Album Review: DAWN RAY'D The Unlawful Assembly
Much ado has been made about Dawn Ray'd's lyrical content, and for good reason: In a time when the metal music community sometimes seems to be shifting towards evermore hateful and ugly attitudes, the band's fierce criticisms of issues ranging from racism to economic inequality are wonderfully exciting.
This will piss off the NSBM crowd as much as it will delight the scene's more socially enlightened fans. The former group's loss is the latter's gain, because The Unlawful Assembly, Dawn Ray'd's debut record, also happens to be one of the strongest black metal albums of 2017.
While most Dawn Ray'd features tend to lead with a discussion of the band's unapologetic political messaging—and to be fair, I've just become guilty of the same thing—the sheer quality of Dawn Ray'd's actual music simply cannot be overstated. This is a deeply harrowing black metal journey that boasts some of the most incredibly emotive musicianship to come out of the genre in quite some time.
Such hyperbolic praise would normally warrant skepticism, but any doubts should be eradicated within the first minute of opener “Fire Sermon." Blisteringly savage shredding and unbelievably aggressive drumming tears the record open in jaw-dropping fashion, and the next few minutes of metallic raging are simply breathtaking. I’d be remiss not to emphasize the magnificent drumming here. Drumming isn’t often the first musical element that comes to mind when you think of black metal, but Matthew Broadley’s battering work on the kit here is nothing short of incredible.
Beyond that, just…Wow. It’s rare for a record to boast such fantastically manic passion that it almost defies traditional analysis, but that’s certainly the case with The Unlawful Assembly.
Adjectives like “savage” and “passionate” seem like such cliched descriptors. Top-shelf language used to describe so many bands that the weight such words once carried has all but disappeared. But they genuinely suit the staggering fury contained within The Unlawful Assembly’s 10 tracks. The music is a staggering torrent of rage, and I haven't even gotten to frontman Simon Barr's vocals yet.
Barr's wild howling drips with an acrid vitriol that belies his positive, uplifting lyrics. They mesh perfectly with the noisy instrumental chaos, never overpowering the guitars or drumming, but having a magnetic, captivating presence nonetheless.
All of this said, The Unlawful Assembly is not perfect. Far from it, actually. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
Yeah, there’s a fair amount of violin and the production is quite clean, but don’t mistake this for some sort of blackened Ne Obliviscaris knockoff. The calmer moments in the eight heavy tracks help provide give context to the blackened madness and offer just enough respite to prevent the louder portions from blending together or otherwise overwhelming the listener. The core musicianship screams “classic black metal gone modern” in the best possible way, and the results come remarkably close to the finest works out of the genre’s first and second waves.
This all sounds amazing, and it really is, on the first full listen of the record. And the second. And probably the tenth. The Unlawful Assembly is a frequently magnificent record, but it’s not without flaws.
As phenomenal as Barr’s shrieking and occasional growls are—and I’m not embellishing, they’re truly magnificent—his clean singing simply isn't on the same level. "A Litany to Cowards" and closer "A Thought, Ablaze" are almost completely bereft of metal elements and allow Dawn Ray’d an opportunity to flex their folksier traits. Their instrumentation and especially pointed lyrics are certainly enjoyable, but Barr doesn’t sound quite as confident with his cleans as he does during his dominating harsh vocal performances.
He’s still good, mind you. Especially by genre standards. But given the monumental instrumental and vocal performances in the album’s heavier songs, one can’t help but feel a touch let down.
A larger issue: The sheer emotional fury behind Dawn Ray'd's music surpasses that of a shocking number of their contemporaries, but I can't quite say the same about the band's songwriting. Once the staggering initial impact of The Unlawful Assembly wears off after a few listens, it's clear that this is very solid, albeit mostly standard, extreme metal songwriting fare. There's a reason I haven't gone more in-depth on individual tracks.
Of course, it's not like the songs demand some sort of wild technicality or deep nuances—this is black metal, after all—to excel, but it's an issue if you pretty much know how each track is going to go before you've even finished the first song. Remember that first minute of "Fire Sermon?" It's damn good. It also doesn't really stand out from anything else here.
To be clear, the songwriting is still fine and I would never describe even a moment of The Unlawful Assembly as boring or routine, but it's a shame that the band's songwriting chops don't match up to their monolithic musical talents. The musicianship is so good that this doesn't register until the record is nearing its end, or even until after a few full spins, but once it does, that initial spark of effusive excitement never truly returns.
Merely average songwriting is no small downside and would be a deal breaker for almost any other band, so it's a testament to Dawn Ray'd's said musical talents that The Unlawful Assembly is still so unbelievably likable. Dawn Ray’d possesses some of the most skilled musicians in today's black metal scene and with a bit tighter songwriting, clearly have the potential to release a modern classic. This band is absolutely one to follow, and you'd be foolish not to start now.
Nazi punks fuck off. For everyone else, this is practically required listening.