Led by enigmatic songwriter, Mark Norgate, Dawnwalker are unlike anything in modern metal. Their latest record ended up on several end-of-year lists for best albums of 2020 despite only seeing a release on 4 December. The hype is minimal, but they might just be Britain’s best kept secret until now.
How do you categorise an album where fifty percent of the songs breach the ten-minute mark and blister along in a cacophony of distorted guitars and beautiful melodious passages that even Opeth would be proud to call their own? The first real track, ‘The Wheel’, has all the hallmarks of a prog metal composition with its many different parts and effortless transitions. One moment Norgate’s soothing voice is inviting us into an intimate lullaby of dreamy chords, the next it’s going berserk with rage. It’s like the band spliced Anathema and Neurosis into one coherent experiment until the guitars and drums race into an unexpected two-minute detour of atmospheric black metal and come out at the other side in the calm of a post-rock contemplation. ‘I heard the scream of the earth’s tectonic plates,’ roars Norgate in the final stages of this remarkable song. It’s no exaggeration to say this track could continue for another ten minutes without growing stale, something Harakiri For The Sky could do well to study for future reference.
Artists with longform compositions are in danger of testing the listener’s patience, but Dawnwalker are students of the great prog albums of yesteryear. This means they sequence their epic rock with brief interludes in between, none of which are forgettable. The one-minute of ‘Hymm’ is a relaxing lament of delicate guitar chords and choral harmonies with gothic vibrations; ‘Numi’ is the sound of solemn tom drums and ghostly cellos. You’ll notice the post-metal vibe on ‘Ancient Sands’, which is more Kayo Dot than Katatonia in its approach. Toby Driver might be the nearest comparison we can grant to Norgate. His guitars avoid all traces of pentatonic blues and are of secondary importance to the emotive power of his voice. Rare will you find a simple power chord underneath the cauldron of distortion, yet the dynamics are often as heavy as extreme metal. The surprise tempo change at the two-minute point of ‘Ancient Sands’ will raise an eyebrow for the elasticity of the guitar work and the technical prowess of the drums as they follow every note through doom metal layers and bubbling palm-muted refrains. Devin Townsend’s Empath is another good reference point here, but there is still nothing quite like it.
How they manage to produce better songs as the album progresses is beyond comprehension. ‘Burning World’ is eleven minutes of unpredictable post-metal built on a chord progression that will remind you of the Alice In Chains intro to ‘Bleed the Freak’. We should also mention the contribution of Robin Melinda Koob, who adds a beautiful soprano voice to the proceedings and enhances the fragile emotions of Norgate’s musings. Again, we get everything from atmospheric black metal to a dark Phrygian melody that mutates into yet another piece of hyper aggressive noise via a doom metal riff.
Norgate’s incantations on ‘Colony / A Gathering’ are simply stunning. This is the most illuminous of the songs on Ages, full of warmth and colour, almost shoegaze in its execution. Listen with your eyes closed and this could be Jane’s Addiction or early Smashing Pumpkins at their most alluring. It makes the transition to a Svalbard-esque post-hardcore rage at the five-minute mark even more surprising, but not as surprising as the glorious flutes and clean guitars that reset the tempo in preparation for the grinding Tool progressions that see the song to its glorious zenith. Who doesn’t want a surging assault of drum heroics at the end? This is what a metal version of Pure Reason Revolution sounds like in its full supremacy.
This reviewer had Souls at Zero by Neurosis on his headphones before listening to this record for the first time. It set impossible standards, but Dawnwalker show they can match the Oakland legends on this effort. Buy this album!
Release Date: 04/12/2020
Record Label: Self Released
Standout tracks: The Wheel, Ancient Sands, Colony / A Gathering
Suggested Further Listening: Kayo Dot – Blasphemy (2019), Neurosis – Souls at Zero (1992), Pure Reason Revolution – Eupnea (2020)