I must admit, even after repeated listens to Permission to Land, the debut album from 80s rock revivalists The Darkness, I'm still not quite clear on what they are supposed to be. Fans are touting them as a serious return to heaving hitting rock and monster riffs, but I've also heard just as many critics lambaste them as cheesy posers aiming for the cornball stadium theatrics that went out with Styx or Boston. Then there's lead singer Justin Hawkins. Clad in a spandex unitard and armed with a falsetto that at times makes you want to giggle while you're head banging, his entire persona almost begs for ridicule. I must admit, though, the disk hasn't left my CD player in over a month.
And so it goes for U.K. rock sensation The Darkness. Despite not quite conquering the States as successfully as they have Britain (the album went #1 there), most people have at least heard of them at this point and invariably have an opinion. Usually it is love or hate. I'm going with love.
While the band's on stage antics, larger-than-life rock star personas, and propensity for makeup and leather might lead one to judge them a Spinal Tap-like novelty, their music says otherwise. Now let me say right off, it really isn't all that heavy by 2004 standards. It rocks, but Permission to Land has a definitive pop-edge and it suits them just fine. And even though the cynics among us might roll their eyes, we all know you flash devil horns, bang your bed, and try and match Hawkins' glass-shattering soprano when nobody else is looking.
The Darkness' influences range from Queen, to ACDC, to Van Halen, to Kiss, but somehow they manage to create a sound to call their own. Sure, it's obvious what these guys grew up listening to, but this is no tribute band and many of their songs can stand up against their heroes.
The opening track "Black Shuck", has a hard-rocking riff as good as anything off Back in Black and Hawkins sounds like a cross between Freddie Mercury and Axel Rose after sucking helium and getting kicked in the crotch. It sets the bar damn for the songs to follow. Although the rest of the album may not rattle your eardrums quite as much, (Permission to Land might be just a tad ballad heavy for 2004 listeners) a good number of the tracks have a pop-rock swagger that is undeniably catchy.
"Growing on Me" is straight Sammy Hager-era Van Halen (and I mean that in a good way) and has a fist-pumping chorus as catchy as anything I've heard in ages. "I believe in a Thing Called Love" was justifiably their first single. Though it captures The Darkness at their campiest, the riffs are again first rate and the lyrics are tailor-made for horrible attempts at singing along. Coming soon to karaoke bars everywhere.
The best of the ballads is likely "Love is Only a Feeling". With licks to make Boston fans squeal and a soaring chorus, it's a Bic-waver and a half.
Other highlights include the piano and guitar, bar room swagger of "Friday Night", and "Stuck in a Rut", a straight-ahead rocker that lets Hawkins push his vocal chords to their demonic best.
In an area where rock basically comes down to the angst-ridden rap variety or stripped down garage rock, the overblown bombast of The Darkness is a welcome change of pace. Nobody wants a full-fledged return to the heyday of 80s glam metal and rock ballads, but the occasional visit can be a hell of a good time.