs – it’s more about implementing this folk atmosphere within a heavy metal context. If you listen to the likes of Planxty and Christy Moore, you will hear that kind of vibe. There’s an acoustic song on the album that’s quite folky.”
Celtic influences extend to the lyrical content too. “In terms of the lyrical composition, it takes influence from the style of writing in Celtic mythology and poetry and this kind of thing, and also some of the old Irish romantic poets like Oscar Wilde for example,” the guitarist admits, confirming Darkest Era’s lyrical influences. “The style uses a lot of imagery so it’s influenced by that, but in terms of the actual content, with some of the songs there’s a mythological thread running through but generally the songs aren’t telling stories of old myths and legends if you like. There’s contemporary themes and ideas, but which are cultural or whatever – they’re not really about being Irish or Irish history or anything like this. The themes are quite introspective in a way, but they can applied to many contexts and many people. The themes on the record are maybe looking at the battle between strength and weakness in different contexts that’s present in everyone’s lives in a certain way, so it looks at how people react to that. Also, the album title as well looks at the turning of the tide and the transitional period from darkness to light metaphorically, when things change and how people deal with that, but it’s nothing really specific I should point out. I prefer to leave things open to interpretation even though it’s obvious with some of the lines what the meaning is, but there’s generally three to four things on there and they’re present throughout all of the lyrics.”
Although Darkest Era hail from Belfast, their great traditional Irish heavy metal musical influence called Dublin its home. “Thin Lizzy is a big one just for the twin-guitar signature thing they have going on but also the Irish romance they have in their music, especially lyrically, so you can find that on the record as well,” Ade discloses. “Another big influence is Viking-era Bathory and old US metal, and New Wave Of British Heavy Metal bands, so Warlord, Omen and those kinds of bands, and I’d say Irish folk as well. When you put it all into the melting pot it sounds quite dark and epic, but has an Irish thread running through it. It’s quite melancholic. That’s pretty much what you’ll find on the record. The bands that we listen to and the band’s music itself can be different. Some of the stuff we listen to just wouldn’t find its way into the music at all but others would, and that’s the case with most bands.”
The Last Caress Of Light was released on February 11th, 2011 in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, on the 14th in the United Kingdom and on the 15th in North America, all through Metal Blade Records.
Interview published in February 2011. All photos by Peter Marley.
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