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[Note: This review was originally posted on my blog. The original can be found here: http://chuckmangione.wordpress.com/2012/10/07/dawnbringer-into-the-lair-of-the-sun-god/]
To me, Dawnbringer is something of an anomaly. They’re a band that incorporate two genres that have been entirely separate since the 1980s: heavy and black metal. Not since the ur-example of black metal, Venom, has there been such a band. That I’m aware of, anyway. On their 2010 release, Nucleus, the band captivated me with their sound. It was much more the former than the latter, but at the same time that flavor was there. Lurking just past the threshold, giving the album something of a post-apocalyptic flavor. It was dry - but in a good way. Like a Kyuss or Queens of the Stone Age almost. I hope you’ll forgive equating the album with The Road Warrior, because that’s really how I feel about it. Nucleus was like being Mel Gibson’s character in that film: I was lost in a dead, terrible place; and the Beast was on my tail.
Another apt comparison - perhaps more so than The Road Warrior - would be Stephen King’s epic, The Dark Tower. In fact, it’s the first that occurs to me when I look at the cover art for that album. It’s a dead place, the sun looms high over head, falling behind an ominous spire. At the base of the spire is some sort of undead creature. It seems to be carrying the head of a child, for a reason I cannot begin to imagine. This post-apocalyptic dark fantasy is what defines the sound of this band and is indeed why I enjoy them quite as much as I do. It’s a very enthralling mix of sounds, ideas, and themes. Dawnbringer has followed up this, in my opinion, masterpiece from 2010 with 2012’s Into the Lair of the Sun God. Is it as good as it’s predecessor?
In a word.. no. I don’t feel that it is. Into the Lair of the Sun God is nine tracks, each designated with a Roman numeral rather than a conventional title. We begin the album on a high note, with the first numeral. Immediately the band’s ever-present Iron Maiden influence jumps right out at you. After the short intro, anyway. The opening riff is modest in it’s tempo and, while it certainly doesn’t lack forward momentum, seems to want to set the stage for the rest of the album rather than simply suck you in and thrust you right into the story of the apparent deity and the man whom is destined to slay him. After the first couple of verses there is a lengthy bridge featuring some excellent layered guitar interplay where their black metal comes roaring out of the gate. It’s certainly a highlight of the album. The lyrical component comes to an end with a provocative stanza that brings a terrible prophecy to light:
“My destiny is death,
and so it is done.
I am the one,
to murder the sun.”
So now we know why the protagonist must venture into the titular lair. The second numeral begins with an aggressive riff that reminds one of modern thrash metal in a way. This riff is accompanied by something of a quirk; a section where we’re treated to a tremolo riff that crashes to a halt, bringing the song to a stop for a split second during the pre-chorus. There is a lot of this start-stop aspect to the track. A lot of palm-muting, which only makes the thrash metal equation all the more appropriate, I think. Again, there is a distinct interplay between the two guitarists. The song really pushes forward with a lot of forward momentum. Their black metal influence comes out just how gnashing the lead riff is. The interplay during the bridge is more melodic, more the Maiden side of the Dawnbringer equation. Our protagonist makes his promise to the Sun god that he is coming - and that he means business.
The third numeral begins with the melodic, Maiden inspired side of things, with an opening riff that sounds like would be at home on Powerslave. There is some creamy dual riffs, and a short solo with some Middle Eastern flavor. The intro leads into a lovely galloping riff that leads the song from there, through the track proper. We’re told of a young man in the heat of battle. He confronts his enemies head on, but is ultimately slain. From there the song breaks down and is suddenly sorrowful. We’re treated to more dual-guitar: one aggressive on the high end, the other mournful on the low. Letting loose slow and soaring. The drums are just as restrained, repeating the same roll over and over. It seems the young man that lay dead on this battlefield is the motivation for our protagonist, as the song fades out with an ominous refrain:
“Into the lair of the sun god
Into the lair of the sun god
Into the lair of the sun god
Into the lair of the sun god
Into the lair of the sun god”
Numeral four immediately jumps out and kicks things off with a bang. This track is all business. It’s one black metal-inspired, face-melting riff after another. The track’s solo plays over another Maiden-esque gallop which leads into a climbing, palm-muted riff that takes us into the final verse. Like the previous track, there is a sudden breakdown where the song simply stops and decays into a gentle soundscape lead by the lead guitar. Then the bass kicks in, a really sexy riff, and the galloping Maiden riff comes roaring back. We come back to that lovely bass riff, then into a very triumphant conclusion. These first four tracks are the highlight of the album; each one is an exceptional mix of black metal and heavy metal, painting a grim story of a man out for revenge.
