Darker Half – Out of the Shadows

Tuesday, 26th May 2020

In the six years since witnessing Australian power/heavy metal act Darker Half on their first US tour, a lot of things have happened for these fine musicians. They released the Classified EP in 2016 on Fastball Music, gaining the opportunity to tour multiple times across Europe including a prime opening slot with Rage. They’ve now aligned with Massacre Records for their fourth full-length If You Only Knew – a record that expands upon their foundation to include elements of AOR, extreme nuances, and even a bit of the bluesy/organ strains that aren’t typical within the genre. Confidence, seasoning, and experience pay dividends for a stronger, cohesive record that has enough dynamic appeal to keep listener interest at peak value.

We reached out to the brothers Simpson – vocalist/guitarist Steve ‘Vo’ and drummer Dom – and they were very happy to engage in an hour-long conversation about the band. Prepare to learn more about what makes this album different than the others in their catalog, the video shoot with a special circus/burlesque style performer, the growth of the band through their overseas touring experiences, favorite metal albums/bands and future plans.

Dead Rhetoric: If You Only Knew is the fourth Darker Half full-length album – and first on Massacre Records. Tell us about the developments that took place as far as the four years between your last EP release Classified and this effort, and how you secured a new second guitarist with Daniel Packovski in the interim?

Dom Simpson: The gap in between. We did a bunch of touring after Classified, we got to Europe on that EP after 2016 three times to promote Never Surrender and Classified, and we had never toured over there before. When we got back after the 2018 tour, we wrote the album in early 2018. We started writing in February and finished writing it in April. We were recording in May, and it was all recorded in 2018. The person who was mixing it had a bunch of work, so I didn’t get that back for a few months. We ended up with the finished product in early 2019, and this is the ironic part of the whole thing. We weren’t going to release it without the right tour to back things up. We spent some time getting the right tour…

Steve ‘Vo’ Simpson: And the right label as well…

Dom: Yeah, exactly. So we managed to secure Massacre as a label in June 2019. But we didn’t announce it until finding the right tour and release date. Then we ended up getting the special guest spot for the Geoff Tate tour across Europe – which was supposed to be happening right now. Then the COVID-19 situation came along, and we had to cancel the tour. We ended up releasing the album, and we have no ability to tour, so it’s ironic that we waited for the right circumstances, and overnight that changed.

Vo: We wanted to have everything in place to do a proper release, new label. Last year in 2019, after writing the album we did a tour of Australia to keep us going. We had Danny as the second guitarist on that tour, he’d come a hell of a long way in a couple of years. When we lost Jimmy, we had a short tour with Dragonland and he did well, so we invited him to stick around.

Dead Rhetoric: You recorded the album in your own studio – a first for the band – and also took some bold risks in terms of vocals and different song styles. What did you want to accomplish this time around to maybe take Darker Half into a broader direction, while still maintaining the power and melodic heavy metal platform you’ve always been a part of?

Vo: I think in a lot of ways If You Only Knew is the best representation of what we’ve always been trying to do – and achieving it this time. Some of this goes back to Duality, our first album, where we were trying a lot of different things. But we’ve got more albums under our belt, we’ve toured, and with these new songs we put things together in a much more cohesive way. On Duality we were striking out trying a lot of different things, but a lot of times hitting and missing. On this album we put things together better in our own way.

Dom: It takes one skill set to write a good thrash album, it takes another skill set to write a good power metal album, and then another skill set to create and write a melodic death metal album. You have to have the skill sets of not only the individual genres but the songwriting, production techniques to put things together and combine them into one album. We believe we got the closest to that on If You Only Knew.

Vo: Also on a more practical level, since recording Never Surrender and Classified, and all the extensive touring, I realized how important it was to focus more so on my vocals as opposed to my guitar playing. My delivery and my aspect of everything, I needed to focus on what I need to do with the vocals versus my guitar playing, especially when I am singing. When I am recording, we aren’t focusing on the fact that what I’m singing I’m going to have to do live. That was definitely a harder approach, but I think we worked it out more this time around.

Dead Rhetoric: How did you decide on the specific Australian guitarists for guest lead breaks on three songs for the record? And did you know where you wanted the death guest vocals for “Sedentary Pain”?

