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Earthy, yet subtly ambitious - 85%

Abominatrix, May 11th, 2018
Written based on this version: 2014, CD, Profound Lore Records

Dawnbringer may not be a household name among most metalheads, but they weren't just a flash in the pan; they were a hard-working band that pretty much lived in the shadows since their inception. The release of this, their final, and, in my estimation, best, album, demonstrates that not all artists rocket out of the gates with all guns blazing ready to take no prisoners with their first album. Every now and then, you come across a group of musicians that hones itself as its career progresses; a unit that actually becomes more confident and strong as the years grind on. It's a rare, and, I'd say, beautiful thing, and represents something of an ideal that is seldom met in this or any other artistic continuum.

I first heard Dawnbringer with the release of Unbleed way back in 1997 or so, when it was showcased on a local radio show. I got some of those songs on tape and thought they were kind of wild. I was relatively new to underground metal then, and I don't think I knew quite what to make of what the band was doing. Years later, it's still a bit mystifying. I have to be honest: the old Dawnbringer was kind of rough and all-over-the-place. It took them a while to stop fooling around with being some kind of weird progressive black/thrash band (or something) and really cut to the chase. They sounded interestingly eccentric, which still put them ahead of many "major" bands, but also a bit lost. There was a really great guitarist chomping at the bit to do something crazy and intensely melodic, and a bunch of other guys who couldn't distinguish themselves in any way, which was epitomised by the perfect example of "well I guess we'd better record something, eh?" vocal delivery. The song-writing was weird and disorganised. I noticed right off though that they really had nothing at all to do with anything else that was going on in 90s metal, except perhaps to a subtle influence from the rising stars of progressive metal. The bulk of the sound seemed to be speedy and 80s-inspired, with encroaching awareness of black/death metal playing in the form of blasting drums and rapidly morphing tremolo guitar lines. So, I never forgot about them entirely, having played that tape a few times before it was lost somewhere in the chaos of a move. But it was years before I learned that they were still around and still making albums. Somehow, this knowledge surprised me. Surely, I thought, the guitarist went on to some progressive power metal band somewhere and the other guys drowned themselves in their day jobs?

I have Into the Lair of the Sun God, and it's a damn fine album, not too dissimilar to this one, stylistically. While I can't claim total familiarity with all their work, over the past few years, Night of the Hammer has grown to be a very special record, for me. An interesting throught crossed my mind yesterday while listening to this: This album could have been huge. I don't necessarily mean "huge" in terms of commercial success. But, imagine if this album had been produced to the nines with the backing of one of the big European metal labels. But wait, maybe you haven't heard this thing yet, so I should back up a bit and say that an arresting thing about this particular album is that it's created with a rather bare-bones approach to both production and song-craft. The only element that even hints at "flash" is the strong, tasteful and always melodic soloing. Listening to this, one gets the feeling that, while this was indeed recorded an mix by pros at a good studio, the band's objective was to get in there, record their songs with a bare minimum of fuss (and overdubs), and get out. Whether this was by necessity or intent, i don't really know, but the result is a rather spare sounding record; one which could be summed up adequately with the phrase "no frills". Guitars recorded with multi-tracking only where necessary, bass layign the basic groundwork, drums given to you up front without much recourse to reverb or other processing, and vocals that can be described as "earthy" despite being at least double-tracked (the way the vast majority of vocals in loud guitar music are recorded nowadays). It's all very humble sounding, and I guess this is an interesting contrast to a lot of heavy metal, and one that might not necessarily please all listeners. Nevertheless, I'm reminded of the halcyon days of the so-called new wave of British heavy metal, and bands like Fist, or Legend, who produced such memorable music without recourse to big studio budgets and had an almost punk-infused "DIY" approach to making captivating metal music with both intelligence and spirit.

The song-writing here is just excellent, but a first listen might only reveal to you the starkness of the sound and minimalist approach to layering. Really let this album take you away though, and you'll find it working some subtle magic on your imagination. Ideas that seem basic at first reveal an intrinsic cleverness that speaks of an artist who is aware of all prevalent aspects and conventions of the genre he's chosen to work in, acknowledges them, and then smiles and shows you how he doesn't really need to bowl you over with grandeur, all he really needs to do is hint at it with a few chord progressions and vocal passages, and you, the seasoned metal fanatic, will feel a sense of gnosis and awareness. Just listen to the ascending progressions of "The Burning of Home": that's triumph and majesty and nostalgia, right there, all expressed with a subtlety that many others could only dream of. Witness how most of these songs are really short, and rather than throwing spastic ideas willy-nilly into a song as they often used to do, Dawnbringer delivers compact, distinctive songs that hit their targets, tell part of the story, and make way for what's next, never overstaying their welcome or doing anything unnecessary. Everything works toward part of the whole and this is definitely a work best experienced as an album rather than a collection of disparate songs.

