The renaissance that punk is currently undergoing, especially in the UK, is frankly staggering. It makes sense given that it was at the very epicentre of the genre’s year zero, but over four decades of evolution has seen punk bands latch up with virtually every other style going for the diverse list of acts under the genre’s umbrella that’s prevalent today. And when it comes to evidence of precisely how far this can be taken, just look at Darko, the Guilford quintet who’ve built quite the buzz in the underground with a series of EPs fusing gritty skate-punk, hardcore, progressive rock and even touches of mathcore.
It’s an interesting concept, but interesting isn’t always conducive with quality, and unfortunately that’s the case with debut full-length Bonsai Mammoth. With the breakneck speed this album almost constantly ploughs ahead at and the ambitious cramming in of so much sonic matter, Bonsai Mammoth reveals itself to be an extremely apt title, trying to fit a whole lot into very little, but subsequently coming out weaker for it on the other side.
Despite this, there is actually a lot about Darko to really like, particularly from a technical standpoint. The progressive elements in their sound would imply a greater deal of instrumental dexterity than a run-of-the-mill punk band, but it’s genuinely impressive how it all comes to fruition. The easy standout is the guitar work, anchored in sharp skate-punk riffs, but layered with the kind of searing fretboard gymnastics you’d expect to hear from a band like Protest The Hero, all being tied together by Andy Borg’s militant drumming and Dan Smith’s burly vocal shouts. There’s so much presence and urgency here, amplified by how wiry and sonically cutting tracks like Just A Short Line or Hiraeth are, though without being afraid to throw in a big, throat-scraping chorus like on opener Life Forms.
But while that technicality may separate them from the pack, Bonsai Mammoth feels seriously lacking in any real songs to capitalise on that prowess. You can certainly tell what Darko have gone for in their approach, throwing every bit of their skill into every nook and cranny they can find, but it can make this album feel far too busy as a result. It would’ve been beneficial to space everything out rather than cram it all together, as a lot of elements simply feel carried over from song to song, particularly the galloping drums, and everything sort of blurs into one incomprehensible whirlwind of nimble riffs and pounding percussion. It’s an exhausting album to get through, not helped by the fact that most of these tracks have all of this crammed into under two minutes, with the only source of respite being the ambient midpoint The Chernobyl Effect, and even that goes as quickly as it comes around.
Even after all that though, you can hate what Darko are doing. It’s an interesting thing that they’ve got going for them, even if right now they seem to have more ideas than they realistically know what to do with. In any case, Bonsai Mammoth isn’t so much a bad album as a mismanaged one, a good first draft of what could be particularly potent in the future. There are hints already that things are beginning to take shape – Life Forms and Lifeblood in particular show the high points of what Darko are capable of – but they’re in the minority at the minute. Still, the fact that songs like this are here at all show that this band know how to do them well, and if Darko can make a whole album of them next time, the results will certainly be a lot more solid than they currently are.
For fans of: Strung Out, Protest The Hero, Laughing In The Face Of
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Bonsai Mammoth’ by Darko is released on 3rd February on Lockjaw Records (UK) / Bird Attack Records (US).