Album review: Dawn Ray’d – To Know The Light
More fire from Northern blazing squad Dawn Ray’d on illuminating third album To Know The Light…
British black metal trio Dawn Ray’d have received both high praise and death threats for their anarchist beliefs. On their new album, To Know The Light, they rail against the things they see as keeping us down, just as much as they suggest liberating solutions. And as chaotic as everything looks, they refuse to back down…
The Stationhouse in Leeds used to be a police station. From the outside, it still looks like one, so much so that it’s not unknown for people to knock on the door asking to speak to the plod. As with so many old buildings that have been repurposed into recording facilities, some of the features cross over into the place’s new function rather well. In The Stationhouse’s case, a collection of small rooms became ready-made isolation booths, in which bands could put a guitar amp, or record vocals.
“Those rooms must have been old holding cells,” says Fabian Devlin. “It was a bit strange to be recording in a place like that, something that from our perspective is despicable, and for it to now be somewhere we can be creative and explore ideas about dismantling the police.”
One song Fabien and his band, Dawn Ray’d, laid down there was The Battle Of Sudden Flame, the opening track from the band’s forthcoming third album, To Know The Light. It tells the tale of a father reacting with fire after ‘The pigs savaged a child over nothing’, possibly, posit the lyrics, because ‘I think he was born on the wrong side of a divide’. It is unambiguous in its thoughts on the sort of business that used to go on at the place it was recorded, particularly when a declaration comes: ‘Fuck every copper that ever took a wage.’
Across the table in the London pub where Dawn Ray’d bandmates are talking to Kerrang!, the band’s singer and violinist Simon Barr smiles at all this.
“I think there’s a nice metaphor there.”
For those who’ve already caught on to Dawn Ray’d, this sort of thing won’t come as a surprise. Since they first emerged in 2015 with their A Thorn, A Blight EP, the Liverpool-based black metal trio – Simon, Fabian on guitar, and drummer Matthew Broadley – have become synonymous with music that deals in such matters, and a rising name in the UK metal underground. As they prepare to release To Know The Light, they do so as one of the most talked about bands in British extreme music, both for the quality of their music (excellent), and for the things they say.
They don’t like the police. They are antifascist. Capitalism is as destructive as any war. Voting, they think, ultimately doesn’t change much for the good, so they don’t partake in it (you can guess where they stand on the Royal Family). They believe in human rights on the most basic of levels, in community, in equality, in taking it upon yourself to work at making the world around you better for yourself and your neighbours. They are (and they say this more than once, or even five times during our conversation) proud anarchists.
“Anarchism comes from ‘anarcho’, which is Greek for ‘people without a leader’,” explains Simon when it’s put to him that for a majority of people the word simply means chaos. “It’s often misconstrued as being chaos, but if you look outside at what’s happening in the world, everything is in chaos anyway. Under capitalism the world is dying. It’s hard to imagine a world more chaotic than that. For me, anarchy means order and cooperation and organisation and a much more holistic way of living.”
“Everybody has the right to live their life in whatever way is right for them, as long as that doesn’t impact on anybody else,” adds Fabian. “And to expand ever so slightly, we should do our best to make sure that not only can we live the way we want to live, but we do our best to allow everybody else to live how they want to live, and that it should be a life full of joy and happiness and remove as much struggle as possible.”
For its incendiary opening, and the musical fury that runs through its more intense moments, To Know The Light is a record that deals as much with the personal as the political. That is, “not to get lost in slogans”, as Simon puts it, but to recognise that the end goal is a life worth living. For everyone.
“Over COVID we got into anarcho-nihilism,” says Simon. “It’s the idea that everything is absolutely fucked and there’s no saving us – the environment is fucked, everything is terrible, and the revolution might not be coming. But rather than just giving up, and giving in to misanthropy and despair, the way to cope with that realisation is to still resist anyway, but to resist for resistance’s sake, and to find dignity and joy. It’s finding and accepting what this world is, but choosing to carry on.”
In the week we speak to the band, the news is a sewer of financial scandals in the highest seats of power, sexual assault within the police force, an actual, sitting MP yelling in the House Of Commons that missing migrant children “shouldn’t have been here illegally” (something Fabian says only highlights “the cruelty” at the heart of mainstream politics), and politicians blaming exhausted hospital staff for going on strike over pay and conditions. What, you may wonder, isn't shit?
“It’s easy to get lost in despair,” agrees Fabian. “One of the themes on the record is about accepting that despair, leaning into it, passing through it, but not being paralysed by it. It’s about not letting that become your only reality, and recognising that it’s still worthwhile to kick back and to take some joy from that.
