There has been a real dearth of great hard rock/metal bands from England during the last two decades. While the “British Invasion” of the 1960s may never be repeated, the Seventies and Eighties spawned a glorious superabundance of English rock bands that have since attained godhood. Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Motörhead, UFO… and that’s only just scratching the surface. Since the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) over 30 years ago, however, most of the music coming from the UK has been either pop (which ran the gamut from great: Duran Duran to tripe: Spice Girls) or alternative (Radiohead, et. al.).
When The Darkness exploded on the scene almost a decade ago, they were a welcome relief from all the solemn, “important” music being churned out on both sides of the Atlantic. Unfortunately, unlike a lot of bands from England’s hard rock heyday, The Darkness’ reign was all too brief, as they fell victim to the usual rock star clichés: drugs and booze, rehab, band members becoming ex-band members, and declining music quality. While their first album, ‘Permission to Land,’ will be remembered as one of the best debuts in rock history, their follow-up, 2005’s ‘One Way Ticket to Hell… And Back,’ while not terrible, was a step down in comparison. The band called it quits not long after that album’s release.
While bands reunite all the time, The Darkness getting back together is particularly noteworthy because they were still in the nascent stages of their career when they imploded. They are also much too good to be ultimately relegated to the “one hit wonder” files. Fortunately, the original lineup, including bassist Frankie Poullain (who left after ‘Permission to Land’) got back together last year and finally recorded a third album, ‘Hot Cakes,’ which does a great job saving the band from obscurity.
Anyone expecting The Darkness to be more serious or introspective after their hiatus will be disappointed. While not a clone of previous albums, ‘Hot Cakes’ consists mostly of the rocking anthems to sex and partying that made The Darkness a global phenomenon. “Nothin’s Gonna Stop Us,” “Everybody Have a Good Time” and “She’s Just a Girl, Eddie” are vintage Darkness tracks, featuring Justin Hawkins’ signature falsetto atop of the band’s wonderful arena rock-glam metal hybrid sound. Lyrically, the band’s tongue remains firmly in cheek, but they manage to explore new areas, from power ballads (“Living Each Day Blind”) to the autobiographical album opener “Every Inch of You” (“I wanted to be a doctor / I wanted to be a vet / Until I heard ‘Communication Breakdown’ on TDK 90 cassette”).
Justin Hawkins’ vocals may be an acquired taste for some, but there is no denying that he is one of the most unique and gifted singers on the planet right now. Listen to the vocal gymnastics on “Concrete”; the song already rips and tears, sounding like the love child of Queen and Poison, but Hawkins voice elevates it to an instant classic. In a sane world, this would be a monster radio hit and might even get some air play on metal stations.
Even heavier is the track “With a Woman,” which is clearly influenced by ‘Let There Be Rock’-era AC/DC. Ironically, the heaviest song on the album is a brilliant cover of Radiohead’s seminal 90’s hit “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” No doubt Thom Yorke and gang are horrified by the very thought of The Darkness covering one of their songs, and Radiohead fans will unanimously hate it, but it’s simply brilliant, and one of the better covers I’ve heard in quite some time.
I am not normally a fan of special editions, super-special editions, etc., of albums, but for once I recommend buying the deluxe edition of ‘Hot Cakes’ just for the bonus track “Cannonball.” There are actually four bonus tracks: one demo, two acoustic tracks, and this one, which features Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, who plays a furious flute that adds a whole new level of coolness to an already rocking track.
‘Hot Cakes’ has the professional polish of ‘One Way Ticket to Hell… And Back’ (it helps when producing legend Bob Ezrin is mixing the album) while still retaining the raw vibe of ‘Permission to Land.’ Longtime aficionados of The Darkness should flock to this, and the band will probably gain a whole new legion of fans as well. It’s currently sitting on top of the UK Rock Chart, and the band was chosen by Lady Gaga to be her opening act on her European tour. Here in the States, the band was featured in a commercial during the Super Bowl and recently finished a small warm-up tour, including a high-profile gig at this year’s Rock On The Range festival at Crew Stadium (read my review here). Their quest for global domination is happily back on track.