I came across Dawnwatcher while trolling the unsounded depths of The Metal Archives, twelve tabs deep and decades in the past as part of my research for (yet another) article on metal history. Dawnwatcher had one measly review to their name — an impressively poor 7% attributed to one of their 1979 demos. Naturally, I had to hear what kind of beautiful disaster a 7 out of 100 score sounds like. But instead of an off-key, talent-starved embarrassment, I heard a band experienced in the language of 70’s progressive rock, lashing out awesome rhythms, wailing keyboards, and ferocious solos.
Turning to a random spot in Dawnwatcher’s discography, it’s easy to dismiss them as a bunch of prog hippies who never accepted the musical turn of 1980. (If you’re particularly spiteful, you might give them — oh, say, 7 out of 100). But a more open-minded listen reveals a talented band bridging the gap between prog and NWOBHM in a crucial moment in the history of heavy music. That’s rad.
Dawnwatcher never released a full-length album, but a lovely YouTuber took the time to compile their many demos into a single clip. The compilation launches with the siren-screaming keyboards of “Hall of Mirrors”. The in-your-face-electronics demand the ear, but a few more seconds of listening unearth a complex but mercilessly upbeat rhythmic jaunt similar to Yes’s “Roundabout”. This will be a theme throughout Dawnwatcher’s scant catalogue. Even during slower sections, the drums are always doing something interesting: wicked fills, frenzied rolls, funky rhythms. With the drums and bass stuck on the same 70’s acid-trip groove, the rest of the band is free to experiment with the more metallic aspects of the 80’s.
Dawnwatcher has a pleasantly complete sound. The inclusion of keyboards and electronic sounds on their releases is by no means revolutionary, but it’s certainly odd to see it woven DNA-deep. They’re as crucial to Dawnwatcher as the eastern sunrise. They add atmosphere and dimension to the music without sounding gimmicky. But for all the praise that can (rightfully) be heaped upon Dawnwatcher for their keyboards and tight rhythm section, their most remarkable moments come when everybody decides to turn things up to 11. The sunny grooviness of their music belies the shredding intensity of the solos in songs like “Hall of Mirrors” (3:10), “Attitudes” (11:25 for exciting doom riffs, 13:09 for shreds). No socks will be blown off of today’s metal fans in terms of technicality, bludgeoned by brutal technical death metal as we are, but that doesn’t mean Craig Richardson couldn’t lay down some tasty licks.
“Firing on all Eight” isn’t lip service — one of the fastest, most jubilantly energetic songs of the bunch; Dawnwatcher really is firing on all eight (cylinders? strings? balls?). The lead, bass, and drums dominate, alternately dissolving and merging into one another as they push the song relentlessly forward. I could go on, giving you the blow-by-blow of the perfectly executed ending to “Salvador’s Dream”. Another absurd solo in “Backlash”. But sometimes it feels moot, and even a bit melancholic when I try to bring these rusty old bands one last brief moment in the light. Time might be a flat circle, but Dawnwatcher’s revolution has long since turned, gone once and forever.
It’s a shame Dawnwatcher was never able to release a full-length. An absolute shame. They had talent coming out the wazoo, a sound that was in high demand (a demand that would only increase as the NWOBHM bubble grew and grew into the mid 80’s), and style to separate themselves from the rest. But an album never surfaced, and all that’s left is minutes in YouTube’s back catalogue and a 7% on Metal Archives.