But from here is where we run into why I really do not like this album at all. It starts on the fifth track - the fifth numeral. Which is something of a ballad. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a good ballad. But I didn’t feel like there was anything really interesting about it. If you’ve heard one heavy metal ballad, you’ve probably heard them all. The guitarwork is slow and sappy: it feels somewhat generic in it’s construction; there’s no real effort behind it. It’s not horrible. Obviously, the point of the song is Chris Black’s vocal performance, which is pulled more to the forefront than on other tracks. But, compared to previous tracks, which featured a lot of layered dual guitar, I just didn’t feel like the track was very interesting. I’m not so sure Dawnbringer is where I want to hear a ballad, really. They’re more than welcome to do so, but I probably won’t enjoy it.
This same problem plagues the entire rest of the album. The interplay is gone, the Maiden is gone, the Venom is gone. The latter five tracks of the album are one generic power chord riff after another. The riffs themselves aren’t bad. Not horrible, not anything offensive. But the problem is that they don’t hold up against the first four numerals. I didn’t really hate them at all but at the same time I found myself wanting to return to the beginning of the album as soon as possible. It was somewhat difficult to finish the album for this reason. The sixth track is probably the least offensive and most enjoyable. The riff is just a few power chords, but it’s aggressive, and compliments Black’s delivery; which is, of course, as excellent as it always is. Moreover, there is the presence of that.. organ thing that Acid Witch used on Witchtanic Hellucinations. I have no idea what it’s called, but it’s on the sixth track. It’s a welcome inclusion that fits their sound to a T.
That’s about it for anything good to say about the latter half of the album. It just did nothing for me. At all. For this reason, I feel it is not quite up to snuff with Nucleus. With others like it? Probably. Just because it’s a simple power chord riff doesn’t automatically make it bad. It doesn’t compare well with the other end of the album, or anything from Nucleus, but it holds up on its own just fine. Chris Black’s vocal performance doesn’t suffer the same creative failures that the compositions do. He’s consistently enjoyable throughout the entire album. Can I recommend it to fans of Dawnbringer? I don’t see why not. Metal fans not familiar with Dawnbringer? Certainly not. I will continue to direct them to Nucleus for the time being. Can I see myself giving this album another spin in the future? Yeah, probably. Maybe not as often as the previous album, but occasionally.
It’s difficult to truly create something original nowadays, or perhaps it was never something that was widely done even amongst noteworthy works and this whole mentality is merely the result of people inserting a vacuum to instant masterpiece leap that never happened in practice. Whatever the case, bands tend to be identified more by what they emulate, and whatever distinctive features are along for the ride tend to give one an edge over the other. The charm of Dawnbringer is that, much like Slough Feg, they make an active effort of avoiding whatever is common practice in the present American scene, while tending to conform all but completely to a form of music largely forgotten since the mid 80s, all the way down to every little nuance in the overall mix. It’s a craft that romanticizes the past, yet falls a bit short of outright dwelling upon it.
The subject matter of ancient superstitious warriors deifying/personifying phenomenon and then making war with it over some perceived grudge or rivalry is also something of a throwback, though quite a few more years than the couple of decades since writing traditionally oriented, NWOBHM inspired music with a dab of Motorhead ceased to be commonplace. But to be fair, “Into The Lair Of The Sun God’ does not fully stand alone in the midst of bands like Slough Feg and Manilla Road delving into similar sonic landscapes and mythical storytelling. Then again, Dawnbringer comes off as a bit humbler and more musically to the point, presenting melodic sets that aren’t bogged down in folksy quirks or progressively asymmetrical song formats. Instead, it sort of walks a line between brevity and epic sensibilities and presents a cycle of programmatic songs that seem much larger than they actually are.
When getting into the particulars of this album’s presentation, the specter of Bathory becomes unavoidable, particularly that of Quorthon’s initially scrapped and later resurrected follow up to his blackened thrash exploits “Blood On Ice”. And yet, this album seems to present this format as if trying to remember the past exploits of “Blood Fire Death” a bit more before proceeding on into quasi-Manowar territory. The vocal delivery carries a similar rasp and grit to that of Quorthon, but without the massive overdubbed choir drones and a less high 80s production character where the reverb makes the arrangement sound twice as big as it really is. To put it more plainly, this album is produced more along the lines of the original “Battle Hymns” rather than “Kings Of Metal”.
This band has been known for including black metal influences in their work, but this mostly consists of a production familiarity that is localized to the 1st wave, particularly that of Venom and Celtic Frost. “Into The Lair Of The Sun God” contains the least of these tendencies of any album by Dawnbringer to date, but it isn’t too much of a stretch to liken this to the recent spinoffs of Immortal in “I” and Demonaz’s “March Of The Norse” when discounting the toneless vocal work of Abbath in the former and the massive choir additives of the latter that were clearly imported from Viking era Bathory. It’s definitely an interesting niche, but perhaps not a wholly surprising one given that this is the sort of nuanced emulation that characterized former critics turned artists.
