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Doing the Right Thing: Dawn Ray’d Discusses “The Unlawful Assembly”

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As long as you’re angry about something, metal has a place for you and Dawn Ray’d have plenty to be angry about. Their debut full length The Unlawful Assembly is a rabble rousing polemic aimed directly at the ruling class. The UK-based black metal act are loud and proud about their anarchist stance, and use their lyrics to spit venom at fascists and capitalists while encouraging listeners to take action in their own life.

Considering that, to this day, racism and fascism still manage to creep into black metal, Dawn Ray’d’s approach to the genre is an invigorating change of pace. Their violin-heavy sound, reminiscent of similarly folk-inspired bands like Agalloch and Wolves in the Throne Room, combined with their unwavering hope in humanity’s ability to do the right thing, makes them one of the most exciting rising acts in the genre.

We went through The Unlawful Assembly track-by-track with the band to break down the philosophy behind the record. You can follow along by listening to the album digitally, or you can pick up a copy on November 24th via Prosthetic.

“Fire Sermon” feels like a very hopeful way to the start the record, as it describes a revolution in full swing. Why did you decide to start the album with this call to action?

I think the two options you have when starting a record are either build it up slowly with a lot of atmosphere, or go hard from the first second. You have to convince people of what the record is about; grab and keep people’s attention, and I wanted the lyrics to contribute to this as well. There is a line by Wolves in the Throne Room; “the wheel begins to turn anew,” I read that line and loved it, it instantly sparks your imagination, you imagine what it could mean or symbolise, you can apply it to your own life, or the world around you. I wanted to write a similar line, an timeless imaginative metaphor, that could also describe modern issues. Political issues can be very dry and literal sometimes, so I wanted to find ways of describing various struggles in more poetic or imaginative terms.

Also, we have to believe that the change is possible, or we may as well give up.

“The Abyssal Plain” seems to be about finding a balance between hope for the future and an understanding of how dire the present is. Do you think that optimism can lead to inaction?

That song is all about trying to understand what drives us to fight for change. Optimism can be misplaced and therefore disempowering; optimism that one capitalist political party will be better than another is a misplaced and disempowering optimism, however too much pessimism about our situation can lead to nihilism and despair.

We also have to have hope and believe that things will get better. I believe we are capable of so much more, that another world is possible, and I have to believe that it will happen. If you don’t, all is lost.

Speaking of inaction, “Future Perfect Conditional” vents frustration at someone who talks a big game about being down with the cause but doesn’t act on those beliefs. Do you come across a fair amount of those types in music scene?

There are always people who enjoy the confrontational nature of anarchism, and the reputation of being anti-fascist, or being into animal liberation or a number of struggles, but don’t make any sacrifices or effort to further those causes. That can be frustrating for sure. Also, punk and crust has to be more than just music, it isn’t just an aesthetic.

The song was about lots of different types of apathy, we can all see things are wrong, what are we going to do about it? If not you then who?

“Emptiness Beneath The Great Emptiness” is a more traditional black metal song in that it takes its aim at religious belief. How does your rejection of God align with your political views?

Quite well, would be the short answer. The Catholic Church has historically always supported fascism, they supported Franco, Mussolini, helped Nazi war criminals escape at the end of World War II, they have always set themselves up as enemies of ordinary working people. Combine that with the awful levels of systemic pedophilia that is constantly covered up but the Vatican, it becomes hard to imagine a more disgusting organisation. Evangelical Christianity also constantly looks to divide people, they use faux religious concerns to try and rally people under a common hatred, hatred of women’s rights, of Islam, of the queer community, they are just cheap tricks to scapegoat people. Religious authority is just another oppressive form of authority, and anarchism has always opposed the church, many churches were burned during the Spanish civil war in the collectively organised anarchist areas.

A few far right types have asked why I have singled out Christianity over other religions, and my answer is always: it’s not my place to criticise other communities, when the religion I grew up in and am still connected to is still such a problem.

“A Litany Of Cowards” and “A Thought, Ablaze” add a nice symmetry to The Unlawful Assembly. Why did you decide to include these more restrained songs?

We had elements of folk on our first EP and wanted to explore this side further. It felt like an opportunity to say things in a more somber, calm way. I enjoyed writing the more empowering, blood pumping songs, but it also felt like a good opportunity to explain the cowardice of fascism in a very real and human way, “You chose the weakest to shoulder all the blame.”

