“The personal is political.” It’s this maxim that haunted my mind while reading reviews and takes which try to downplay Dawn Ray’d’s political stances, shifting their focus to “just the music” and away from the ideology that gives birth to it. A common fault of mainstream outlets, the playing-it-safe attitude becomes especially problematic when confronted with the explicit agenda of this Liverpool-based black metal trio. To dismiss their overarching anti-fascist, anti-racist, and anarchist stance means to rob the band of their own raison d’être and their music of a significant emotional charge. To take all that away from The Unlawful Assembly, the band’s full-length début, means purposely misunderstanding the palpable anger, urgency, and desire to act that it carries. In this case, context is everything and music is not just music.
Dawn Ray’d’s black metal is dense and aggressive, often almost too brutal and hasty in its delivery, as if crumbling under the pressure of channeling the musicians’ revolt at the systemic inequality and oppression. Yet, at the same time, Dawn Ray’d deliver an incredibly melodic and tuneful sound. The trio take the foundation of well-performed raw traditional black metal and enrich it with a sense of folk earnestness exposed through poignant yet not the least kitschy violin parts. The violin’s canorous song is victoriously defiant when contrasted with the buzz and rumble of the metallic chaos behind it. From the first, passionate and aptly named cut “Fire Sermon,” through the epic “Strike Again the Hammer Sings” to the fervent tremolos of the closing “A Thought, Ablaze,” this contrast dominates the tunes and survives shifts from manic melodies to menacing sonic attacks. In many ways, The Unlawful Assembly builds on and extends the themes encountered on the band’s accomplished 2015 EP A Thorn, A Blight, but it also gilds their black metal with filthy crust influences, as if their fiery thoughts and rage were in need of an even harsher medium.
But unlike Iskra, another black metal band with similar sensitivities and flourishes of crust, Dawn Ray’d’s music offers moments of solemnity and glorious hymnic parts embellished by folksy violin licks that evoke anthems such as “The Red Flag” and “Bella ciao.” As any good album, The Unlawful Assembly is perfect despite its imperfections, of which there are a few. For example, Simon Barr’s clean vocals might sound rough and flawed at times, but are all the more genuine and vigorous for it. Similarly, when dissecting the songwriting, repeating motifs and passages are fairly easy to identify, yet they also make the album into a cohesive whole with the ten songs flowing seamlessly into one another.
While, in the band’s own words, The Unlawful Assembly is primarily a “call to arms” with “battle hymns for the coming class war,” it’s also one of 2017’s finest black metal albums. In a year that’s seen the rise of reactionary movements across the world and a resurgence of NSBM bands, Dawn Ray’d is indeed a ray of hope.
Tracks to check out: “Fire Sermon,” “Emptiness Beneath The Great Emptiness,” “Strike Again The Hammer Sings”