“And that’s what anarchism is, too.”
At first, Dawn Ray’d weren’t meant to be this political. The three had begun playing together in screamo outfit We Came Out Like Tigers, who did have a political stripe, often playing in punk squats run by political activists, with other similarly-minded bands. When that ended, they formed Dawn Ray’d (a name taken from a poem by 19th century anarchist writer Voltairine de Cleyre), and took on a new, black metal musical path, with Simon’s curiously effective violin atop it. What political content there was became more pronounced almost by necessity of clarity as to what they were.
“In mainland Europe, black metal was dangerous territory. We were still listed as screamo on posters; people wouldn’t put black metal on a flyer in a squat in Europe because of the connections to National Socialism,” says Simon. “So we just had to be clear from the start that, yes, we are a black metal band, but worry not, we are anarchists and antifascists – we still want to be part of this community.”
The politics had already been in them as individuals for a long time, though. Simon had got involved first by going to student anti-war demonstrations, and then going to DIY punk and hardcore gigs in Liverpool, where the music and the meanings were tightly interlinked. It was at one such show where he picked up a zine by anarcho collective CrimethInc, in which he found a lot of shared ground with what he already believed.
“It had a thing in it listing what anarchism is, and it said, ‘If you believe these things already, you are already an anarchist,’” he recalls. “That was an epiphany moment for me. I was young and I wanted to be involved in activism; I knew things were wrong, I wanted to make the world a better place. I’d already been involved in student protests and stuff, and I knew we all had this energy to want to make the world a better place. That CrimethInc zine just gave it a name.”
It was a similar thing for Fabian, albeit seeded in a more youthful rebellion.
“I skateboarded a lot when I was younger,” he grins. “That meant trespassing a lot, and getting chased a lot. That feeds into that idea that authority isn’t always necessarily right. Then I got into CrimethInc, and going to student demonstrations. I remember seeing an anarchist bloc, and thinking it was awesome. They weren’t trying to sell me a newspaper or convince me to join their weird group, they were just really nice, supportive, encouraging, and never wanted anything back. They were compassionate and thoughtful, and they were a bit more up for it than everyone else. I thought, ‘I’m sticking with them from now on.’”
For Matt – a man who asserts that, thanks to Black Sabbath, metal “started with being political” – his first exposure to activism came when he was a kid, as his parents were involved in union organising. “He didn’t have a chance,” laughs Simon.
“When I was younger I went to union rallies with my parents and would stand on the picket lines,” the drummer says, proudly. “My mum worked for the NHS for years and did UNISON stuff. We’d go to union meetings and things. That was kind of the start for me. And through playing squat gigs, that’s where I saw that the world could be different, and you were seeing these things in real life. You’d see it in places like Germany and Switzerland – these quite wealthy countries, but people are just kicking back against it, living their own lives entirely their own way, and also trying to make what’s around them better. I was like, ‘That’s class!’”
What ‘kicking back’ actually entails can mean all sorts: anything from damaging machinery used for ecologically terrible things, to running food banks, to organising against a boss taking the piss out of you, to simply making sure your neighbours are alright.
“There was some amazing work done in Liverpool during COVID,” offers Fabian by way of example. “The government had this awful policy where refugees, who were part of a thriving community, who contributed loads to the communities where we live but relied on state support because they weren’t allowed to work during COVID, were all moved miles out of the city and really isolated, for some ridiculous, vindictive reason.
“One of the best examples of anarchism was the response and recognising there’s an immediate need to maintain links – someone driving over and making sure people are okay, that people going through legal processes are able to access the support they need, realising how far they were from the shop and sorting out some bicycles. It was good people doing really practical and immediate organisation. You don’t need a committee, you don’t need loads of funds, you just need some people who are willing to say, ‘Okay, that’s rubbish, let’s address that.’ That’s the positive activism we can all do.”
Does that mean Rod Stewart is an anarchist for fixing those potholes on his road himself?
“Yes! That’s direct action!”
This is all very nice and positive, I like this.
“Smash a window as well!” laughs Simon.
But that’s all some people think what you believe is: you’re just joyriders and vandals…
“On that point: it’s all of that as well,” says Fabian. “If somebody recognises the power they possess as an individual through destruction, because they’ve been made to feel powerless and at the bottom for so long, that is a good way to recognise the power they have in the rest of their lives as well. Let’s be honest, if a window of a corporation gets broken, who cares? It doesn’t matter. But if that makes people realise how to practice things in a positive way, like organising in the workplace to stop their boss ripping them off, or helping their community, that’s awesome.”
