Even Cheesier than Queen Ever was...and so Tasty
By Annemarie Taddeucci
When British rockers, the Darkness, first appeared on the music scene in 2003, they were accused of sounding a lot like Queen (the incredible original, not the present pale incarnation); the English band's sophomore release, One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back, has them convicted of this offense again.
Whereas their debut, Permission to Land boasted a wide range of influences in addition to Queen -- the
Darkness' follow-up CD will make you think if you close your eyes that you'll open them to Queen performing live
circa A Night at the Opera in 1976. And with lead singer, Justin Hawkins's apparent penchant for cat suits, the
Darkness looks enough like Queen as well. Also, critics have claimed that the group is a joke, comparing them
to the bubblegum hair metal of the '80s. And their over-the-top antics certainly doesn't help their reputation.
While hints of AC/DC, Mott the Hoople, the Knack, Free, Dangerous Toys, Lynyrd Skynyrd and even Guns n' Roses
(just to name a few) are heard on the Darkness' introductory album, there is not much on One Way Ticket to
Hell… and Back that is suggestive of groups other than Queen. After all, Queen producer, Roy Thomas Baker,
was recruited for this disc.
Almost every track on the recording has elements reminiscent of Queen's music. For example, the backing vocals
on the opening song, One Way Ticket, in signature operatic Queen fashion, crescendo a la "Somebody to Love,"
as do "Is it Just Me?," "Dinner Lady Arms," "Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time," "Girlfriend," "Bald" and "Blind
Man". And Dan and Justin Hawkins' double lead guitars on "Is it Just Me?" almost have me convinced that they
are really just Bryan May moonlighting in the Darkness: Shhh! Also, "Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time,"
"Girlfriend" and "English Country Garden" all have Queen-esque musical instrumentation and arrangements in
Despite this, the Darkness does manage to create some imaginative, kick ass rock n' roll on One Way Ticket to Hell... And Back. On the whole, it is less raw than Permission to Land, but what it lacks in edge, it makes up for in harmony and musicianship. The album's opening is a spellbinding, tribal prelude, performed by pan flute. This leads into the body of the album's first single "One Way Ticket," which is currently burning up rock radio's airwaves. Complete with cow bell, the track is a melodic throwback to the 70s origins of glam rock. Charmingly, high octave vocalist, Justin Hawkins, playfully oohs and ahhs around the chorus. And the sitar solo (also complements of J. Hawkins), lending an unexpected Eastern flavor to the song, is intricately bluesy, a captivating marvel.
"Knockers" features a saloon style piano interlude, also by Justin Hawkins, along with country rock slide guitars. "Is it Just Me?" is kicked off by rhythm guitarist, Dan Hawkins, with a driving, gritty guitar riff that provides the foundation for the track. It also exhibits some lingering lead guitar accents (J. Hawkins) that bring to mind Def Leppard. The initial riffing of "Dinner Lady Arms" is very Rick Springfield era. Acoustic guitars ring faint but pretty in the background. There is a compelling sense of urgency throughout much of the song -- particularly in its undertones. "Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time" spans a wide range of musical genres, with acoustic and electric guitars, saloon style piano and symphonic strings.
The Celtic guitar intro heard on "Hazel Eyes" is hypnotically melismatic. The number's rhythm, acoustic guitar is picked urgently, befitting the soundtrack of a Western. Brushes are used on the snare (drums courtesy of Ed Graham) in a nationalistic march, while bagpipes are heard in the background. While the rest of the song is presumably meant to sound Scottish, the chorus' end reminds me of the Vapors' "Turning Japanese". And the guitar solo can be confused with none other than Slade. All in all, this song is quite the musical smorgasbord.
"Bald" is very powerful musically, with intense and mournful guitars, a dark bass line (provided by Richie Edwards), funeral bells, high-pitched, shrieking vocals and abrupt dynamics in pitch. "Girlfriend" and "English Country Garden" experiment with different musical genres. The former's arrangement is in an almost disco vein; then there are symphonic, in addition to vaudeville, elements, while its upbeat, fast-paced chorus sounds like a variation on the Can Can. Hawkins' vocal range and execution are particularly comparable to Freddy Mercury's on this track (indeed, the singer's erratic falsettos sound like Mercury on crack at many points throughout the album). On the downside, contrasting the otherwise impressive craftsmanship of this song is a superfluous keyboard solo (looks like Justin Hawkins has finally tried his hand at too many things).
"English Country Garden," on the other hand, features a pounding rhythm through chorded piano eighth notes. The track's foundation evokes the Knack, while its style borders on the classical and romantic eras. And the closing number of the CD, "Blind Man," (recalling "Bohemian Rhapsody," of all things, vividly) is in the symphonic/romantic/operatic tradition.
Lyrics raise the themes of sex, a lighthearted take on cocaine abuse, sex, lost love, sex, loss of a loved one -- oh, and did I mention sex? But most, if not all, of these topics are tackled with an irreverent sense of humor. Speaking of sex, for instance, alluding to an encounter with a long-lost lover, Hawkins' screams, /And I love what you've done with your hair... oh yeah!/ (somehow, I don't things he is referring to the hair on the woman's head)
Another example of the band's quirky wit can be observed in the pomp ridden track, "Bald". By its musical tone alone, it is very elegiac, and you might guess its subject matter to be of epic proportions (its lyrics are somewhat indecipherable upon listening). But as its title suggests, the song actually laments the prospect of going bald: /His hair, at an alarming pace/Running away from his face/…Not for me, not for me, heaven forbid/ It's not for me you understand/.
So, the Darkness' musical approach and getups may earn them the title of a joke band, but rock n' roll has a long tradition of making fun of itself. If you wanna' be fun, you best not take yourself too seriously -- and fun is what rock n' roll is all about -- or what it used to be about anyway; look at 70s David Bowie, the New York Dolls and Van Halen (David Lee Roth era, of course), for instance. Ridiculousness is an essential component of a lot of good rock n' roll. … And, in spite of its lack of originality of sound throughout much of the album (which needs to be worked on desperately), One Way Ticket to Hell… and Back is definitely worth having.
The disc is truly addictive. And there are quite a few gems of true ingenuity to be found amidst the Queen II sounding material. Either way, there are few dull seconds on the recording. And if nothing else, the Darkness' Spinal Tap like take on music out-camps Queen; that's not an easy thing to do!