Another facet that makes this stand out to me in the realm of heavy metal is a very tasteful inflection of what sounds like American folk music. There's truthfully not much, but its an influence that I feel is incorporated into a few of the tracks, and contributes greatly to the honest, "down-to-earth" quality of Dawnbringer's tunes. You can hear this most in the terrific "One-Eyed Sister", and the almost sea-shanty-like "Xiphias". Both these, and a couple of the other tracks, feature some really nice acoustic guitar strumming that is seamlessly integrated with the more metallic sound, and conveys a mood that remains prevalent throughout each song where it appears. The singing, too, sometimes carries with it this feeling of coming to metal from the campfire or church basement (the latter because that's where a lot of folk concerts happen and not because of any particular religious association), again, calling to mind the UK's Legend, or maybe Pagan Altar.

Most things on Night of the Hammer work exceedingly well, and even if not every idea causes immense pleasure, most of them are gone before they can become excessive. There's one song here that I don't care for too much despite some great soloing and a nice 80s metal groove, and that's "hands of Death". It seems to be the band's tribute to heavy metal anthems of yore, like Judas Priest's "United" or maybe even Exciter's "Pounding Metal", and while the vocal melodies are wholly original and give the song points in its favour, it's just too simplistic to please me. Go figure: it's also the longest song on the record! I never skip it when playing through the album, though, somehow -- maybe even this song manages to earn its place. It is, after all, followed by "One-Eyed Sister", one of the very best tracks, which somehow works as a fitting contrast to the straightforward banging approach that came before. Speaking of "One-Eyed Sister" yet again, that lead guitar bit at the end there, under the last vocal lines, adds so much to the song, and really illustrates how the guys in Dawnbringer may have a stripped-down approach yet show considerable thoughtfulness and attention to detail simultaneously.

Elsewhere, we have a rather nice variety of tunes which manage to encompass what is best in metal of all sorts. There's the heartfelt and painful "Alien", a cry of frustrated isolation that is simply a great way to pull the listener into this singular work. "Damn You" sounds like it would have fit beautifully on Black Sabbath's "Dehumanizer", and damn, wasn't that one an underrated album, too? "Not your Night" is even a hail to the band's old sound, with busy guitars flying all over the fretboard, a kind of relaxed but blasting drum approach, and biting, less melodic vocals. We've even got Mercyful Fate with a splash of eerie psychedelic riff-work in "Funeral Child", and really, the falsetto vocals are only a small addition and don't detract from anything. Throughout, in fact, I have to say that the singing manages to stand out in a good way, even if it's not the strongest delivery out there, because the melodies always work well with the instrumentation, and make the songs memorable and pleasing in ways you wouldn't always expect to hear. I've mentioned a few bands in this review, yet I almost think that's nothing more than an inevitable consequence of trying to talk about music, and not necessarily because Dawnbringer sounds like any of these bands on Night of the Hammer. It sounds "old" without being at all "retro", if you can make sense of that; very 21st century while distinctly hearkening to the old guard, and I think that makes it a very cool, special record.

The last song on Night of the Hammer is the slow, incredibly sad two-minute wonder "Crawling off to Die". After this, Dawnbringer would give us but a single EP of left-overs and nothing more. It's always a little sad when a band reaches such a powerful achievement and then disappears, because it's impossible not to think of what might have come next. You can counter this, though, by saying that perhaps they did everything they set out to do, and ended on a high note, and that is much better than dragging things out well beyond their reasonable life-span. Dawnbringer were around more than long enough to earn their stripes, and to me, their progression was a climb to a lofty summit, which they reached here. If only so many others could say the same. Rest in peace, Dawnbringer.