“The people I’ve met who have done things like that are the same people running food banks,” adds Simon. “They are one and the same. There’s not 'good anarchists' and 'bad anarchists'. The people I know who’ve been involved in things which may have been illegal are also the people who do the compassionate stuff.”
Quite a few people would probably have a lot to say about your anti-police stance as well.
“I think it’s worth stating that we don’t mean reform, or reduce funding, change rule, we mean abolish the police,” says Fabian, doubling down. “And we would abolish them today and the world would be better for it.”
That’s a very strong statement. Doesn't that only last up to the point where a policeman stops you getting your head kicked in?
“I don’t think there’s many examples of the police actually doing that,” Fabian contests. “But there are examples of people in our communities looking out for each other.
"Where we’re sitting now, in this pub, if we see someone getting attacked, we would all do our best to save that person. It would be a dereliction of our own duties as people and members of our own community to not do anything. More often than not, you find people are looking after each other, and having the police there really complicates things rather than make it simpler.”
“When your house gets robbed, do the police ever solve that crime?” asks Simon. “Do you ever get your stuff back? Do prisons stop violent crime? Do they stop drug use? Do they punish the people who commit the most heinous crimes? No. Police exist to protect property and the rich. If you look at the way they treat victims of domestic and sexual abuse, or poor communities, or communities of colour, it’s very clear that the police don’t exist to dish out justice or help people.”
Dawn Ray’d are happy to discuss these questions and be held to account for the things they say and do, just as they invite people to disagree with them, so long as they listen first.
Example: a couple of years ago, they appeared on a festival bill with a band some deem to be politically iffy. Some fans questioned why they didn't drop off. To answer the question, Fabian says, “Cultural spaces are contested, and if we had stepped back from that neutral territory, we would have given it, culturally, to people who we oppose.”
Matt adds that, “If we’d dropped off, nobody would have noticed, but we had more impact because we played it.” If you’d have done it differently, they say, that's cool, but they themselves would make the same decision again tomorrow.
They’re also aware that people disagree with them. They know this because they’ve received death threats from a few of them.
“[They said] every awful thing you can be called,” begins Matt wearily. “People would actively be comment bombing us and stuff to dissuade people from liking us. They tried to make it seem like it would be dangerous for people who are trans, queer, people of colour, whatever, to be our fans. But they’ve stuck around.”
While on tour in America, they were told more than once that they were going to get shot, to the point where one show had "armed security". “That’s not nice to deal with,” says Matt, not unreasonably. “But then again, if you’re pissing off the right wing then you’re doing something right – they’re horrible people! They don’t want people to be alive – that’s just terrible!”
“You’re never going to appeal to their better nature. We may as well just lean into it and say this is who we are,” adds Fabian. “We got all the threats, but we didn’t stop, and the amount of bands coming out and identifying as explicitly anarchist and anti-racist just exploded really quickly. There’s amazing bands in that scene now.”
A thoughtful pause, then he laughs. "It’s shared the burden a bit as well!”
Ultimately, Dawn Ray’d want the world to be a better, nicer, fairer place. Talking to them, though some of the terminology may be more blunt, they’re not so different to Enter Shikari. Like them, there’s many messages in the music, the biggest one being of solidarity and community (ask Rou Reynolds about Shikari's Juggernauts, inspired by a community effort to stop the march of Tesco in their hometown), of realising that you and your neighbour stand in the same boat and are facing the same struggles. Because we all want to just be able to live a life without a boot stamping on our face. Anarchy is just the name they choose to do it under.
“You don’t have to call it anarchism,” agrees Simon. “It’s not an ideology. It’s not about spreading this dogma or being a cult, or a political party, or being scene police who have people kicked out of shows for wearing Burzum shirts – which we’ve never done, by the way, that’s not what we’re here to do. Just speak to your neighbours, be in your community, see what needs fixing and fix it yourself. You’d be surprised how easy that is to do.
“Every single strength you have is useful somewhere. You don’t have to be an anarchist, but this is the time to start fighting to make the world a better place. It’s time to stop asking for help and time to start doing it ourselves. Everyone is welcome in the revolution.”
As they rise to leave, Fabian sums it up.
“You don’t have to ask for permission to make things better.”
Dawn Ray'd new album To Know The Light is released March 24 via Prosthetic Records – pre-order and pre-save your copy now.
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