You should be worried when a metal band stop listening to their Black Sabbath records in favour of The Beatles. Dawnwalker produced one of the finest progressive/post-metal albums of 2020 with their epic Ages LP, so it’s somewhat of a shock to hear them dampen expectations for Ages Part II in favour of a more solemn indie rock effort. For House of Sand, chief songwriter and singer, Mark Norgate, retains the services of Matteo Bianciotto of Novere (voice and guitar) and the ever-impressive Dane Cross of Sacred Son (voice) as one of four vocalists next to the soprano sorrows of Roisin O’Toole. It’s evident that Radiohead and The Verve were on Norgate’s playlist next to the finest US alternative rock of the early 1990s for the writing of album number four, but the results are as surprising as they are sumptuous.
One thing is clear on House of Sand: Norgate is a confident storyteller-musician. The aim on this record is to explore “a backdrop of idyllic suburbs and the darkness that may be lurking beneath.” This LP is a distinctive English affair, with the elocuted lyrics and vocal melodies rising to the surface like valuable relics in the Thames River. You’ll hear the anxious emotion of Richard Ashcroft in the pathos of Norgate’s voice on opener, ‘R.I.P.’ Semi-acoustic guitars communicate with each other in a tumult of heavy-gain strumming underneath the lament of his words. It could be 1998 all over again in the post-Brit pop era when the music of the UK turned darker and more experimental thanks to the rise of Radiohead, Placebo and Mansun. Yet this song ends in the agony of death metal shrieks when your body wants to continue with the foot-tapping. It’s soothing and sinister at the same time. Follow up, ‘Demon of Noontide’, continues in the same vein with strumming guitars plunged into a noisy overdrive but always controlled by the sensory voice of Norgate. His song writing credentials were high to begin with, but here he discovers the full register of his voice like a young Phil Collins stepping out from behind the drum kit of Genesis and into the full stadium spotlight of an unforeseen solo career.
Those used to the long-form prog metal epics of past albums will look on in horror at the shorter songs here. You’ll need to put your expectations to one side to embrace the subtle darkness of ‘False Doors’ and ‘Egypt’. This should not be a problem for people who accepted Anathema’s transition from a gothic-doom metal band into a prog rock collective. The former song thrives on a full-blooded chorus refrain of “Draw the curtains and lock all the doors/ The lights are on but nobody’s home,” as if paying homage to Echo & The Bunnymen. Yet it transforms from a simple passage of guitar arpeggios and tight drumbeats into a more expressive canvass of circular bass rhythms and atonal chord choices shrouded in gain. The delicacy of the male vocals on ‘Egypt’ recall Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys in their sorrowful beauty, yet the post-metal posturing at the end hides a layer of disembowelled screams in the background.
If there’s one thing that will grate during the forty-three minutes of House of Sand, it’s the default rhythms of the down-strumming guitars on just about every track. The dreamy chord strokes and Jarvis Cocker-esque vocals of the title track are proof of a Beatles influence on the song writing. But Dawnwalker are far better when tuned into a Radiohead domain, as on the sorrowful serenades of ‘Repeater’ and ‘House of Sand II’. We’re back in the era of ‘Karma Police’, but it’s still a relief when they start ‘Coming Forth by Day’ with a fuzzy doom metal intro and dramatic vocal harmonies to accent the end of each bar. Roisin O’Toole’s soprano lullabies lend sombre weight to the proceedings, just as her backing harmonies on ‘Standing Stones’ add a sparkle of Pure Reason Revolution to the violins and slow drumbeats.
A lyric booklet would be most welcome, but you can guess that the story of House of Sand is one of scandal and intrigue, of stiff-upper lip and stiff erections in search of unwelcome orifices. The possibility of violence saunters in the background like a Michael Haneke movie. Behind every respectable bourgeois house is a litany of sordid desires repressed underneath a smiling exterior. Maybe a simple indie prog-rock approach is the best way to encapsulate this instead of the band’s more aggressive post-metal DNA. It’s eventful and rarely dull and much more enjoyable than an awkward family meal on a Sunday afternoon in the English home counties.
Whether this represents a permanent change of sound for Dawnwalker remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt House of Sand is an intriguing piece of art that delights in taking risks.
Release Date: 19/08/2022
Record Label: Self Released
Standout tracks: R.I.P., False Doors, Coming Forth by Day
Suggested Further Listening: Radiohead – OK Computer (1997), Anathema – A Natural Disaster (2003), The Verve – A Northern Soul (1995)