Dom: As soon as I started writing the chorus for “Sedentary Pain”, I knew I was going to need two voices. It was two characters in the story, so having one voice do both those voices for character didn’t really work in my head. The best way to differentiate them was to use two popular style of metal vocals, the power and death vocals. That was there for the start. We know a bunch of people who are really great at doing scary, death metal vocals. That was easy to get done.

The guest solos, it was people that we like as people, and we like their playing. If you like them as people, you generally have some sort of dialogue and shared interests. It wasn’t improvising in a room on the album, we would pick songs based on their styles. We got Marcos (Rodriguez) from Rage to do a solo, Brandon (Farrugia) from Envenomed. Stu Marshall we knew from Death Dealer and Empires of Eden, sharing a solo with Vo. We were huge fans of Dungeon, which is a band that Stu played with back in the day. One of the highlights of a Dungeon show used to be a guitar duel between Lord Tim and Stu. Chris (Themelco) did a guest solo on “Sedentary Pain” – he mixed our album and plays in a melodic death metal band Orpheus Omega, so it made sense for him to be on that song.

Vo: The interesting part is we didn’t even have a chance to get Danny to do a guest solo (laughs).

Dom: Yeah, we solidified Danny as a band member maybe a month after all those solos. We talked about having him do a solo on it, but at the time we didn’t know of his playing outside of Panik. He is quite young, he was 19 and playing in a thrash band and (we’ve) seen him progress as a guitar player in a year and a half. You don’t know if it’s in his skill set at that time, but he’s now a member of the band. He smashed things on the tour, and then we felt bad we didn’t ask him to do a guest solo. Danny is hungry and he wants to get better.

Dead Rhetoric: Tell us about the lyrical content for this record – as many of the topics focus on isolation this time around? Was it a conscious decision or developed as the music was being written?

Vo: It started off not so consciously, and as we started writing coming off a European tour and traveling to new countries and new places, we realized coming home to Australia it’s so far away from everything. Every time you go away, Australia being an island country you feel very stuck sometimes. That played into everything, and we started drawing for that for songs like “Into the Shadows” and went from there.

Dom: The other thing is as you get older and you write more songs, you get more comfortable writing about the topics you know about. A lot of people do this, they hide behind metaphor and storytelling in order to distance themselves and their own experiences from the story they are trying to tell. You can’t avoid that in some way. As you do it more and get more comfortable as a person, you can handle the negative aspects as it’s a part of life- you can get more comfortable putting it down on paper and not hiding behind somebody else’s story or metaphor in a way of telling it.

All the albums have been very honest, but I think this album is an honest album lyrically.

Vo: When you are a teenager and starting to write songs, you try to capture something that you most likely haven’t experienced yet. What you think of what you’ve experienced, and a lot of this was isolation, coming back and the experiences of the wide world.

Dom: That’s a really good point about age. A lot of albums… the early thrash albums were written by teenagers and the main emotion is anger. These people are pissed off, but they weren’t over 25 yet so they didn’t really know what they were angry or pissed off about. The ‘man’ was trying to keep them down, but they couldn’t express why they were angry. That’s cool that you can see the evolution – Testament is a good example of that. They were a little environmental and intelligent in their lyrics compared to other thrash bands going around at that time. You can hear the progression of them as people as well as musicians. Same with Devin Townsend, you can hear his progress throughout his catalog. We hope to have that same kind of emotional connection through our music.

Dead Rhetoric: You shot the video for the track “Into the Shadows” – how did you work out the concept with the director, and what do you think about the final result? Was this song an obvious choice to put to a visual concept?

Vo: Originally we hadn’t really thought about the concept, so much so Dom knew Marlena Deli. She was a circus person. We knew we wanted to do a song with the band performing, pretty basic. But we knew we needed something extra and he came to us with this girl he knew – putting things up her nose and doing all this crazy stuff so we thought that could be a cool idea.

