In the popular mind, the front man of a rock band—the one who sings and in many cases writes the songs—is greedy for attention, drawn to the spotlight like a moth in leather pants. In the world of underground metal, though, it's the opposite that's often true. Many bands never play live, sometimes because their "front men" are the only members—California's Xasthur, for instance, or Tasmania's Striborg.
Unlike those famously hermetic characters, Chicagoan Chris Black doesn't play black metal—the viciously fast, willfully hookless, and aggressively misanthropic subgenre that has evolved into a sort of incubator for metal's experimental tendencies. The music his band Dawnbringer makes is traditional and melodic—Black even uses the word "conservative." But he nonetheless has some things in common with the typical corpsepainted loner.
Black, 32, started Dawnbringer in 1995, and he's the only permanent member. The band has played just two live shows in its history, the most recent in 1998. For the brand-new album Nucleus, the first Dawnbringer release in four years, Black overdubbed bass, drums, synth, and vocals, like a one-man band that happened to be recording in the studio of Chicago producer Sanford Parker instead of in a basement. Four guitarists laid down the rest of the tracks—the main rhythmic and melodic riffs are by Scott Hoffman, the solos are by Bill Palko and Matt Johnsen, and the acoustic parts are by Scott Haskitt.
Dawnbringer has almost no Web presence—just a placeholder Facebook page with no music or photos—and no plans to throw a release party for Nucleus. The band's current label, the forward-looking Canadian imprint Profound Lore, tactfully refers to Black in press materials as "elusive."
But hard-core metal fans, like crate diggers in other genres, thrive on obscurity—the harder it is to learn about a great band, the more treasured the find. And Dawnbringer, despite never touring, has attracted some well-placed admirers. Brandon Stosuy, who lives in New York and blogs about metal for Stereogum, thinks fans of old-school metal would "worship" Dawnbringer if the band were better known. "Virtuosic traditionalists like Chris Black and Slough Feg's Mike Scalzi . . . are our contemporary Priests and Maidens," he says. And Cosmo Lee, who lives in LA and runs the respected metal blog Invisible Oranges, has written that Nucleus will be one of his top five albums of the year.
Black also plays in several newer bands, some of which likewise have critical reputations that exceed their fan bases. He's the bass-playing front man of Chicago trio Superchrist, which plays a couple shows in town each year and occasionally tours, and he drums for Pharaoh, a critics' darling based in his previous home of Philadelphia. Last year he released a solo album under the name High Spirits; the project has since evolved into a live band.
The best-known group Black's had a hand in is certainly Nachtmystium, though he's never appeared onstage with them. His contributions have all been behind the scenes: over the years he's recorded bass parts, guitar solos, keyboards, and vocals, and for the past couple albums he's been writing lyrics. Black met Nachtmystium founder Blake Judd in 2003, when Judd was looking for help recording the 2004 album Demise, and he describes his role in the band as being "the guy in the background kind of saying, 'We need more guitar solos. We need to make this song more aggressive. This song needs to rock.'" Judd, he says, is "the one who's like, 'We should try this keyboard loop here, or we should try a saxophone solo.'"
Black also runs a label, Planet Metal, with a roster that includes Kommandant, Wastelander, and Zuul; he says it's paying for itself. Because he's in so many bands—and because he gets paid for his work in Nachtmystium—he's able to get by without a straight job, though he admits it's a huge help that his wife is making decent money as a librarian. "I explain it sometimes in terms of having a lot of part-time jobs," he says. "I don't have a day job where I have a boss."
Black has a mile-wide independent streak, so he was careful about the content of his contract with Profound Lore. "I've always been on the paranoid side," he says, "as far as record contracts and rights being sold or portioned out. I've always erred on the side of caution. Rather than take a payout now, I'd rather own my album in ten years. If you want to play by your own rules you need a lot of patience."
Black traces much of the sound of Nucleus to what he calls a "boom of underground metal in Europe in the 1990s." He's not shy about his love for New Wave of British Heavy Metal acts like Iron Maiden, whose soaring, strongly melodic songs used clean vocals, articulate and frequently blues-based guitar parts, and driving but not inhospitably fast tempos. Around the time he started Dawnbringer, groups like Edge of Sanity, In the Woods . . . , and especially Katatonia were building on that style, and to Black (and many others) their efforts pointed up a slump in the American scene, then dominated by death metal and widely reviled subgenres like nu-metal and groove metal. "A lot of the melody went away," he says. "It got really dumbed down. It went from being kind of this heroic thing to just being all about 'respect' and whatever fuckin' Phil Anselmo said."
Though the pistonlike rhythm to "You Know Me" pounds along in 7/8 and "Like an Earthquake" spends the first two of its five minutes as a doomy, atmospheric dirge, most of the songs on Nucleus stick close to a formula that was well established by the early 80s—passages of pummeling high-tempo riffage, cascading double guitar solos, and the type of ascending power-chord breakdowns that beg to be called "epic." The main differences between a cut like "The Devil" and a classic Maiden track are the grittiness of the guitar tones and Black's decidedly unoperatic voice.
The no-frills old-school sound of Nucleus is a bit surprising, given that Parker has lately been dosing his best-known production jobs—albums by the likes of Pelican, Twilight, and Nachtmystium—with analog synths and psychedelic flourishes. "A lot of the bands that he works with," says Black, "are bands that sound best when everything is saturated and really taking up the whole canvas. I think sonically this record is really in keeping with it. It's raw, and everything's really pushing, but 'everything' is pretty much a drum set, two rhythm guitars, a bass, and a vocal." Parker's trademark synths appear on four of the nine tracks on Nucleus, but you'd only really notice them on one.
Black is encouraged by some of the prerelease reviews the album has gotten, and won't rule out the possibility of Dawnbringer shows in 2011. But he's got plenty of irons in the fire even if that doesn't happen. He's wrapping up the mix on a live Superchrist record that's due in the spring, around the same time as the next Pharaoh album. Early next year Planet Metal will release a 90s home recording by the Swedish epic-metal group Quicksand Dream, which provoked a flurry of attention when they posted it to MySpace last year. Superchrist has an east-coast tour in the works, and the High Spirits band may hit the road again too. On top of all that, Black is about to get a full-time job: he and his wife are expecting their first kid in a couple of weeks.