New Dark Age

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One gets the distinct impression that, with their second full-length album, 1998's New Dark Age, English doomsters Solstice were aiming to redefine the genre. Perhaps hoping to fill the not-inconsiderable-void left by the then recently disintegrated Candlemass, the group seemed committed to providing that definitive "next step" in doom's logical evolutionary process. And, mind you, most of the ingredients required to fulfill this lofty goal are in place: extended song-lengths, mournful guitar riffs (predominantly slothful but also rather snappy when needed), dour lyrics steeped in obscure, pagan lore, and even the odd, mood-setting sound effect to help establish a sense of all-encompassing conceptual linkage. But although evident in the album's best moments (including the imposing "The Sleeping Tyrant," the sweetly chiming instrumental "Alchemiculte," and the wonderfully morbid "Cromlech"), these trademark elements ultimately fall a little short of their self-imposed task due to a few minor but crucial weak links. First, a truly genre-altering new view to doom songwriting is absent, but, perhaps even more to blame is the often ineffectual performance of new singer Morris Ingram. Having replaced founding member Simon Matravers just a short time before New Dark Age was recorded, his less-than-commanding delivery (in an untutored, New Wave of British Heavy Metal style) tends to vary anywhere from suitable to distressingly flat. The irritating part is that, with just a little bit of guidance from a helpful producer (multi-tracking or echo effects, anyone?), Ingram's deficiencies could have probably been circumvented with ease. Instead, he is cruelly thrust into the spotlight not once but twice: first when backed only by a sparse acoustic guitar on the medieval madrigal "Blackthorne"; and then when he is quite literally hung out to dry amidst the howling winds of "The Keep." Once again, however, his is only the most obvious of various questionable issues, and thanks to a 15-minute afterthought named "New Dark Age II (Legion XIII)" (which could almost stand as a separate, summarized version of the album), it's not too difficult to ignore Solstice's shortcomings and enjoy this album's many strengths.

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