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My first exposure to ‘Professor’ Chris Black’s musical output was Nucleus, his 2010 release as Dawnbringer. Though it’s not his debut record with the band, for me it will always be the starting point of his sound, regardless of whatever else I listen to. It’s one of the only albums for which I harbor undue nostalgia, partly because it’s the only Dawnbringer album that I liked on first listen. Its follow-up, 2012’s conceptual rock opera Into the Lair of the Sun God left me cold at the start, though over time I grew to enjoy it. I saw that album’s cohesive, fluid structure as a tool to make it stand apart from Black’s other projects, especially his singles-driven pop-metal output as High Spirits. Nucleus, which was originally indented to be a palindrome album, had a few seamless song transitions, and Into the Lair of the Sun God had even more. If asked six months ago what I predict a new Dawnbringer album would be like, I might have said something like Lesbian’s Forestelevision, a single, hour long song.

The professor stumped me again; Night of the Hammer is the most choppy, song-oriented Dawnbringer album yet. Its austere, photographic album cover (the past two featured illustrations) is a visual signal that this is a new version of the band. While it hasn’t stumped me straight away like its predecessor has, the varied nature of its tracklist still leaves a lot to unpack.

The most obvious change Black has made to the Dawnbringer sound is rooting it firmly in doom. Listeners with a taste for Trouble and Saint Vitus will find plenty to enjoy on Night of the Hammer—rock-and-thrash beats take a back seat to thunderous 4/4 plodding. Hell, “Hands of Death” offers another interpolation of the ubiquitous drum-and-bass break in Black Sabbath’s “Heaven and Hell.” The guitars are warm and dry, the bass is round and present, and Black is singing in a higher register than before. I know that Black no longer drinks, and when we spoke earlier this year he wasn’t smoking, so it’s reasonable to think that his lifestyle is now letting him push his voice further. He doesn’t sound quite as comfortable in the high notes, and augments himself with a few overdubs to fill the sound in. Dawnbringer was always more about songs than vocal performance, and the songs are there.

On the other hand, Black reaches for heretofore buried influences in the course of the record. It’s probably the most varied Dawnbringer album. “Xiphias,” blends folk influences as well as Thin Lizzy-style riffs into the mix. “Not Your Night” is a straight-up black metal track, with the only harsh vocals on the album. Directly afterward, “Funeral Child” hops on the currently en-vogue King Diamond worship, complete with strained falsetto stings—it works about as well as Darkthrone’s “Leave No Cross Unturned,” so if that particular style of retro-metal homebrew is in your purview (it most definitely is mine) then I strongly recommend you listen to Night of the Hammer.

Night of the Hammer is dark. I’ve always thought of Dawnbringer as the shot of liquor and High Spirits as the chaser. If that’s the case this is a stiff drink. Songs like “Alien,” and “Nobody There” reinforce the theme of loneliness that’s always been present in Dawnbringer (note how every record has a solitary figure on the cover). These songs are the ballads of misanthropic pariahs, which fits with the slower, creepier vibe Black is riding. By the time the album hits “Damn You,” I start to feel a little worry about Black’s emotional state. In this way, it’s a challenging, but rewarding listen. Every spin endears me further to Night of the Hammer.

—Joseph Schafer

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