[31 July 2012]
Any fan who came of age during metal’s heyday in the ‘80s will fondly remember a simpler time, when bands wrote ambitious and adventurous tunes ridden with catchy barbs. In the contemporary metal world, Gordian knots of sub-genres, or über-extreme or wildly progressive ventures frequently obscure traditional pursuits. However, the work of bands like Dawnbringer highlight why traditional metal will never fade away. The band’s latest release, Into the Lair of the Sun God, is the perfect example of why the classic metal sound continues to resonate with fans around the globe.
Chris Black is the multi-instrumentalist and prolific artist who founded Dawnbringer in 1996. He operates under various banners, and his work with bands Superchrist and High Sprits is resoundingly applauded, but his traditional metal projects, Pharaoh and Dawnbringer, are those spoken of with the most passion. Both acts celebrate a time when heavy metal was free from ironic winks, both unashamedly rejoicing in the glory years of metal without drifting into the realm of pastiche or tired homage.
In 2010, Dawnbringer released Nucleus, its debut album for label Profound Lore. This brought the band a new level of recognition, and while Nucleus was completely vintage, it exhibited the finest elements of the traditional aesthetic at work, adding something novel to metal’s canon. The album’s street metal hue was a rousing reminder of carefree days, and Dawnbringer delivered its material with such sincere enthusiasm that Nucleus ended up on many “best of” lists at year’s end.
For Dawnbringer’s fifth full-length, Black has taken his love of New Wave of British Heavy Metal (and its US Power Metal cousin) and crafted the holiest of metal grails – the concept album. Into the Lair of the Sun God weaves bombastic metal around a fantastical account of a warrior executing the sun. Noted metal producer Sanford Parker is involved, as he was on Nucleus, and that same level of crispness returns. However, where Nucleus was a thoroughly enjoyable bricolage of Black’s influences, on the new album he has embraced a sound (and scope) he can claim as his own. Adding a splash of gravitas to Into the Lair of the Sun God, the album’s tracks are numbered with Roman numerals I to IX. All are stacked with hurtling power-chords, thunderous percussion, dazzling solos and Black’s ragged, husky vocals. This makes for nine songs that flow together to create a wonderfully complete compositional arc.
“I” begins with the crash of waves against the shore and a juicy bass riff, and is followed-up by rousing twin-axe harmonics. “II” burns on a base of propulsive proto-thrash, while “III” is replete with grunty melodies backed by a powerful martial drumbeat. It’s all wholly triumphant, and the storyline and musical temper are perfectly aligned. However, when power ballad “V” turns up, things take a turn into the truly sublime. The ballad has a frequently uncomfortable history in metal, with bands habitually and haphazardly throwing one onto albums in the hope of securing that elusive hit. Of course, there’s none of that Top 40 baiting malarkey with Dawnbringer (the band is markedly underground) and “V” obviously exists as an example of Black’s love for the emotive sweep of the power ballad. It’s fittingly melodramatic and beautifully paced, with heart-swelling solos and earnestly delivered lines – it has “classic” written all over it. Back in the day, crowds would have roared and lighters would have been held aloft at its very first note; these days, “V” will no doubt end up as grainy cell phone footage. But that takes nothing away from its magisterial might, and it sets up the Uriah Heep-esque organ romp of “VI” even more effectively. The rest of the album follows in an equally extraordinary fashion – “VII” to “IX” are all fuelled by the same impressive dexterity and framed by momentous melodies.
Great traditional metal has always balanced grandiosity with hubris. When it works well, it reminds us why metal is so enthralling. When it all goes wrong, it impales itself on its cringe-worthy extravagance. There’s no arguing that Into the Lair of the Sun God is a grandiose venture, yet there’s nothing overwrought or pompous about it. Black’s songwriting keeps things contained and restrained, his measured sense of arrangement ensuring the album moves inexorably forward with eloquent ease to the final flame-out of “IX”.
Into the Lair of the Sun God is fist-pumping, chest-beating, head-banging fun; you’d have to be terminally jaded not to get caught up in its exuberance. By relying on the simple rewards to be found in righteous, irreproachable metal, Into the Lair of the Sun God represents everything that is glorious, vital and welcoming in traditional heavy metal. It also happens to be one of the best metal albums you’ll likely hear in 2012.