(DGR reviews the new album by Mercenary, and following the review you can stream the whole album.)
Two things come to mind when discussing Mercenary these days: One, that the band are releasing their seventh full disc and are still slamming their heads up against the glass ceiling of popularity. Mercenary are one of the best gateway bands for heavy metal in all senses, with powerful singing and songwriting that take them not only through heavy metal but a wide variety of its sub-genres as well. They can move from death metal to power metal in the blink of an eye. That people still turn to radio-friendly schlock as the heaviest music they’ve ever heard rather than Mercenary is truly an exercise in stupidity.
Two: Although the band basically asked for a hard reset (which is something you do by naming your disc Metamorphosis, or by pulling a Before The Dawn and using the Phoenix theme, releasing one album with a new lineup, and then killing the project) after two of their members bailed (the voice of the band at the time, Mikkel Sandager, and brother/keyboardist Morten), it is still incredibly difficult to divorce the band from their prior legacy.
Metamorphosis was a good album and it introduced the world to a slimmer, scrappier Mercenary, but it still drew comparisons to earlier highs such as The Hours That Remain and 11 Dreams. In the face of albums like those, Metamorphosis had a deck stacked against it.
Now we’re one album removed from that and about to hear the band’s latest effort, Through Our Darkest Days. Now that the band are stable again and have gotten used to songwriting as a smaller unit, what effect has that had on the sophomore release of lighter Mercenary? Have they become a nostalgia act? Did they pull away from the gravitational effects of their prior discs? Did they top Metamorphosis? Did they just put out a second Metamorphosis? Question Mark?
From the first couple of notes it becomes pretty clear that Through Our Darkest Days is going to be a bit like Metamorphosis before it, but with some huge shifts in sound. “A New Dawn” can be viewed as something of a template for what’s to come throughout the album’s nine tracks. Like many Mercenary openers before it, it’s a huge anthem of a song that really does set the overall themes for this release. There’s a humongous dose of keyboards this time, and “New Dawn” exemplifies it. They’re present throughout the whole disc, to the point where the band may have to look into getting a keyboardist because quite a few dedicated sections are going to be difficult to pull off live, with their current set up of guitarist on keys as well.
It’s something that was missing from a large part of Metamorphosis (where instead they functioned as backing tracks, or provided the occasional odd interlude), and it’s a welcome change to see them return to the forefront of Mercenary’s sound. The band are still in that weird realm that they’ve carved out for themselves, between progressive, melodic death, and power metal-lite, but the presence of the keys on much of Through Our Darkest Days signals a shift back toward the more progressive aspects of their discography. You will probably see a couple of comparisons to The Hours That Remain, but that disc feels like a lightning-in-a-bottle sort of moment. Whereas, if you missed the over-the-top aspects of 11 Dreams or the hybridization of the two on Architect Of Lies, then Through Our Darkest Days is going to grab you immediately.
“A New Dawn” also has a lot more clean singing — another theme throughout the whole disc — by vocalist/bassist René Pederse, whose chops get a serious workout this time around on both fronts. He’s responsible for many of the hooks that will latch on to the listener, including the main chorus of “A Moment Of Clarity” (which is another of the more anthemic tracks on this albums, among four or five others) and the refrain from “Welcome The Sickness” –“Is this really/the end?”, repeated over and over.
That refrain is so catchy in its own right that those five words can get stuck in your head, sans the rest of the actual song, which is a fun listen in its own right, too. It’s a faster track defined by a heavy gallop before moving into the aforementioned refrain, which leads into the slower, melodic chorus. It’s heavily focused on rhythm, too; the song is defined by a light chugging riff throughout, but quickly augmented by everything around it. The most direct comparison is probably “The Endless Fall” off of Architect Of Lies (which was one of my personal favorites).
What was missing a bit from Mercenary’s last album was the sense of an overarching theme. Metamorphosis felt like a collection of really good single songs, ones that were incredibly friendly to shuffle on the mp3 player, but without the philosophical and extroverted ideas that defined their previous works. Musically, they still pulled to a degree from the same well on Metamorphosis, but they instead covered a vast swath of topics. The thematic aspects of Mercenary’s music returns on Through Our Darkest Days, to welcome applause.
It’s a light touch, because the band do still pick a variety of subjects, but Through Our Darkest Days feels more like a full album because of it. Mercenary can paint some wonderful pictures, such as the sci-fi inspired “Starving Eyes” and its idea of being ten thousand miles up in the air and never coming back down. They deal with the oft-used theme of perseverance on this disc, but they always manage to tie it into some other ideas to keep it from becoming diluted over the nine-song trip.
Quite a few songs also tend to run similarly in terms of sound. “Welcome The Sickness”, “A New Dawn”, “A Moment Of Clarity”, “Dreamstate Machine”, and “Starving Eyes” are very tightly focused, defined by an incredibly powerful, anthem-level chorus and some hefty key work alongside the rhythmic guitar playing. Recently, the band have started using guitars more as an item dedicated to groove, as opposed to the usual rhythm-and-lead style, and that pattern continues here, although it’s employed solely to complement the vocal and key work.
They are still a four-piece, but they sound much bigger here, and the ambition and grandiose reach the band are going for is exciting. They’re aiming for the massive highs they’ve reached in the past, but they’re doing it with a smaller crew, and there are times on Through Our Darkest Days where they get damn close. Not perfect, as there is one passable song that unfortunately withers in the face of the rest of the songs surrounding it. It would be a fine song by any other band, but “Generation Hate” unfortunately inherits the crown of being a weak song on a strong disc. It just doesn’t match the high mark Mecenary set on the rest of the CD. It’s a bit dull, and surprisingly is the one track that really doesn’t have much key work. It’s a song that feels small, made by a small group.
Through Our Darkest Days is the most Mercenary disc that Mercenary have put out in a long time. Without devolving too much into writing a narrative of the band, to say that the lineup shifts prior to Metamorphosis knocked the band down would probably be an understatement. That they have recovered and put out such a good album is an impressive feat. In fact, with a solid lineup in place for some time now, Through Our Darkest Days feels more like nothing ever happened in the first place, that Mercenary have just been putting out consistently great discs the whole time. And if you’re one of those listeners who were a little underwhelmed with Metamorphosis, then Through Our Darkest Days can be considered the complete metamorphosis, the work of a band who has completed its time in a cocoon and now reveals itself as a new beast, rather than something (as before) that was 85 to 90% complete.
That they are achieving such highs again is exciting. Mercenary are an incredibly underrated band, one of metal’s best kept secrets, maybe even among their own followers. Their music is something lighter for the times when you don’t feel like being bludgeoned to death by the overall heaviness that we often swear by. They hybrid so many genres into their sound, yet they keep things fast, light, and trimmed. Even their most progressive explorations on The Hours That Remain pull off the incredible feat of taking eight minute songs and making them feel like three.
Through Our Darkest Days is almost fifty minutes long, yet it has all of the catchy aspects that draw people to Mercenary in the first place, making the whole CD feel like a fifteen-minute quick hit that’s perfect for multiple spins. Mercenary are a different band now, for sure, but Through Our Darkest Days proves that they are still capable of putting out some damn good music that really shows who the core of Mercenary was.