Review: Dawnbringer — Night of the Hammer
Chris Black (known by people who prefer to use weird monikers such as “Professor Black”) stands at the helm of Dawnbringer, one of his numerous musical vehicles and doubtlessly his most venerated.
There’s no shortage of good reasons for the relatively heavy praise heaped upon the project. With it, he’s managed to stake a claim for a small slice of uncharted land on the map of metal. Land that, while clearly adjacent to the frustratingly overpopulated People’s Republic of Faceless Retro Bands Circle-jerking onto Proto-metal’s Titular Acts (or PRFRBCPTA), exists wholly apart. Proof of that ran deep through Into the Lair of the Sun God‘s fresh and (for lack of a better, less overused word) epic take on NWOBHM and more. While the lion’s share of throwback bands inevitably fall to the thrall of “Do you remember the good old days? LET ME REMIND YOU EXACTLY,” Dawnbringer approaches heavy metal antiquity with a cool, collected confidence; comfortable in its own skin and secure enough to let its own identity bleed through the schema.
Dawnbringer’s fixation on the airy, ethereal texture so prominent in all of its offerings accounts for a significant portion of their integrity. Their unique application of atmosphere and aura, which is achieved through the liberal use of open space rather than endlessly layering this upon that, allows them to draw from established genres while staying unmistakably Dawnbringeresque. In one striking example, the cyclical guitar leads that wind through the chorus of “Nobody There” perfectly exemplify the sort of otherwordly haze they’ve become experts at producing. Though similar moments abound, much of the credit for the ambiance belongs to the production. Sure, it’s plainly inspired by the days of analog, but it’s more than that. The guitars are uniquely crisp, the low-end is nice and rich, and reverb is masterfully implemented. It feels distant — not spatially, but elementally — and almost dreamlike. Realize that its ambiance doesn’t equate to extraneous frill. Dawnbringer’s music has always been stripped-down and straightforward, something that actually ends up augmenting the air of the remote and solitary.
Chris Black’s vocals, which have always been the most polarizing element of Dawnbringer as a whole, will polarize even further in Night of the Hammer. In Into the Lair of the Sun God, his singing was to some extent lost in the wash. Here, his voiced is placed at the forefront of it all. He’s improved over the past two years. You’ll hear him sing melodies full of higher notes more clearly and more consistently. In “Funeral Night” he even crosses into Mercyful Fate territory, albeit briefly. His forthright tone, which seems to be the preemenent obstacle for most, is here to stay. I happen to be a big fan of his singing. It’s honest and effortless, and it really adds to the esoteric mood of the music, especially when he harmonizes with himself. Look to “Alien” for a chilling example of that.
Even at its fastest and most-headbangingest Dawnbringer has always had a moody undercurrent. In past albums it could be heard in nuance, nestled beneath the Iron Maiden-isms and Slough Feg-isms (my personal favorite type of –isms). Here, that moodiness dominates. The upbeat, fast-paced, NWOBHM-inspired riffing and soloing is all but gone, though you may detect its vestigial tail in “The Burning of Home.” In its stead? Slow-burning to mid-paced doom. Night of the Hammer is more prone to Sabbath comparisons than Maiden comparisons, and that’s probably a first for Dawnbringer. Consequently, the record is far darker than anything you’ve come to expect from the band. “One-Eyed Sister” is an ominously haunting piece, and the recurring dissonant chords echoing behind the riff at the end of “Funeral Child” sound downright malevolent in their hypnosis, in spiteful opposition of the groovy drive they’re backing. When it all comes down to it, “Damn You” is the darkest song I’ve heard all year (and there’s been some dark shit floating around in this toilet as of late).
Keep in mind that dark doesn’t always have to mean un-fun. “Hands of Death” doesn’t take long to get going like a Thin Lizzy classic, and the central riff in “Xiphias” is bouncy enough to be a good time even with its foreboding accents.
My one complaint is a minor one: “Not Your Night.” I’ll admit that, within the context of the narrative and the album’s structure, it makes a fair amount of sense. It’s the story’s climax, the event alluded to by all that brooding and foreboding. That being said, it still feels slightly ill-fitted. The blast beats and harsh vocals catch you off guard. It’s not enough to derail the album, but it’s enough to be jarring. Then again, maybe that was the intent and I’m reading it all wrong.
Night of the Hammer is Dawnbringer delivered in a different (specifically, less vibrant) light. At 40 minutes flat, it’s as succinct as it is unvarnished, which I appreciate. It’s moody as all get-out and uncharacteristically dark. Most importantly, they retain their identity, which is their very own.