Concept album, classical composition, and immortal tale - retold by the man himself.
Words by Jake Sanders (@themetalscholar):
The annals of the last decade were rife with examples of extreme music that were both influential and enduring in their presence. The scene flourished with several new benchmarks that would cultivate a following from a new generation of listeners who were raised in the spaces between the rise of the genre and its eventual diversion into various subgenres. One such audio outlet keeps to its most pure form of sound — the world of traditional heavy metal, and one such man who has accomplished more in that spectrum than most others is the perpetually busy wellspring of musical academics and architecture, Chris ‘Professor’ Black.
For decades now, his work has been a flagship example of how to be a renaissance man whilst producing some of the finest quality music in existence, like an artistic octopus. With both quantity and quality on his side, the Professor has established himself as one of the strongest support pillars of the metal community, sporting a catalogue of literal dozens of independent projects and collaborations. Quite frankly — you just can't miss him.
Anyone familiar with this critic's past proclivity for Chris' catalogue also knows that I've never been shy about my feelings for my album of the last decade: the distinguished and glorious Into the Lair of the Sun God (2012) by Dawnbringer.
What can one say about such a titan? It could be noted that this album takes a journey through the captivating epoch of a warrior who has become obsessed by a notion that he must murder the sun. Similar to the tale of Telemachus in Homer's Odyssey, this assassin's quest for vengeance blinds him to the truth right before his eyes. His quest is a futile one and only in the end does he realize that his folly was pride, regret, and self-loathing in several haunting visions.
It can be stated that this album's discipline for pacing continually pays off from end-to-end. The crashing of waves fade into a gentle siren song that introduces audiences to this world of adventure and tragedy. Speedy riffs with four on the floor beats lead fans through a world of underwater chaos, a galloping pace of triplets blazing through ancient battles, a burning mystic in her residence, and the agonizing death of a loved one suffered once more at the hands of the narrator.
The peaks and valleys of this record are all memorable; not only are the songs separate and unique, several times they carry the burden of theme within them, taking careful strides to share sound suites that follow through to the end. Neoclassical compositions grab on tight to their progressive offspring and continue to inject influence in movements that break into the action, deliberately and with great impact. Ascending and descending scales add three dimensions to the album, bringing a notable sound cue that illustrate an actual character ascension, up stairs, down cliffs, through the depths of the ocean, and even into war.
Clean, husky vocals chant in chorus throughout - a change in this band's sound that add character and individuality to their cause. Production clarity is the name of the game here and it has it in spades. There are layers of sound, some dense and some thin, but all of it stands relevant and required. There are no elements of filler that exist to be decorative in the lair, and all solos offer a varying degree of technicality and expertise that are meant to transition rather than grandstand. It could be said that Dawnbringer is the opposite of a fast read. It's a thrice-measured cut that glacially imbues its listeners with a sense of wonder and disbelief. It's accessible to all. There are strokes of defining sound that the scene giants could not replicate, and quotable measures that synesthetically breathe shades of alabaster and gold into a world of black, bathing an oppressive light on its peers. One could call it enlightenment, but its simplicity is taught through the early years of the genre's development.
Into The Lair... is a love letter to the classic era of Heavy Metal. In nine movements, Dawnbringer tells a better high fantasy story in a single image with a soundtrack than most screen adaptations ever could. Its an album born of sun and steel, without leaning into any gimmicks, or trying to needlessly mold to a shape laid down by others.
With true originality and skill, the group did the unthinkable by crafting nine songs so immutable, so internally competitive, that the complete body of work is inseparable from itself. No singles to clutch to — no filler to line the pockets. In many corners of the album, vocals are minimized, and instruments paint worlds without words; a churning sea being scorched by a tyrannical star. The ghosts of the past reaching out from the grave to deliver a warning. Fathomless depths consuming an immortal, driven mad by his lust for a second chance.
The moments of despair come as often as the glimmer of hope, and one begins to sympathize with the assassin's plight by the end. A quest for glory exists here and this reviewer dares to claim they achieved said glory.
Into The Lair of the Sun God is more than a perfect album. It's the essence of what most bands chase their entire career. Beyond earning money and beyond the dream of scaling larger stages to the stadiums of the world, it's more essential to the well-being of the community than sneaking into the charts. It never tried to become iconic and overwhelming by its presence. It dodged entirely the burden of being the most evil sound in the market. It doesn't compete for loudness or try to ride the coat-tails of its predecessor, the profoundly world-changing Nucleus (2010). In fact, one could argue that there's a chasm of difference between the two, but both contain their own lore to be dissected and unraveled.
