At one point, this blog was supposed to be something that updated at least semi-regularly. Believe it or not, I was actually planning on writing a new long-form piece at least once a week. It quickly became apparent that my life was simply not going to allow that to happen. If you’re wondering what’s been going on with my life and why this blog has been dead for so long, I’ve been struggling a lot with mental health and personal relationships, I came out as trans to my family and friends, I joined a podcast, and I’m moving from Las Vegas, NV to Austin, TX in three weeks to restart my life. I truly do promise that from now on I will make a legitimate effort to update this blog more regularly, and to all the people who have sent me reader mail that I have either not responded to or not incorporated into a blog post, I apologize from the absolute bottom of my heart. All your feedback means so, so much to me, more than you could ever know, and I’m so sorry for dropping the ball on my end. Maybe one day I’ll actually get around to that Reader Mail post.
Anyway, this post isn’t about me. It’s about how the new EP from my good friends in Darkle is so fucking good that it actually dragged this dead blog out of retirement.
Darkle is a sparklepunk (or, as they would say, darklepunk) band from the Chicago suburbs (specifically, New Lenox). I’ve written about them before and have interviewed the vocalist, Matt, on at least three separate occasions. Their most definitive characteristic prior to this record was their cleverly-arranged guitar riffs and Matt’s distinctive vocal hooks. If you’ve never listened to them before, I suggest listening to their songs “Millennial Trash” and “Clonazejam!” to get a sense of the slight jump in style that Darkle have executed here.
The first thing anyone should notice about Pain Train, if they’ve been previously aware of Darkle’s work, is that this record sounds amazing. The production is incredibly crisp and clear, as opposed to their previous record, Birds, Bees, and Sweaty Palms, which could at times sound tinny and inaccessible. Pain Train sounds both clean and warm, allowing the listener to hear the intricacies of the performances without sounding over-processed or too slick. In particular, the rhythm section, Dean on drums and Chris on bass, pop far more than they ever have before, allowing their dynamic and tightly-woven work to be heard. This in particular shows on “Chillantro,” one of the most diverse and immaculately-constructed songs on the EP, and one which would not work if the band weren’t perfectly in sync with each other.
It took Darkle somewhere in the neighborhood of eight months to get from the beginning to the end of writing, recording, and releasing this EP, and it shows, as not only does the record sound great from a production standpoint, the songwriting itself is at the most polished Darkle has ever been. They criss-cross genres with fluidity and confidence, easily creating a varied and complex listening experience. Particular standout moments in this regard include the burst of screamo in “Edward Manghetti & the Western Spaghetti,” the saxophone-laden post-rock build in “Chillantro,” and the intricate breakdown at the end of what might be Darkle’s best song, “Loser POV.”
I want to take a special moment to highlight “Loser POV,” which represents a huge leap forward for Darkle. The vocal hooks are less prominent on this EP and are replaced by atmosphere and a more progressive sense of song structure, and nowhere is that more apparent than on “Loser POV,” a song that seems to toss to and fro, teasing out tension and building intensity before scaling itself back. The guitar work on this track is especially commendable, as the climax of the song is pure, off-kilter math rock and it absolutely wouldn’t work if Andrew didn’t slide in and out of the complex riff with extreme grace and conviction.
Also of special note on this record are the vocals, which show lead vocalist Matt pushing themself past what they’ve demonstrated on previous Darkle releases. The emotional climax of the album, closer “I Refuse to Sparkle,” is a piano piece with string accompaniment that drips with sincerity due to Matt’s vocal performance, hitting the high register with passion and ease. Elsewhere on the album, Matt’s vocals are equally powerful, whether they be harmonizing on the eerie opener “Nothing Like A Good Feeling” or belting out screamo influence on “Edward Manghetti” and “Loser POV.”
And of course, this EP would feel a lot more hollow if it weren’t for Darkle’s pals coming in to help on select occasions, such as the aforementioned sax and strings on “Chillantro” and “I Refuse,” as well as Kathy P. of Girl K contributing her unique style of vocals to those songs.
Overall, this EP is splendid, and it makes me incredibly excited to see how much further Darkle will develop. Along with bands like Commander Salamander and Origami Angel, Darkle are some of the most intriguing and clever new songwriters working in the genre today, and if you feel burnt-out on emo or sparklepunk or whatever you wanna call it, I recommend giving this record a spin. It just might rejuvenate your interest in the music the way it did mine in the blog. Check it out below.