Sunday 23 November 2014

Shades of Black: An Interview with Dawnbringer

(c) Jim Newberry

Towards the end of September, I had the pleasure of writing a review for the latest Dawnbringer album, ‘Night of the Hammer’. Having had even more time with the album since that review was published; it’s an album that hasn’t worn out its welcome and it remains in my top 5 albums of the year. While the album itself is ultra-satisfying, getting the opportunity to bother Chris Black with some follow up questions in an attempt to better understand one of my favorite albums of 2014 was indeed a privilege. My list was brief, but his responses are brimming with helpful insight into the album. Most of you reading this already know that “Professor” Black is as loaded with insight as they come. He was kind enough to satiate my curiosity as well as offer up news that he might not be ready slow down or take a break just yet.

Sludgelord: I’d like to start by asking about one of the changes from ‘Into the Lair of the Sun God’ that struck me immediately. Your vocals aren’t as raspy as they were on that album and the emphasis now seems to be on a cleaner, more powerful delivery coupled with a lot of harmonies. What led you to change up your singing style? Do you look to anyone for inspiration vocally?

Chris Black:  Not specifically, but it’s true that I did spend a lot of time strengthening my voice during 2013.  I gained a lot of confidence and let go of a bit of the “character singing” I’ve done in the past.  The downside was that once I had gotten more comfortable in my natural voice, the more raspy delivery didn’t feel so natural anymore.  Earlier this year, I made fully-formed demo versions of all of the songs that would appear on ‘Night of the Hammer’.  This process allowed me to really focus on the tone of the vocals and some different recording techniques such as double-tracking and the harmonies you mentioned.  I’ve been singing harmonies for quite a while now, but you could say I’ve gone rather over-the-top on some of these tracks.

SL: “One-Eyed Sister” is a very interesting song in that after the first fifty seconds or so, it’s essentially the same central riff for over three minutes until the song ends. Through smart use of vocals, guitar leads and layering it never feels repetitive. Was that something you had in mind while writing/recording the song, or did the song just feel more natural revolving around that one main riff?

CB:  The muso term for this is Ostinato, when there’s this repeating phrase or pattern
underneath a more dynamic exterior.  Depending on the changes that are introduced on top of the Ostinato pattern, there is potential for great tension and release, or perhaps some very rich harmonies.  I’ve done a lot with this technique in the past (“What Are You Running From” in particular) but in the case of “One-Eyed Sister” I don’t think there was the specific intention to do so.  That song truly “wrote itself” as they once in a while do.  I am very glad to hear you enjoyed it.

SL: Concerning the recording of the album: did you go in wanting to achieve a specific sound or was it something that you just let unfold while recording? Are there any albums that you specifically look to as the ideal in terms of production?

CB:  It’s always something of a discovery when we arrive at the studio and bring the album out of the imaginary realm.  I have something in mind, of course, but it’s vague.  I’m more concerned with the notes, the rhythms, things being organized.  I feel sometimes that I should assert my opinion a bit more, but I also don’t intend to micromanage the engineering aspect of things, so it’s something of a balance.  It can be a problem of vocabulary as well, since not everyone would use the same terms to describe a guitar sound.  I’m quite limited in this area and tend to defer to the guitar players and/or engineer.  I don’t know about any ideals, because an album’s production has to suit the music, and vice versa.  Candlemass’s ‘From the 13th Sun’ and Ulver’s ‘Nattens Madrigal’ both great to me, but it would be a bit strange to hear them reversed, sound-wise.

SL: The previous two full length albums featured highly-detailed and beautiful artwork to accompany them. ‘Night of the Hammer’ features a wide-shot black and white photo, which is a pretty stark contrast. How does the photograph tie into the overall direction of ‘Night of the Hammer’ when compared with Christina Casperson’s artwork for ‘Nucleus’ and ‘Into the Lair of the Sun God’?