Anyone with a soft spot for the catchy, consonant melodic contours of the late 70s and early 80s will definitely see an appealing treat of an album here. It definitely has a good deal of crossover appeal to those not normally predisposed to liking a lot of the more pompous traditional metal revivalists cropping up of late. Pompousness is something of an improbability in itself for a band that has been purveying this sort of archaic art though out the dominions of nu-metal and metalcore, to speak nothing for the sleep inducing alternative rock scene that refused to shut up and die throughout the 90s and even up until today. So check these guys out and chuck a spear at the sun for the victory of heavy metal.
When little kids draw cute little kids’ pictures, they tend to give every object a personality. That’s not a tree, it’s a happy tree. That’s not a rock, it’s an angry rock. That’s not the sun, it’s a sad sun. It’s easier for kids to understand concepts anthropomorphically, with everything in the image having not just a location, but a motivation. Looking back at my old kindergarten art is like reading a pre-Romantic poem: NATURE HERSELF ABHORS THE BLOOD AND GORE / WROUGHT BY THE RAVENING T-REX CYBORG! (My drawings were maybe not so much cute as adorably depraved.)
Dawnbringer’s new LP, Into the Lair of the Sun God takes this weird worldview out of crayons and pastels and into the vocabulary of trad metal. The sun’s not a happy or a sad sun; it’s more of a heckling, douchebag sun raining down abuse on thickheaded warriors from its barstool made of clouds, chewing hailstones like stale peanuts. There’s something profoundly funny about a heat-crazed Conan-like brawler hurling spears at the sun for daring to insult him, but Dawnbringer aim for a soberer, epic tone that’s equal parts Icarus myth, Epic of Gilgamesh and 2112. I’m not convinced any listeners are likely to learn a deep life lesson from Dawnbringer’s parable of hubris, though imagining the tale as being sung by Solaire from the videogame Dark Souls yielded a nice undercurrent of buggering lunacy to the proceedings. (Well “lunacy” is probably unfair, we don’t know the character’s feelings about the moon.)
As silly as the story of a wannabe “assassin of the sun” is, it takes nothing away from the music here. I don’t know a great deal about main brain Chris Black, aside from his work with black metal psychonauts Nachtmystium, but I understand he’s also a metal critic, and both Nachtmystium and Dawnbringer smell like critic’s bands. Like ur-critic’s band Blue Oyster Cult (which featured contributions from rock journalists Sandy Pearlman and Richard Meltzer), you get the sense that the band exists as much to scratch a particular itch as anything else. BOC tapped into the weird, pulp subversiveness that lurked between Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and the Doors, Nachtmystium adds psychedelic trippiness and prog to the austerity of black metal while Dawnbringer seems a clear attempt to school the current, generally deficient wave of classic metal revivalists how to do it right.
Black sings like Old Lemmy (as in seventy years old, not recorded in the ‘70s) covering Piece of Mind, and this isn’t a bad thing. A more clarion-voiced singer would’ve made this sound too rote, too professional; a good comparison might be Quorthon, who was a woeful singer, but imbued his vocals with a distinctive, lived-in quality that made you really feel for his saddlesore warriors, trudging through mud and sleet down the road to Asa Bay. Admittedly, Black doesn’t give you any of the manic edge you’d expect from a character so crazy he thinks the sun is insulting him, but the fact that he always sounds kinda thirsty does kinda make you feel like the heat is slowly cooking him inside his armour.
Speaking a bit ago of Quorthon, Bathory’s Viking-era works in general are a touchstone, the black metal frenzy swapped out for riffs that often recall Armored Saint or even Uriah Heep as much as anything else. Dawnbringer dip into thrashier waters on tracks like the moshable II and skirts power ballad territory on IV, but for the most part what you’re getting is reasonably brisk, mid-tempo heavy metal with the emphasis firmly placed on locked-in riffing with thick, audible bass and tasteful, melodic solos. Into the Lair of the Sun God is not a record full of surprises, but if you love this brand of metal, you’ll recognize the love that’s been put into it. VI stands as a highlight, with its blocky yeoman’s riffs (reminding me of C-list power metallers Steel Attack’s mighty stomp, Village of Agabha) transitioning into a yearning bridge augmented by a Heep-worthy organ solo. I also dig VIII, which begins with a Mustaine-ish robot chug and climaxes with a series of simple, effective guitar leads and rumbling drums.
If neither the LP nor its hero quite manage to reach the full grossness of incandescence, I don’t imagine even the least anthropomorphic of trees, rocks or metal-listeners won’t find a lot to enjoy about it (though dickwad suns may take issue with it). This kind of heavy metal isn’t so much about innovating as it is familiarizing oneself with the tropes of the genre and arranging them in such a way that you get the most out of them. For what it’s worth, I haven’t heard a better record of its ilk in years.