Dawnbringer are nothing if not ambitious motherfuckers. The band’s last album, 2010’s awesome Nucleus, was originally conceived to be a musical palindrome, and although that ultimately didn’t come to fruition, you have to applaud them for even thinking of something so innovative. The idea of a concept album might be considerably less original, but the thing about concept albums is that most of them are fucking awful; for every one Abigail or Welcome to My Nightmare, there are probably twenty Music from the Elders. It takes courage, vision and above all talent to wade balls deep into the treacherous waters of the concept album and live to tell the tale, and Dawnbringer have proven themselves to possess those qualities and then some with Into the Lair of the Sun God.
On the surface, Into the Lair of the Sun God appears to be about a man’s mission to slay the titular deity. But as one digs deeper into the lyrics, more facets to the story become apparent, revealing the tale of a man undone by his own arrogance and desire for glory. As our story opens with track one, we find our narrator vainly asking “Where is the glory / who sings my name / like heroes before me / proclaimed,” only to have the sun taunt him: “You’re just a simple man / And that’s all that you’ll be / Your courage is foolish / Forget those dreams of fame / No triumphs await you so just / Find a new way.” Is this really the sun god harassing him from some lofty perch amongst the heavens, or the narrator’s own self-doubt and feelings of inferiority coming to the surface? The final tracks are telling; when the narrator finally confronts the sun god with blade in hand, he is told that he is “Strong on the surface / But hollow inside / You won’t be a hero / It was not meant to be.” The narrator brazenly attacks anyway, only to realize he has been looking in the mirror for the entire journey: “As I sink to my destiny / Filled with water and grief / So damn deep was my vanity / That the sun god was me.”
Is Into the Lair of the Sun God the epic fantasy tale it appears to be, or is it a veiled commentary on modern man’s desire to attain fame and fortune at all costs, often damning himself in the process? Perhaps it’s both, or neither. The beauty of an album such as this is that every listener will interpret the story differently, as filtered through the prism of their own experiences and worldview. Some may ignore the concept all together, choosing to zero in on the stellar song-craft and headbang-inducing riffage, which just goes to show that Into the Lair of the Sun God is one of those rare recordings that is the complete package sonically, lyrically and conceptually.
Musically, the album is another exercise in traditional heavy metal stylings ala Nucleus, but the songwriting is even sharper here; it’s polished, yet still retains the gnarly rough edges that made the early work of bands like Iron Maiden and Diamond Head so vital and vibrant. There’s even a hint of Deep Purple lurking in the keyboard-work that pops up on “VI,” and while the album as a whole has a classic feel, it never degenerates into retro-rubbish. You see, Dawnbringer are students of history, but they aren’t doomed to repeat it; they’re taking those lessons from the masters and applying them in service of their own unique vision, a vision that even includes a power ballad, and a damn fine one at that.
As you might have already guessed, the guitar-work throughout Into the Lair of the Sun God is top-notch, with longtime Dawnbringer guitarists Bill Palko and Scott Hoffman, plus Pharoah axe-slinger Matt Johnsen bringing a slew of stellar riffage and stratospheric leads to the table while band mastermind Chris Black holds down the bass, drums and vocals. Speaking of vocals, Black’s singing has improved drastically here; he’ll never be able to wail like Halford or Dickinson, but what he lacks in range he makes up for with pure passion, and his unpolished belting fits the gritty aura of the music perfectly. It also doesn’t hurt that his phrasing and enunciation are such that every word can be understood, which is pretty essential for a concept album that doesn’t include printed lyrics.
Surpassing an album like Nucleus is no easy task, especially when one piles on the additional stresses of crafting a concept album that doesn’t completely suck. It only takes a few listens to Into the Lair of the Sun God to realize that Dawnbringer are up to the considerable challenge, crafting what might be their most focused and tuneful work to date. Ambitious motherfuckers indeed.