CB:  We have our own subtle patterns and cycles, but we also don’t want to become repetitive. I felt that ‘…Sun God’ was not enough of a progression from ‘Nucleus’; that while it was an improvement, it covered much of the same musical ground.  So along with the motivation to explore some new things musically, it would be necessary to take the visual imagery in a new direction as well.  ‘Into the Lair of the Sun God’ turned out to be a difficult album to follow, partly because I kept finding myself in the same old places on the guitar, without really improving on what we’d already done in 2012.  So I had to search for some new environments.  The album cover relates to this as well, because perhaps I am still viewing this album from a distance.

SL: “Not Your Night” and “Funeral Child” take the album in some pretty different places (The former being much faster than the rest of the album and the latter bringing King Diamond to mind, vocally). How do they fit into the album as a whole? How important is it to you to try out new or different elements like these?

CB:  It’s very important, as you’ve probably gathered.  Around 2009 or 2010, I discovered that taking risks could really pay off.  Lyrically at first, then vocally, and now musically as well.  I need to try something brave on each album, even if it fails.  I don’t know that these particular songs would be great examples of that, but perhaps.  We surely have a lot of high-speed stuff in our early catalog, and there was a bit of King Diamond falsetto on the songs “11:58” and “Midnight” from ‘In Sickness and In Dreams’.  So the precedent was there, although listeners who know us from ‘Nucleus’ to the present might find them a bit startling!  In any case, it definitely seemed prudent to balance out the gloomy and melodic stuff and build the tension in the second half of the album. 

SL. The melody in the opening section of “Xiphias” has a kind of triumphant or even joyful emotional tone that you don’t run across all that often in metal outside of say Slough Feg, some power metal and maybe a handful of others. Do you think metal as a genre has matured to a point where the general audience is a bit more accepting of happier musical themes? Should that be a bigger part of what heavy metal offers the listener as a genre?

CB:  Yeah, the verses of that one are in a major key, which is unusual for sure.  What can I say? Sure, there’s space for that kind of thing within heavy metal.  What about the song “Prodigal Son” by Iron Maiden?  Or “Devils” by Motörhead?  Those songs are utterly unique within their catalogs.  I’m not making any direct comparisons to “Xiphias”, but I think certainly in the context of an album such as ‘Night of the Hammer’, the change in tone shouldn’t be hard to accept.  Anyone who is turned off by the folk elements would have already bailed by that point anyway!  And that’s fine with me.  Nothing will ever be unanimous.

SL: You also just put out the High Spirits full length ‘You Are Here’ about 6 months ago. Between High Spirits and Dawnbringer; in the past 4 years you’ve put out 5 full lengths, a couple of EPs, plus you’ve contributed to Pharaoh, Aktor, Superchrist and so on. How have you been able to put out that much quality music in such a short window of time? How much longer can you keep up this pace? Surely you’ll need to come up for air at some point.

CB:  Yeah, I will need a break soon.  I think by summer of 2015 I may have reached something of a stopping point, creatively speaking, but who knows.  There are a number of factors contributing to my current pace.  Right now, I have both the motivation and the opportunity to make music on a full-time basis.  Maybe later I will still have the opportunity but lose the motivation.  Or more likely, I might always have the motivation but not always have the opportunity.  So I’d be foolish not to “seize the day”.  My workload has never involved much touring.  I do maybe 25-30 shows a year, and that’s enough for me.  So that leaves a lot of time for writing and recording.  I have a very reliable and talented crew of musician friends, great label relationships, and also a growing means for doing a lot of my own releasing and distribution.  The whole Dawnbringer catalog before ‘Nucleus’ is out of print, for example, and we’re working to change that in the near term, along with a big surprise coming in early 2015.  If I told you what it was, you might not believe me.  But let’s just say if nothing else, people will discover that ‘Night of the Hammer’ isn’t the first time we’ve reached into the unknown and sensed its fearsome gravity.  So yeah, lots happening!

SL: Thank you so much for your time!

CB:  It was a nice change of pace to actually answer specific questions about the music I make, so likewise thank you very much for that opportunity.  I can’t tell you how refreshing that is in an age when so many are simply re-compiling internet clutter.  Cheers!

Intro & Interview by: Daniel Jackson