Hitting the black nail right on the head again. - 80%

hells_unicorn, November 25th, 2014
Written based on this version: 2014, CD, Profound Lore Records

Contrary to what is sometimes suggested, metal music doesn't live and die by impact alone, and often relies very heavily on atmosphere and nuance depending on what discipline has been adopted. That's one of the charms of loving this genre of music, there are so many different flavors to choose from, and often times the more past conscious bands will manage to find themselves a new twist on an existing style to make it seem a bit younger than 30-40 years of age. Dawnbringer is one such band that, along with the likes of Slough Feg, has managed to bring back that archaic, 1970s and early 80s mode of heavy metal without becoming overtly slavish to every single detail of the original approach, unlike some bands that go a little too hard down the retro route and come off as ridiculous (*cough* The Sword).

In much the same way as recent excursions out of the outfit in Nucleus and Into The Lair Of The Sun God, the approach taken on Night Of The Hammer is auspicious in its dual nature of loftiness and humility. While sounding fairly similar to the likes of Manilla Road and earlier Manowar, the tendency towards long droning epics is systematically avoided here for a more compact approach, while still maintaining that glorious atmosphere that conjures up images of brave warrior on the march to some grand battlefield. The songwriting is fairly simple, consisting of a handful of basic yet captivating riffs and melodies that remind of that period in the early to mid 80s where the lines that separated doom bands like Trouble from the more hard rocking NWOBHM acts were not as clearly drawn.

As a consequence of the stylistic ambiguity that was unique to the time period being conjured up on this album, Dawnbringer takes a few opportunities to put their own twist on things and avoid completely living in the past. Probably the most obvious example is found in "Not Your Night", which is essentially an early 80s take on where black metal would end up in the early 1990s, riding a perpetual blast beat for about 2 minutes and featuring vocalist and metal veteran Chris Black trying out a harsher vocal style. Similarly, the theatrics and sky high falsetto vocals heard on "Funeral Child" are a shameless yet fitting nod to Mercyful Fate. Even on songs that are a bit more classic rock/metal oriented such as "Xiphias" that comes with pristine vocal harmonies right out of a Blue Oyster Cult or Chicago approach, there is this subtle post-rock character to the guitar work that gives it a slightly modern feel.

But for all the isolated quirks and twists on existing practices, this is an album that is well at home in the realm of early metal cliche, and it is carried quite well. Arguably one of the most overt nods to the early days of heavy metal in "Hands Of Death" all but perfectly merges that mellow 70s Black Sabbath approach to grooving and jamming with a helping of Dio era goodness that instantly gets stuck in one's head and refuses to leave. There is no shortage of impact to be found here, but at the end of the day, this is an album that wins over its audience with a much subtler take on things, one where a band can be fun without being overly flashy or extreme. It's a bit more well-rounded and has a few less points of utter intrigue compared to the last couple of albums, but anyone looking for a solid, old school experience will definitely find a winner in Night Of The Hammer.


Originally submitted to (The Metal Observer) on November 25, 2014.

Not your night. - 90%

Empyreal, November 23rd, 2014

The more I listen to metal, the more I get tired of bands that consciously tries to posture themselves as big and epic, with this “more is better” songwriting ethos – bands who really think they can pull off some dorky fantasy epic via music. That's why it's a relief to hear this new Dawnbringer album. Night of the Hammer is a serious old-school metal riff-clinic with the distinction of being one of the more stripped down examples of the style I've heard. Main man Chris Black is a veteran in the scene and has done writing for metal magazines as well as played in a bunch of other bands including U.S. metal luminaries Pharaoh, and you can hear the dedication to metal here loud and clear.

This is an album rife with laid back guitar harmonies and super-old-school riffs recalling Sabbath, Blue Oyster Cult, Saint Vitus and Manilla Road in various places. The tempos are slowed down to a crawl and only occasionally reach up to a more rocking groove. There are also some flourishes of folksy melody in a very American sense – very mellow, dark strumming with a bit of a medieval touch. It's folksy music in general, and I think the description of Black as a “metal singer-songwriter” on the label press release is really apt. This whole thing has the feel of a personal project, with Black's unified songwriting vision tied together by three guitarists trading off on various tracks as well as Black's stone-age-certified rhythm section and rather stripped down vocal performance. It's a very honest and passionate work with dark, eerie themes and you can tell Black put his all into it.

Opener “Alien” with its catchy riffs and vocals that sound like High Spirits off its meds, is a good tune, and “The Burning of Home” is just about the same level of quality – the whole album is very consistent actually. On some songs like “Nobody There” and “Xiphias” they slow down to a lethargic crawl, and could be considered somewhat dull if not for the sheer charisma and instrumental prowess – these riffs are fucking great. “Hands of Death” is an old school Sabbath doom romp and “One-Eyed Sister” is a very folksy tune with lyrics about a guy who accidentally stabs his sister's eye out – pretty grim, but effective. “Funeral Child” is the most upbeat song on the album with more lyrics about murder, some boisterous riffs and a King Diamond impression – bad ass.