Dom: When I saw Marlena first, it was at a comedy burlesque show with my girlfriend. There’s this clown/mime kind of character that does their act. They started pulling out condoms from their pocket, blowing them up on their head through their nose. And that’s the whole act. We thought the look was perfect, and we talked about having a black, white and red kind of theme for the album. Marlena came out wearing those colors. And watching the movements, I thought this is going to work for the film clip. I contacted her on Instagram and asked if she could do something with us. We were stoked about it. As far as “Into the Shadows” being the song to put a video clip to, we didn’t necessarily pick it to be the easiest to put a visual component to it. It was clearly the single – when you are picking it, you have to think about the market and what’s going to be accessible to the widest market of people. After seeing her performance, not only did I see the visual component of the album and we could use her to tell the story of the song in some ways. We wanted to make the visual component as small as possible but as engaging as possible. I think we achieved it on that song. When we found out she could hammer a nail up her nose and shove a drill up there, you don’t say no to that! (laughs).

Dead Rhetoric: When it came to the cover art, who designed it and was it a collaboration between the band and the artist to arrive at the final work?

Vo: We went with someone locally who’s done some work with us in the past, posters. The front cover was done by a German artist Karim Konig we hooked up with through our management company.

Dom: We had the good fortune to meet the German artist Karim a bunch of times over in Europe. He’s a lovely guy, we got along with him well and we had a lot of shared interests. We knew that giving him the project he would do something that would be right for the album, and he would understand the concept of the album.

Vo: This was the first time with everyone involved from the label, the management, the production, we didn’t have those people before and we get along well together. It’s a great vibe that all works out.

Dead Rhetoric: How would you assess the career track of Darker Half from your beginnings in the early 2000’s to today? What would you consider some of the career highlights, and what are some of the biggest challenges you face to move up the ranks?

Vo: From our point of view, it’s been about the touring on a worldwide basis. Those are a big part of our highlights, and what makes us advance in general and makes us a better band. Australia being geographically what it is, it is hard to have an extended tour here because we don’t have enough major cities. The travel costs become very hard as well due to the distance between those cities. When you go to Europe or the United States, you can tour every night and play for three or four weeks. When we went over there for the first time, in the United States and Europe, you are jumping off the deep end. We’ve been able to adapt as we went along, but we definitely when we headed to America and toured Europe with Rage, we realized to go into bigger markets you realize how small Australia really is. It really changes your perspective on how to deal with things when you go back, and how to make that happen. When we started Darker Half, there was no Facebook – there was Myspace, but it was based on getting into print magazines, versus getting streams, views, and likes. It’s not necessarily a good or bad thing, but it’s definitely changed the way you market.

At the same time, historically bands have done things a certain way, they say there’s not a market for vinyl – personally I love vinyl. And we have it this time. I hope a lot of people want it, but it’s as much for us to have it as well.

Dom: A highlight now would be getting 100,000 streams, but what amount of album sales would you equate that now to? Is that like having 5,000 albums sold? It’s weird to know – and how many of those streams are active streams versus passive streams where someone breezes past it. I know that we’ve had a couple of thousand sales of our CD’s, and those people that paid $20 really listened to the CD. You don’t know if people streaming it, is it active listening or just on in the background?

Vo: When it comes to highlights, it comes back to the international touring. Australia has a great scene, but going to America it was funny how similar certain things are about that scene to ours. The biggest difference is there are 300 million Americans and only 25 million Australians. It was interesting going over there and realizing even though we are not a big band, we could be quite sustainable touring in America if we were American. Being from Australia makes it so much harder.

Dom: It’s funny how the highlights shift over time. In the early days, a massive highlight would be opening for local Australian bands, Mortal Sin, Lord, bands like that. That was a huge first step. Then releasing an album was a highlight. Getting to support some international bands within Australia becomes a highlight. One highlight would be playing to like a thousand people supporting Children of Bodom. Then ironically what followed after was playing to forty people including yourself at Cherry Street Station in Connecticut. It seems like that’s a step down, but those thousand people were there to see Children of Bodom in our hometown- this is forty people on the other side of the earth who were there to see us. They knew words to songs from Never Surrender, that Cherry St. Station show was a huge highlight. And in Europe you play with some big bands in the scene – the goal posts keep shifting and hopefully continue to keep shifting because if they start shifting backwards its time to do something different. At this stage it’s been gradual steps along the way.

Dungeon is the Australian band that everyone needs to know more about. Other bands like Envenomed, Espionage from Melbourne, Alarum is an extreme metal band to think about getting more into too.

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