Comedy and rock do not mix, as a rule, any more than ice cream and gravy. Despite their protestations, it is indisputable that there is at least an element of comedy about The Darkness. Some of it is possibly inadvertent – they can’t help coming from Lowestoft, the least rock’n’roll small town on earth.
However, from the video for I Believe In A Thing Called Love, which first rotated on MTV in 2003, it was clear that, although they looked and felt and played the part to perfection they were engaged in a sort of meta-metal, reinvigorating the genre by playing it ultra-straight like it was forever 1975, brazenly pretending to refuse to admit that punk, funk, electronica or anything else had ever happened. The results were glorious, both funny to the bone and rock to the core.
They seemed to blow it a little following Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End), one of the last No.1s when people knew or cared what was No.1. Perennial Christmas pop hits have attained a certain carol-like quality, and it’s possible that in slyly messing with that understanding they miscalculated – it hasn’t attained Stop The Cavalry-style repeat success. Two-hit wonders who’d had their bit of fun, now back to Lowestoft. It was a great shame, also, that they fell out with Frankie Poullain, whose presence in the band seemed key, an Entwistle-style ox, or a silent Kramer from Seinfeld.
They made_ One Way Ticket To Hell… And Back_ in 2005, which showed that, for those keeping the faith, there was stamina in The Darkness’s uniquely sidelong, down-the-line-approach. But then Justin Hawkins quit the band following un-ironic battles with various addictions, and the remaining members formed Stone Gods, only for Justin to form his own combo, Hot Leg. A rock saga appeared to be winding down into a tangled bunch of querulous whimpers.
Almost a decade on, however (shocking, really, how rock time has slowed so much that 10 21st-century rock years feel like two 20th-century rock years) they galvanised for Act III – the reunion, with even Frankie Poullain back on board, and a new album.
If there’s a twist, however, it’s that they’ve taken up precisely where they left off, like nothing ever happened – chromium-plated, top gear, heads down, chests bare, the wind in their hair and piss-taking ever such a little into said wind. That’s immediately evident in the, er, falseness of Justin Hawkins’s sudden falsetto bursts on Hot Cakes opener Every Inch Of You when he squeals ‘Suck my cock!’; the general, unapologetic way in which, as in the noughties days of old, they blaze the ancient trail of unadulterated rock.
Yes, The Darkness bridle at the suggestion that all of this means that they are some sort of Spinal Tap-style spoof, or an extended, postmodern, ironic gesture. They are serious. Well, in terms of their shaft and thrust, case proven. On this, only their third album, they manage to have their cakes and eat them. The only thing that is ridiculous about Hot Cakes is how ridiculously good it is. Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us is as good an exhibit as any – full-throttle pop metal, prime beef and glam that recalls the best traditions of AC/DC and Queen but, more subtly, those of Hüsker Dü. The changes of With A Woman ring immaculately, a magnificently brusque break-up song that at once slyly mocks the affected anguish of the metal frontman while striking pitch-perfect poses.
Keep Me Hanging On chugs and boogies with the best of them all the way to the punchline ‘Till something better comes along’. The pace barely lets up – certainly not on the philosophical Everybody Have A Good Time which bears the priceless promise: _‘Where eagles dare, you will find us already there’. _The imperious Livin’ Each Day Blind and the histrionic ascents of Concrete bear – as does the whole album – the imprint and pedigree of veteran producer Bob Ezrin, who mixed the album.
But hints that The Darkness aren’t altogether running blinkered and backwards down the highway of rock absolutism come on their monumentalist cover of Radiohead’s Street Spirit, and on Love Is Not The Answer in which Hawkins betrays an almost Morrissey-esque, mordant turn of vocal phrase.
Almost edibly irresistible, Hot Cakes is a straight-up motorcycle masterwork, and one that benefits from keeping a clever eye on the wing mirrors at all times. They fly solo like eagles indeed. Only The Darkness would dare to pull off that trick they do like they never stopped pulling it off all those years ago – of both undermining and reinforcing the majesty of rock.