Album Review: Salem – ‘Dark Days’

A lot of people in the metal scene will tell you that the NWOBHM was the best metal scene metal ever saw. On paper, that checks out: bands like Iron Maiden, Saxon, Judas Priest and Black Sabbath put out some of the greatest records in metal history in this genre and a lot of what the genre did pretty much defines the core of what modern metal is today. But then you actually listen to the deeper stuff and you realise that, like pretty much every style of music out there, there was a lot of godawful stuff that got forgotten for a good reason. Some stuff that got forgotten, admittedly, didn’t deserve that fate, but I doubt anyone will be springing to the defence of Ezy Meat, Severed Head, Dark Heart, Valhalla or Maineeaxe any time soon (and yes, those are all real NWOBHM bands that existed!).

So, where do Salem fit into things? Well, they formed from the remains of the band Ethel the Frog, who can best be summed up as NWOBHM meets The Beatles (yep, seriously!) and are probably the band most people think of with regards to a NWOBHM cover of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ if they don’t think of Jeddah. Ethel the Frog managed to release their self-titled debut in 1980 (they’d previously released their cover of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ as a single in 1978), but disbanded the same year. While bassist and vocalist Terry Hopkinson and guitarist and vocalist Doug Sheppard basically disappeared from the metal scene after the band broke up, drummer Paul Conyers and guitarist Paul Tognola wanted to continue making music and formed Salem together alongside bassist Adrian Jenkinson and guitarist Paul Macnamara (Tognola took up vocals for the band). Somewhat amusingly, both Conyers and Tognola had left the band before they disbanded in 1983, having only managed to keep this first line up together for their 1981 demo before Tognola left and Conyers only stayed with the band until their 1982 single was released. The band soldiered on with two more demos in 1983 before finally calling it a day in the same year. That would have been the end of the story for most bands (certainly, as far as I can tell, it was the end of the story for Conyers and Tognola, who seem to not have been connected to a music project since the end of Salem), but, in 2010, Salem returned, with the lineup mostly comprised of the band’s lineup when they had disbanded in 1983 aside from the drum spot, occupied by Ricky Squires. However, Squires left the band in 2012 and was replaced by the band’s drummer at the time of their original break up, Paul Mendham. This lineup has been the lineup which the band released its debut album with, 2013’s Forgotten Dreams and has stayed in place in the years since.

Speaking of someone who was a single egg cell when the band disbanded (for those about to say I don’t understand the reproductive system: sperm die after around seventy days if they’re still in the male human body. I was born in 1993. You don’t need to have an understanding of maths beyond primary school level to know that I clearly was not two cells in 1983!), I have to say that I’m somewhat surprised that the band decided to return at all. However, I’m all for bands returning if they have something of worth to say.

If Dark Days is any indication, then…they do. I won’t claim that this is going to be one of my picks for album of the year, but I will say that I went into this record with low expectations and it surprised me by actually exceeding my expectations by a decent measure!

The Great Fire of London in 1666 (oil on canvas)

Let me start by saying that there’s nothing on this album that is original in terms of the band’s sound. It’s basically NWOBHM a la Saxon mixed with the more melodic touches of Praying Mantis and some group backing vocals which bring to mind The Sweet (although not in terms of the pitch they reach!), which is hardly an original sound! Some acoustic sections do appear on the record (in particular, ‘Nine Months’ starts with a nearly two minute long mostly acoustic opening that probably could have trimmed easily) and one could argue that the sound is a bit more hard rock focused than most NWOBHM tends to be, but the vast majority of the record is basically that. Nothing that’s highly original, but a decent foundation for a fun record is definitely there.

The songwriting, however, is where the band really shines. I am not exaggerating when I say that every song the band does is genuinely very good on the songwriting front: the songs are built upon strong hooks on every level (without being poppy, I should stress!), with some performances that don’t push into prog levels of complexity, but fit the music perfectly and vocals that bear more than a slight resemblance to Biff Byford to round things off. I don’t want to sound like this is a flawless record, as it took me until around halfway through the first listen before I clicked with it and some songs feel like they could have been written better (I’m still not entirely sold on ‘Complicated’), but, when I did click with it, I couldn’t help really enjoying it! I will say that the song which I really enjoyed from the first listen was ‘Toy Story’, which I found to be a very melodic and upbeat track that had an genuinely great chorus to it, but, really, once the record opened up to me, it really did feel like an excellently written record.

The performances, as I mentioned earlier, are not going to win awards on a technical front (Dream Theater probably could perform everything on this record in their sleep), but are very appropriate for the band’s music. That said, some moments are certainly somewhat fun on the performance front: Mendham has some pretty good, rapid fills at points on this record, Adrian Jenkinson’s bass is very solid throughout the whole record and both guitarists (Paul Macnamara and Mark Allison) have some good performances which, while not on the level of Adrian Smith and Dave Murray, are still fairly solid (some of the guitar solos are particularly interesting, with probably my favourite being the Arabic vibe on ‘Nine Months’). It’s not top of the genre level, but it’s certainly very solid overall.

Simon Saxby’s vocals, as I mentioned earlier, sound more than a bit like Biff Byford, only a bit higher pitched and having a slightly rougher vibe that brings to mind Udo Dirkschneider a bit. It’s likely a coincidence that he sounds like them, as Saxon and Accept didn’t release their debut albums until 1979 (the year before Salem originally formed), but the resemblance is actually quite interesting all the same. His voice sounds surprisingly good for a guy who is almost certainly pushing towards 60, I’ve got to say, although I do think it is worth bearing in mind that he did spend about 27 years outside of the metal scene, so his voice won’t have a lot of the wear and tear that most of the metal icons out there will almost certainly have from touring constantly for over three decades!

The production…honestly, my only issue is that I think the record could do with a bit of a louder master, as it seems a bit on the quiet side to me. This is probably a good thing for some people and I’ll admit that I normally would have no problems with this sort of production, but I think it might have actually enhanced this record a bit more to have made it a bit louder, as it does feel a bit like it needs a bit more of a kick to it on the mastering front! However, the mixing is excellent, with everything being very audible (the bass in particular sounds absolutely wonderful on here!) and nothing about the record’s sound strikes me as being wrong with it at all. Seriously, mastering issue aside, the production on this record might be among the best I’ve heard all year! Huge props to everyone involved in the production for this record, you did an absolutely wonderful job!

Ultimately, Dark Days might well be one of my surprises of the year. It was a record that I was expecting to write off and the first few tracks didn’t originally convince me otherwise, but, once it got its hooks into me, it really won me over! If you’re a fan of NWOBHM and hard rock, then, providing you’re willing to give it time to click with you, this is actually worth checking out, as it does everything right and is backed up with some consistently great songwriting that makes it worth hearing. It’s not top tier levels of quality and the somewhat hard rock-focused old school sound might sound a bit outdated to fans of modern metal, but it still has some highly enjoyable songs on it and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes one of my honourable mentions at the end of the year!

Dark Days will be released on the 29th of April by Pure Steel Records. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.