What's most important is what it has left, now, ten years after its initial debut; it's still as sharp and vicious as the day it emerged. It's timeless and can be appreciated years, decades beyond its delivery. It's a folded steel blade hammered ten thousand times into the best version of itself and wrapped nicely on both ends. There are hooks and riffs that are damn near annoyingly addictive and every word is accounted for by listeners who've made it through more than once. Bands very seldom get everything right, but even rarer do they manage to usurp the throne of their elders.
Displayed on this album in bold text are the words: ‘Heavy Metal is the Law.’
Dawnbringer is the Sheriff.
Taking a breather from his duties with High Spirits, Chris Black stops by to chat. Taking a hard glance at the years since the group was disbanded, the project's final years, and highlighting the smaller details of the album's creation and legacy ten years on, Heaviest of Art tries for the final word on the Sun God, and gains insight into the world of Heavy Metal's most industrious mind:
Part I: Dawnbringer
Jake: We're now just over seven years after the doors of the tomb were sealed on the gates of Dawnbringer's life. When I first talked to you three years ago, you said, “I completed Dawnbringer. It is a complete sentence, a full revolution, a perfect symmetry. And, it's the symmetry I love the most. No XX, no symmetry, but go any farther, and it's ruined.”
You also informed me, in reflecting on XX's creation that, “I got really inspired by the notion of Golgotha as WASP's final album meanwhile and the middle tracks (2/3/4) of XX kind of wrote themselves.”
With these two things in mind, and as a massive fan yourself, how do you feel about the possibility of a new W.A.S.P. album materializing after such a steller ending to that era?
Chris: The idea of Golgotha as the final W.A.S.P. album is something I made up. I can't attribute that to anything I read or heard -- that was entirely my own projection, based on the album title, the lyrics, and my feeling that it was the album Blackie had been wanting to make for a while. Dominator had the songwriting, Babylon had the production, and Golgotha had it all. Whether Blackie
continues with another album is quite possible, although he is smart enough — and also cynical enough — to consider return-on-investment when making that decision, setting aside whether he agrees with me that Golgotha might be as good of a finale, artistically speaking, as he could have hoped.
Anyway it made me determined to memorialize Dawnbringer in a dignified and appropriate manner, to give it a proper burial with my own hands before environmental forces could take effect.
Dawnbringer was dead, and I was grieving. Luckily I was able to find some inspiration from that reality, which resulted in XX. That was essential to moving on.
J: ...and though you've made your previous stance concrete — does there ever exist a point at the back of your mind, where you wonder if a piece of music you're currently writing may subconsciously be intended for Dawnbringer, rather than your most latest project?
C: I doubt it. But at the moment I am still emerging from a long depression, and I don't know what is on the other side. It's also true that Dawnbringer was always unfiltered and wild, and virtually anything could end up in that container.
J: Seven years ago, when you talked to Stormbringer, the Austrian Heavy Zine, the interview concluded with you being asked, “Aren't you afraid, the source — that [some time] there's an end to it?”
Your response stuck to me, years later. “Yes! I'm sure there is, and I hope I'll recognize that when I get there. Or that somebody close to me who I trust will say, ‘time to wrap it up.’"
Did you experience something to that effect prior to releasing XX? Can you tell me what you recognized that brought the end of the beginning, so to speak?
C: Dawnbringer died over a period of months and years I guess, starting with the writing for Night of the Hammer which would have been very late 2013 into mid 2014. And when we recorded in (I think) August, I could sense it, even though that was at the same time a very good studio experience in other ways. But the lyrics on that album can be taken literally.
I was detaching, and then melting down the machine. Toward the end you can hear it convulsing through its various forms, like the T-1000 in Terminator 2... What have I done? It's clearer in hindsight, and in context of the entire Dawnbringer arc it makes a lot of sense, but Night of the Hammer by itself is to me just an empty house. I started recording Snake like a month later, spent about 3 months on that, and then I can't remember how I was feeling about it, about the whole thing, during 2015.
We were super busy with High Spirits that year anyway. But when Dawnbringer finally played in Europe in March of 2016, everyone kind of knew and accepted that it was over.
We didn't really talk about it, and we definitely didn't use it as a selling point. But it should have been obvious.
J: During your time recording ‘Nucleus’, I've read that you were determined to make the palindrome happen, and ended up accomplishing it the difficult way, to an impressive execution played entirely backwards, on ‘Pendulum’.
