Interview: Dawnbringer’s Chris Black
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Chris Black’s numerous talents (multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, label owner, one-time lyricist for Nachtmystium) are well documented on Invisible Oranges. Nucleus, the previous release from his most heralded group, Dawnbringer, received a standing ovation from the underground in 2010, receiving top slots on end-of-year best of lists from Decibel all the way to this very blog. As Mr. Black makes mention in this interview, it seems the band has come in at the right place and the right time- its new album, Into the Lair of the Sun God, contains all the nuance of classic, NWOBHM-inspired, un-hyphenated metal that was to be found on the previous record, combined with the freshness that makes the material work in a present-day setting; combine that with an improved song-to-song cohesion and thoughtful album concept and one can see why this band continues to be spoken of in such high regard. Black’s willingness to not shy away from convention, as he makes clear in this interview, further strengthens the songwriting on the new album, making it altogether more full of conviction and worthy of the legacy it comes out of.
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Musically, what are the most notable changes from Nucleus to Into the Lair of the Sun God?
Not many, to be honest. To me, the albums are quite similar musically. The dynamic and rhythmic arc from the first to last song is almost identical. I remember viewing Nucleus as a prototype even while writing it. It was a proving ground for creative ideas and test run for a less DIY version of this band. If anything changed musically for the new album, I really let my Sabbath influences run wild, because it seemed to fit the majestic gloom of the story I was also creating. And I’m referring to ’80s Sabbath for the most part.
What aspects of ’80s Sabbath do you appreciate the most?
Everything about Headless Cross and Tyr. I’ve found that Bathory’s Hammerheart is an unending reservoir of inspiration as well (no pun intended).
When you write music for Dawnbringer, do you ever shy away from using particular elements, i.e. particular harmonies, melodies or chord progressions, that might be perceived by yourself or others as “typical” or “cliche” within the traditional style that Dawnbringer is associated with?
“Typical” and “cliché” are terms that relate to originality, and for me, originality is not important. I care only about quality. So if the progressions, melodies, and harmonies are familiar, or even unoriginal, that’s totally acceptable. I am not the only one making a creative career out of going from i to VI and back.
I’m thinking in particular of “V” . . . the chord progression is definitely well-known and lends itself to a great melody. Still, did it all you concern you to include a song on the album that could be labeled a power ballad?
Not at all. It was absolutely intentional, and I’m proud of the outcome. Especially since its prototype “Cataract” didn’t quite satisfy the itch.
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Dawnbringer – “V”
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What made you choose to title the songs in numerical order?
The only other option was to make it one long song. They are parts of a whole. A few of them had working titles at some point, for example the ballad was called “Hold On”, but once I realized there weren’t really any choruses in any of the songs, it seemed like it would be a burden to find titles that would stick. The record label was ok with doing it this way, so I didn’t bother trying.
Seeing as it has a concept, do you think the album is best listened to from beginning to end, instead of as individual songs?
Yes. And I want to add, the titles that appear in some ripped [off] versions of the album (“Perfect Water”, “My Destiny is Death”, etc.) are not correct. These are simply the final lines of the first song. That may have been someone’s honest mistake, as these lines are the only lines printed in the booklet, but it’s a mistake. We chose to print these lines as they foreshadow the ending and as such embody the story and atmosphere especially well.
I’ve found that Into the Lair of the Sun God is best enjoyed when attention is paid to the lyrics. Did you spend a fair amount of time working on them?
Writing the music and the lyrics was essentially a single process, going back and forth to re-synchronize everything. It started with the music, but I was developing the narrative at the same time, looking for ways that the music would advance the story and vice versa. For example, I knew how the story would begin and how it would end, and so I decided on the opening and closing tracks early on. The task was to connect those points musically and lyrically. For myself and for the other musicians to understand what was happening, once I had decided on the basic sequence of songs and events in the story, I wrote out the entire narrative in prose. I probably should have done this sooner, actually, because it gave me a great visual view of what was happening in the story. By that point, every moment in the story corresponded to a frame in an imaginary graphic novel, and in turn, to a section of a song. It was easy to tighten everything up once I had a step-by-step script. From there, the lyrics came relatively easily, as I was basically translating prose to verse for the most part, and there was very little left to decide about how things would fit together. But to answer your question, yes.
What’s your perspective on lyrics in heavy music? When you listen, do you normally pay attention to the lyrics? I assume that this new record and your work with Nachtmystium would indicate your interest, but I’m curious to hear your insight.
