For those who grew up with classic heavy metal, including yours truly, the simple appeal of the sounds of the 1970s and early ’80s can trump any other newer form of metal. No matter how innovative and thrilling contemporary metal can be, when a band comes along and not only replicates traditional heavy metal but does so in a fashion that’s utterly convincing, it can instantly draw us back to our youth, when we were discovering just how exciting a form of music this is. Younger readers might scoff at such rosy-hued nostalgia, and we Gen X-ers certainly did the same when Baby Boomers spoke fondly of the 1960s, but as you grow older, you realize there’s something to be said for nostalgia. It reminds us of when metal was fun and catchy rather than miserable and dense; it reminds us why we got into metal in the first place. When bands from the 1980s do the unthinkable and return with strong, vital music 25 years later – just as Iron Maiden, Ratt, Accept, and Overkill all did this year – it’s incredibly gratifying for us oldsters, but when a younger, newer band takes hold of that traditional metal torch and runs like hell with it, the result can be just as pleasing, and in the odd rare case, even more so. It’s not so much the ability to pull off a galloping Iron Maiden riff; it’s when a newer band gets it and captures that intangible feeling that separates “authentic” from “retro” that is truly exciting to witness.
Chicago musician Chris Black is known to most in the metal community as a key collaborator in Nachtmystium, playing a vital supporting role behind leader Blake Judd (most recently he wrote all the lyrics and composed the intro to the band’s fourth album), but he’s also had numerous projects of his own, including Pharaoh, High Spirits, Superchrist, and Dawnbringer. It’s the latter band that’s yielded his strongest work, as Dawnbringer has sporadically churned out three albums between 1997 and 2006. Strong as 2006’s In Sickness and in Dreams is, though, and despite the fact that it’s come out on the reputable Canadian label Profound Lore, which always perks up critics’ and fans’ ears whenever they announce a new signing, nothing could have prepared listeners for what Nucleus has in store.
The record starts innocuously enough, “So Much For Sleep” kicking off with that tried and true Maiden gallop. Nothing new, we’ve heard countless young bands do the same for the last quarter century. But this overture creates layer upon layer of melodies and expressive solos to the point that it becomes clear this track is quickly approaching the level of such classic Iron Maiden instrumentals as “Transylvania” and “Genghis Khan”. At the 2:34 mark, however, the first of what will be many change-ups occurs, as the song skips from 1979 to 1983, Black’s crunching rhythm riff echoing Metallica’s seminal Kill ‘Em All. Atop an arrangement that puts retro-thrash bands to shame, Black howls his lyrics not in an atonal scream but through simple but effective singing, made all the more credible by the raspiness of his voice. Guitarists Bill Palko and Matt Johnsen provide solos that derive heavily from the Dave Murray school: clean, very melodic, never trying to cram in too many notes. The song bucks practically every metal trend today, and it comes off as a triumph.
The rest of Nucleus refuses to let up. The cannonading double-kicks and snare of “You Know Me” are reminiscent of early Manowar, Black’s “Six six six” utterance devoid of any irony whatsoever. “Swing Hard” does just as the title implies, its 6/8 beat and central riff giving the song a mighty swagger part UFO, part Bathory, before shifting into a gorgeous acoustic-driven bridge. And speaking of mellow parts, “Cataract” is sublime, another wonderfully spartan guitar solo leading the way, Black turning in his strongest vocal turn on the album. “Like an Earthquake” sounds like a Nachtmystium leftover; “All I See” is straight-up d-beat thrash, Black’s loose drumming more punk than metal, while the stately “Old Wizard” is a foray into classic Sabbath and Pentagram-inspired doom. The best of the lot just might be “The Devil”, which goes from a maniacal, Slayer-derived riff and tempo to twin guitar work similar to Mercyful Fate, to black metal blastbeats and tremolo-picked guitars, to a fabulous Southern rock solo: all without sounding the lest bit contrived.
Nobody captures the feel and tone of analog tape via digital recording as consistently well as Sanford Parker, and it’s not a surprise that he gives Nucleus the kind of old school metal sound the music deserves. What is surprising is just how well this record holds up over time. Retro sounds can be instinctively pleasing, but there’s usually no hiding the triteness of it all, and the newer bands, try as they might, never come close to equaling the originals. In Dawnbringer’s case, there’s a depth and richness to this album that’s extraordinary. It’s not just traditional heavy metal for the sake of pleasing the geezers out there; it’s a celebration of everything that makes this form of music so damned great, transcending generation gaps and uniting metal fans of all ages.