I’m struck by these line from “The Ceaseless Arbitrary Choice”: “Let’s force the outcome/let’s trust ourselves completely/and know that cruelty is not the prerequisite for kindness.” This is a remarkably different and refreshing view of humanity compared to most black metal. Where does your belief in people’s ability to do the right thing if given the chance come from?

That is a core tenant of anarchism. There are always exceptions to the rule, but the vast majority of people are trying to live their lives in the best way possible. People will always help others in times of emergency, people are appalled at abuse or the suffering of others, I genuinely believe if given the chance, most people are good. Capitalism however often forces people to suspend that empathy because they are financially obliged to do so. No one wants to see a family evicted for being too poor, but people will do that because their own financial stability relies on the pay check from the bailiff company. No one wants to see someone’s electricity cut off for not paying the bill, or their car repossessed, or people go to jail for very minor crimes, but the state forces us to enforce those things, because if we don’t get paid it will be us next.

Also, the great abuses that are coming to light in the annals of power, come from just that, unjust authority and control over others.

The coda of “Held In Lunar Synthesis” is lead by the violin, which is a big part of the band’s sound. Is this instrument simply an aesthetic choice or does it have significance to the band’s worldview as well?

Honestly, it’s just something I’ve played my whole life, and black metal as a genre is predisposed to more theatrical sounds and line ups. It felt right and natural to add it in, plus that is a big tradition in folk music as well, so it wasn’t actually something we thought about too hard. I wish I had a more profound answer, but honestly, it was quite a simple addition to the songs, and we felt it added the right atmosphere.

“Strike Again The Hammer Sings” explicitly mentions the communal power of music. Do you attempt to foster that same communal spirit in your live performances, and if so, how?

Hmm, good question. We don’t really look for a huge amount of audience interaction, we always say a few things before our last song, as I like there to be some human elements to the set, and break the ice a bit. We don’t go for the whole mysterious/aloof thing, but apart from that we just play the songs one after the other with no breaks.

There is often some element of humour to the interactions we have with the crowd, that comes from both sides I think, as I really try and stay away from looking too pretentious or arrogant, I like that as a band and as individuals we are very down to earth, I think that’s important. And I always like chatting to people after we play, we have heard a lot of different accounts of what our music means to people which is always great, someone even read some of my lyrics at his friend’s wedding ceremony which was really moving to hear!

Musically, “Island Of The Cannibal Horses” feels like the climax, and lyrically it depicts revolution in more active language than “Fire Sermon.” Was that shift intentional?

We wrote it knowing it was the final heavy song on the record, so it had to be a fitting last song for sure. I write all the lyrics separately though, I write them on my own, then match them up to the songs the other two write based on the emotions or themes of each one. I didn’t write this song knowing that it would be the penultimate song, but I am pleased with how it fits in that place for sure!

I do end up editing or changing the lyrics to fit, I will reorder them or change the wording slightly to fit the rhythm or mood, so the placing of the song will definitely affect the writing of it.

The first verse of “A Thought, Ablaze” seems to me like it’s describing a very particular nihilistic subculture common on the internet, but that feels like a reductive interpretation. What was aim of this song, and why did you decide to end the record with this particular message?

To be honest, that first verse was aimed at the far right and the scapegoating they use, which is very prominent online. I wanted convey how much this can take from you. When you see those subcultures up close they are very ugly and depressing, it is very sad, angry, disempowered people that have chosen to attack those below them rather than actually look at where there problems come from. Everyone knows that our failing economies and struggling healthcare systems are caused by the intentional mismanagement of the rich and powerful, not refugees from war zones. It is not migrants that outsourced all our industry to foreign countries with lax labour laws, you can’t blame working class people from a different continent that moved here to support their families for the destruction of the welfare state. That’s ridiculous, dishonest and cowardly. But it’s also easy, it’s easy to blame a small defenceless section of society over which you have some power, than try and tackle the faceless powers of corporations and the state. Focusing on these struggles is horrid, and can be quite draining, as is fighting to save the environment, protecting animals, opposing draconian labour laws, or trying to provide women with reproductive healthcare. All these struggles take a little piece of you each time, but I feel that as long as we are alive, we will continue to fight for what’s right.

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