There's clearly a classical appreciation, one that uses both sound and math to succeed, and Dawnbringer finds it in clever ways.
Palindromes, the pomp and circumstance of a marching cadence, dual harmonic trills steeped in a 16th note ascending scale, triplets for days at various speeds, even callback melodies that tether multiple tracks together as their own suite.
Was there a geometry to Dawnbringer's sound? With such a dramatic evolution of sound-styles for so many years, were there clear objectives to chase to fruition, and at what point during all this does raw emotion take over?
C: It sometimes begins with the raw emotion as well as sometimes ending there. But the middle stage can be a very mundane process at times, essentially encoding music for playback.
Nothing is ever exactly the same, but I appreciate patterns and symmetry, whether to create regularity or as a framework for experimentation.
The visual patterns over time are perhaps easiest to notice. For example, we never strayed from the portraiture, the absence of text on the album cover, the spine typesetting, and then the image of hands on the CD face. (On XX they are under the ice.)
Musically it's more intuitive I guess, just my instincts playing out in similar ways over time, and my tastes being refined around essentially the same center. Like water going down the drain, my listening sometimes seems like an ever-tightening spiral.
J: Venturing back into the catalogue, I've always considered that you and Scott were essentially it, for Dawnbringer permanent alumni, but there's still a strong case to stating that like many others, Dawnbringer is the introverted Chris Black endeavor.
After all these years — do you look at it as fully cooperative work with a partner? A parallel journey between two dudes both bringing their own work to the table? Or was this a group effort that came about between many parties over time? Are there special thanks and credits to others who helped inspire you directly?
Chris: No, I write everything, and then Scott is part of that encoding process, or that process of building the creature and bringing it to life, if that sounds better. But it definitely doesn't work without him, if that's what you mean.
And Dawnbringer has always been a group effort. I guess I played everything on Snake, but a bunch of British people wrote the riffs.
Part II: Into The Lair
J: In writing an epoch of musical lore by way of concept album, ‘Into The Lair...’ joins other such tales of ambition and despair as Melville's Ahab, Cervantes' Don Quixote, and Eliot's Dorothea, and Tertius.
Why are stories of disaster and hubris so important? How do the stories of tilting at windmills, chasing the white whale, and marrying for status, and manipulation, align with an assassin on his way to murder the sun? What lessons do you draw from your album, be they practical, or abstract?
C: That many truths are deceptively simple, especially the most painful ones.
J: More than any other album of yours, you've unintentionally crafted lore here that — while seemingly not your aim — has opened you to a world of fan theories regarding what took place in these nine tracks. Even more amusing was the lyrical misunderstanding from the end of ‘I’, that somehow conflated nine lines of lyrics as song titles.
Silence in waves
Quiet as a grave
Take a deep breath
My destiny is death!
And so it is done
I am the one
To murder the sun’
J: Is it satisfying to see others add extra layers to the narrative in place, and have you ever encountered a fan theory regarding your work that even you found a fascinating twist on the truth?
C: That thing with the titles was actually pretty annoying, having gone out of our way not to have titles.
—And to be honest, I haven't had more than a handful of detailed encounters about the narrative. I enjoy talking about the story and answering questions about it, but it doesn't happen so often. Once, was on a Reddit chat a few years ago, and it's probably still there if you use that website and search for it. At the time the album came out, I do remember being a bit disappointed, at least from the album reviewers and stuff, that there was so little engagement with the story.
But I realize we could have made it more inviting, not having the lyrics in the booklet was probably the wrong call and that's on me. I also remember that Profound Lore seemed very annoyed when I said no to a particular interview request, and I have wondered whether the promo effort for the album became a bit reduced after that.
Anyway, I don't mean to sound bitter. If we had presented the storyline aspect more fully, I think there would have been a lot more interest. I didn't make that extra effort at the time, but it's not too late.
J: The artwork that not only adorns this album, but ‘Nucleus’ as well, were both designed/crafted by Christina Casperson, which I personally believe makes them stand out in the catalogue.These are iconic images that aren't just uniquely tied to your sound, but stand on their own in the realm of visual arts.
How did their creation come about? Was there a concept for how the assassin appeared? And were their respective monochrome features of brown on gold, or yellow on white pre-planned — and did you have any hand in their artistic direction?
C: Yes, I had a lot of input. Christina was there on the studio couch while we were in the end stages of recording, sketching away. So she had a very dynamic connection as well.
