After 20 years, Dawnbringer is coming to an end. Maybe. "Professor" Chris Black, the prolific vocalist/bassist/drummer/keyboardist/songwriter for the Midwestern heavy metal institution, likes to play things close to the battle vest, and longtime rhythm guitarist Scott Hoffman's not offering any definite answers, either. Still, it's a real shame if their new EP on Ektro, XX, truly does mark the end of the line. For a group so indebted to traditional heavy metal artists like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden (and similar to their throwback peers Slough Feg and Hammers of Misfortune) on the surface, they brought a unique sense of melancholy to their otherwise-triumphant riffage, leaving heshers confused as to whether they should raise their fists, or hang their heads.
XX is no exception. Beginning with the repeated refrain of "Time / Time was never on my side," it explores funereal themes that could be about either corporeal death or the death of a long-running project. Even in its relatively short run time, it encapsulates a lot of what made the band so great—their melodic sensibilities and sense of doom, the catchy choruses and haunting riffs. Despite ample critical acclaim, Dawnbringer never achieved the sort of success it deserved—but at least XX itself makes for a fitting end.
On the flip side, Black has another pet project, one that seems to be achieving the kind of popularity that eluded Dawnbringer. High Spirits, his energetic hard rock band, has been playing festivals around the world (including the recent Frost and Fire II Festival), and just released their third album, Motivator, on High Roller. More outwardly fun than its gloomy sister act, High Spirits crank out anthemic, upbeat songs with positive messages (although, as Black notes in the interview below, there's more going on underneath).
So, even if this is the end of the road for Dawnbringer, the highway ahead seems wide open for High Spirits – not to mention an unknown number of other solo projects. We talked to the Professor himself and had him do a quick review of the curriculum for us. In the meantime, you can bum yourself out with our stream of XX.
Noisey: What does the Dawnbringer project mean to you?
Chris Black: Dawnbringer is the pilgrim, the grandfather to all of my other bands and projects. It embodies all of my formative ideals.
You seem to like to take a fairly enigmatic approach to talking about the band. Is there a reason for that?
Dawnbringer is its own abundant world, with its own symbolism, patterns, allusions, and so forth. I don't want to take away the listener's right to discover and enjoy these things for him or herself. On the other hand, a more casual listener might not have that kind of curiosity, and maybe some of the appeal is lost. I'm not sure how to reconcile that, and interviews tend to force the issue without solving it. For example, it's disappointing that no interviewer has ever asked me a single question about the plot of Into the Lair of the Sun God, but at the same time, I would probably be reluctant to discuss it in any great detail.
Accordingly, your statements about XX have been ambiguous, but it's clearly some heavy stuff, emotionally. Can you tell us a little about what inspired it?
Late last year, I became obsessed with the W.A.S.P. album Golgotha. It's a brave, brilliant album from one of my absolute favorite heavy metal singer-songwriters, but it also struck me as the end of the road: Blackie Lawless, over and out. I have no idea if this interpretation is correct, but the clues are there: straight-faced nostalgia ("Last Runaway"), tying up of loose ends ("Miss You"), and a truly shocking finale ("Golgotha"). Whether or not my reading was correct, I realized that I had a similar opportunity in front of me. The time had come to settle Dawnbringer's creative debts. These were mainly some unfinished ends of Night of the Hammer and a couple of homage pieces that I had talked about for many years but never followed through. Once I came up with the title and latched onto the funeral concept, I knew there was no turning back. As far as the lyrics, well, inspiration is rarely a problem when the subject is death.
Whether or not it's the final release, what do you feel is its place in the Dawnbringer discography?
At the end, not meeting god, everyone else walking back to their cars.
Looking back over the 20 years of the band, are you happy with the body of work?
With the entirety, with that single body of work, I certainly am. When it comes to the different songs, performances, productions within, I guess it's hit and miss.
"Dawnbringer was always more about the hunger than the satisfaction."
Do you find it more satisfying to work in a band environment like Dawnbringer or more of a solo recording/touring band set up like High Spirits?
That's hard to say, because the writing process is exactly the same, and it's a lot of the same people. But I will say, Dawnbringer was always more about the hunger than the satisfaction. High Spirits, on the other hand, has turned out to be quite popular, which is satisfying indeed. But the time was right for High Spirits. The time was never right for Dawnbringer.
What itch does High Spirits scratch that Dawnbringer doesn't?
High Spirits is my gift to the world. Dawnbringer is my gift to myself.
Do you feel like XX is the darker flip side to the positivity of Motivator?
That makes sense, and there's definitely some cross-contamination. Not just the mood but the chord progressions, production techniques, and such. The melancholy aspect of High Spirits is easy to overlook, especially on Motivator, but it's there. Same goes for the playfulness of Dawnbringer.
Right now, where do you feel your future as a musician lies?
That is a welcome question, because after 20 years in the wilderness, the future seems uniquely clear to me at the moment. Between High Spirits tours next year, I'll be recording an unknown number of solo albums and projects for release in 2018. Actually we already test-fired a solo act on stage last month. The band was just called Professor Black, and the setlist was a mix of Dawnbringer, Superchrist, and my other projects. I was nervous as hell, but it went quite alright. I'm also the bass player in a Motörhead cover band. What could go wrong?
Jeff Treppel is flying high on Twitter.