I pay attention to lyrics when understanding them is an option. While you can’t understate their importance, just like the importance of drums for example, it’s extremely rare that lyrics make or break an album by themselves. Same for drums. It’s all about fitting together in a whole, and the give and take between the different elements. Nachtmystium is an enticing challenge lyrically and it was an honor to be holding those reins when I was. Addicts is one of my best batches of lyrics and may always be. Although to the extent that those lyrics may have been a foundation or justification for the over-the-top drug imagery and slogans, however, I would regard them as a failure, because I was never comfortable with that. I was very happy to hear that Blake would not continue down that road. Except for “Blood Trance Fusion”, which is indeed about pills and needles and what have you, my lyrics on Addicts are about experiencing life in a state of emotional numbness. As in “iiiiiii… have become… emotionally numb”. And I can tell you that Blake’s lyrics for “Ruined Life Continuum” are about being numb to love. Anyway, sorry for the tangent. I think whether they’re good or not, lyrics are lost on most people. I have yet to answer the first substantive interview question about the lyrics on Into the Lair of the Sun God, but in that regard, it’s basically no different to any other album I’ve made. Same goes for album covers. But still I spend a “fair amount of time” on these details, to use your expression. I take great satisfaction in it. That’s the incentive, and that’s the reward. You’re off the hook.
What inspired you to change to sung, melodic vocals on the last couple of Dawnbringer releases?
I was finally good enough to do it. And by that I mean I was a good enough singer but also good enough at coming up with melodies to sing and then lyrics that would fit with that. I always wanted the vocals to be part of the music rather than just part of the sound, but it took a lot of work to get to that point. And there is infinitely more to learn, of course. It’s easy to get over-confident in this area.
What are your opinions on clean vocals in heavy music, and more specifically in extreme heavy music?
I don’t care what other people do. Generally speaking I am glad that melodic vocals are a bit more in style than 10 years ago. Maybe it will raise the bar for lyrics, but I doubt it.
Despite having a sound like that of ’70s/’80s metal bands of the NWOBHM era, Dawnbringer doesn’t really get classified as being a soundalike akin to any particular band or style. When you write, are you conscious of creating something original, even if it does exist within a particular well known framework? And in terms of the writing process, do you distance yourself from listening to your influences at all to ensure you don’t end up sounding like anyone in particular?
Again, I don’t care about originality. In fact, I’m often trying to recreate the sensation of a particular song or album with my own song. It’s the mixing and combining of influences that produces the appearance of originality, so if anything, the originality is in the process.
Have you found that your association with Profound Lore has helped in the reception of Dawnbringer by the metal underground, especially among fans who might not normally be as interested in hearing things like melodic vocals and guitar solos?
I think the response to Nucleus would indicate that people were very interested in hearing the vocals and solos when it came out. It was good timing. Perhaps people were burning out on dissonance and decibels. The label gave it a good kick, and it worked. Being on Profound Lore has of course been a huge boost for Dawnbringer. I would go so far as to call it a best-case scenario.
What’s your opinion on the overall world of heavy music these days – do you think people are more receptive to listening to bands of varied styles than was the case before? How about in terms of the scene in Chicago – are fans open to checking out different styles of heavy music?
Chicago is filled with closed-minded jerks who think everything sucks! Everyone here owns no more than three albums. On the South Side, most people only have one, and not for economic reasons. They are that fucking picky.
Is it strange to you to have the majority of your projects be primarily based around recording, with less emphasis on playing live? How has that affected the development of your music?
It’s not strange to me because that’s how I grew up. As a child, music was to me something that you experienced by radio, albums, or playing it yourself on an instrument. And that usually meant experiencing it alone, so again, that’s just normal to me. I played drums in a handful of bands during my teens and twenties, but never anything bigger than bar gigs. That wasn’t much experience to go on when I was learning to be a frontman. It’s still a long and awkward road! Playing live can be great, but I need to do it in small doses. I happily do the van/bar/couch thing for short stretches here and there. Even that kind of touring takes a lot of planning, but it’s very rewarding to hang out and visit with friends while also doing something creative and earning a little money. I try to do an average of 20-25 shows a year. To me that is enough to build on but not so much that I burn out and don’t want to do it anymore.
What do you and the bands you play in hope to do in 2013?
Same thing we did in 2012. Also, I want to get better at playing some instruments again. My drum chops were once pretty solid. And I have a really good idea for a book that I want to write, but it’s uniquely challenging at the same time, so it’s been hard getting started. It’s harder to prioritize but also harder to keep a modest pace now that the opportunities for making albums and tours are a bit easier to come by. Not that I’m complaining about that! But I’m at a point where I do more organizing, planning, communicating, and dealing with merchandise than I do actually writing and playing music, and again that’s not a bad thing in itself, but I need to stay mindful of that balance. That’s another reason I’m not out touring more, too, is that it’s just me. I have great label partners, yes, and a very talented and dedicated group of musicians who make it all happen, but there are no managers or agents hanging around. So, stringing together worthwhile shows is another thing I’m slowly learning, along with how to be a decent frontman and how to prioritize everything. So I guess I’ll change my answer: same thing we did in 2012, but a tiny bit smarter.
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Dawnbringer – “III”
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