As far as the colors, she drew with pen and ink on white paper and then scanned it like that. Then, Scott Hoffman used Photoshop to show us a bunch of color combinations, from which we picked our favorite. Same with Nucleus.
I agree, I thought those album covers were awesome that Christina did, and she's only gotten more skilled as an artist since then.
J: Speaking from experience, some of the most difficult to find merch in the game has been yours.
Finding a Dawnbringer shirt from both Nucleus, and Into the Lair... have proven exceedingly difficult, let alone finding the albums on vinyl. They are some of my prized collection pieces, but I'm curious if they will remain as rare as they are currently.
Would you ever consider a repress of ITLotSG, or another run of the album shirts? I bet they wouldn't stick around very long.
C: I'm just not that into shirts.
My business is music and lyrics and album design. Plus we have always taken a different path with our artwork and images. Dawnbringer doesn't even really have a logo.
But that obscures the main reason, which is that I don't care enough. I do appreciate the demand, and we will definitely get back to making shirts if we ever play live again. I think some vinyl in the meantime would be a good idea.
J: Behind the console was Sanford Parker, returning for a sophomore contribution after Nucleus. Was clarity the ultimate goal in the mix? And were there any albums used for reference that you potentially showed him as a target to aim for?
This Dawnbringer album definitely carved out a space for low-end on the sound spectrum in a way Nucleus had kicked off, and getting an even mix like ‘Into The Lair’ will make it last for years to come.
C: When we recorded Nucleus the console at Semaphore was overdue for servicing. It was pretty glitchy, to the point that the "solo" channel didn't work at all which was inconvenient. But there was other stuff malfunctioning too.
The whole thing sounded like it was caving in on itself. That was one of the last albums recorded at that studio by the way, and I believe that board ended up with the band Clutch, hopefully after getting a good tune-up.
So yeah there was some added sonic clarity inherent in recording at a different studio with gear that was being better maintained. At Engine Studios we ended up using the A room for the basic tracking, where they temporarily had a Sphere Eclipse C which I understand is a pretty rare vintage console.
Sanford was stoked about that, and yes there is definitely a clarity there which we all appreciated. We managed to get vocals for one song ("VII") on our last day in the A studio as well, but then the rest of the vocals and all of the guitar solos happened in the B room, using the Trident 80B, and we did the mix there too.
I can't remember whether I gave Sanford any specific direction or not. I believe that was our fifth album project together, within a relatively small number of years, so we had a pretty good working intuition by then. It may have been the last time we were actually in a recording studio together.
We've done a handful of projects since then, but by cloud-connecting our own home setups.
J: On the topic of lore, I like to believe that there's a duality to your two ballads, with ‘Cataract’ being a vicarious account, watching some figure drown in the dark of night.
I also like to believe that the bard/storyteller in ‘Nucleus’ is watching the story of the assassin play out in real-time during this song, and I also think the fact that both of your ballads ( ‘V’ ) are the fifth track on both albums... is more than just a coincidence.
I'm searching for more meaning in it — are there still mysteries to unravel in the lair of the Sun God that fans have yet to discover?
Chris: Sun God is full of easter eggs. The Samael one is the most commonly-noticed, and on the other hand there are probably some that I wouldn't remember or recognize myself ten years later.
The position of the ballads is not coincidental but rather incidental, within the larger truth that Nucleus was basically a prototype for Sun God.
The whole dynamic arc is very much the same between those two albums, the musicians, the instruments, even the album covers.
I had been intending to do a concept album with Nucleus, not just with the musical palindrome thing, but I had lyrical ambitions as well which did not pan out.
I was too fucked up, to be honest.
That was a tipping point actually, realizing that I had allowed my alcoholism to poison my creativity like that. I actually got sober a few weeks later, I think before the album even came out.
So that's a very personal thing, but from the inside I could say that Into the Lair of the Sun God is the sober version of Nucleus.
Not that it needs to be enjoyed that way.
From all of us here at Heaviest of Art, we'd like to thank Chris Black for humoring some lifelong fans with his knowledge and candor, and wish him a happy tenth birthday to one of the greatest albums of the last decade. Its lasting power, technical prowess, and mysterious origins are proof positive that Chris maintains an edge as one of the most well-referenced and disciplined composers of our time, and we can't wait to see what the future holds for him.
Readers who would like to show their support, should follow the light straight to Dawnbringer's bandcamp, where their entire discography waits in stunning audio fidelity for a modest price tag, for such a masterful catalogue.
HEAVY METAL IS THE LAW.