There's no pretension here. The songs are stripped down to the essentials – rumbling, retro guitar dialog and clarion-call vocal work. It's a refreshing take on the genre and revels in its simplicity.

'Hammer' Left Me Heartbroken - 35%

H_P Buttcraft, October 28th, 2014

I really don’t want to be the one to tell everyone that the new Dawnbringer album is not something that will impress very many people. But sadly, I was -in fact- really looking forward to this new release from Dawnbringer because I still go back to their 2010 release ‘Nucleus’ whenever I want to listen to some high-quality heavy metal that was invulnerable to genre classification.

‘Nucleus’ was a huge triumph for Dawnbringer. Every single song on that record came alive as soon as it started playing. It was easily one of my favorite albums of that year. Subsequently, 2012’s ‘Into the Lair of the Sun God’ was another successful release from the band, picking up exactly where they left off on ‘Nucleus’. It seemed, to me at least, like Dawnbringer was on a roll and would continue to pump out impressive album after impressive album. Being veterans of heavy metal, I wouldn’t expect anything less.

But ‘Night of the Hammer’ is… well it’s just plain embarrassing. It’s embarrassing that Dawnbringer would go from putting out two amazing records and then taking ten steps backward. Were they exhausted with writing and recording music? Were they pressured into creating ‘Night of the Hammer’ when they didn’t feel like they couldn’t replicate their recent successful releases? That’s the sense I get when I listen to ‘Night of the Hammer’: the sense that every single one of these songs were forced out of the band and they are delivered in the most hollow way possible.

There are several enjoyable tracks on ‘Night of the Hammer’. The strongest songs on it are certainly the single track “One-Eyed Sister” which is something you should already come to expect from this outfit with these medieval folk motifs thinly layering big fat, bass driven rock music. The song “Nobody There” is also another great song with amazing, catchy guitar & bass riffs with elevating vocals. And every single guitar solo on this album is superb, even on the songs I didn’t like at all. They always know how to pull off a wonderful shredding solo that sound rejuvenating and creative. One of the biggest reasons that I love Dawnbringer is their monumentally strong lead guitar section and it was great to hear that coming back for ‘Night of the Hammer’.

And there were several songs that I liked but still had trouble enjoying them entirely. “Not Your Night” is a song that shows Dawnbringer playing around with a black metal compositional style which works fantastically well but only with the instrumentation. The vocals, completely overwhelmed by the drums and rapid guitar strumming, end up undermining the song’s quality.

And the song “Hands of Death” is a very simple metal song that certainly sounds like it could’ve been written during the early 1980’s and in that case, the song would’ve been passable. The duelling guitar leads as well as the three guitar solos really make this song stand out but the verse riff along with the watered-down vocal melodies make this song far too diluted for it to have any punch or bite. It frustrates me that they spent a lot of time perfecting this sub-par song when if you listen to such tracks from ‘Nucleus’ like “The Devil” or “All I See” which are so infectious and enjoyable, you can start to see the major flaws of this record by that comparison.

“Alien”, “The Bruning of Home”, “Damn You”, “Funeral Child”, and especially “Xiphias” are all completely unmemorable and just plain don’t sound good at all. You know that Dawnbringer were really stretching themselves too thin to make a song like “Funeral Child” with King Diamond-style vocals. There is only one person on this planet that is allowed to sing like King Diamond and that’s Kim Bendix Peterson, also known as King Fucking Diamond. All other musicians that try to clone his high-pitched wailing end up looking stupid and unoriginal like Dawnbringer vocalist Chris Black does with this song. No amount of awesome guitar licks and lead guitars can make up for that.

I also really cannot stand listening to the Dungeons & Dragons themed song “Xiphias”. The vocals grate against my patience like someone rubbing a shark’s skin in the wrong way. The major scale riff progressions just sound dumb and goofy. This is not the DAWNBRINGER I have grown on! What the hell were they thinking?

I love Dawnbringer and I will continue to love this band but don’t expect me to come running out to defend ‘Night of the Hammer’ because this album was a huge flop and I was extremely disappointed by it.

(Originally published on Metal-Temple.com, 9-22-14.)