My heart is warmed by artists who categorize themselves into really weird, specific, or wholly unique genres. Not only is it a plus to know immediately that the band doesn’t find themselves represented by conventional labels, but it also adds a healthy dose of mystery and intrigue. Take for example 2016’s exclusive “dream thrash” release, Air. The impression of the tag alone set a distinct tone for Astronoid’s release, and directed listeners’ approach to listening and conversation surrounding the record. Coining this term may have been a powerful PR move, but the dream thrash pioneers had the record to back it up. Much in the same way, UK-based Dawnwalker are budding with Human Ruins, their latest release catalogued as “soft green metal.”
The softness of their sound is wholly embraced and at the forefront. Opener “Pagan Plains” quickly drifts in with glimmering guitars that suggest the sprawl of post-metal record – and that’s not entirely untrue. It ultimately gives way to some delightful adventure metal and simply marches onward from there. Human Ruins puts emphasis on the ethereal and illuminating, the cinematic and epic, and in doing so reveal a vast landscape abundant with sunswept valleys, peaks, bluffs, and meadows. Vibrant, airy vignettes regularly peek through the hour-plus runtime, with tracks like “Golden Light” and “Waldgeist” holding things on an overwhelmingly bright keel. Across the album, uplifting folk metal regularly brushes shoulders with prog and even post-hardcore while blackened tremolos and shrieks are massaged in with an uncanny levity. For me, the “[color] metal” descriptor planted the seed that there’d be some sort of black metal influence. There is, often in the form of an abbreviated version of nature-oriented BM like Falls of Rauros or Fen, but “green” also checks the boxes for the earthiness in the unblackened aspects of their sound: rich, warm, and vivacious. It all verifies their bright and sunny moniker, including the moments where the light gets harsh. So rest easy, they haven’t betrayed us with this genre tag.
Guitarist Mark Norgate’s vocal delivery is often solemn and measured, elevated with downy vocal harmonies. His cleans add a beautiful patina over most of the record, yet his burning-alive screams up the ante over the course of the record. Working this stylistic split to its fullest, early tracks like “New Morning” and “The Clearing” are a completely different beast than the latter half’s blistering “White Winds” or the post-black “Between Worlds.” The connective tissue between these worlds – the territory between the black and the light – is where Dawnwalker really make it happen. With expert sequencing, the album slowly reveals itself over its thirteen chapters. Their sound isn’t easily distilled into one or two representative tracks (largely in part because each song is distinct and succinct), but it does force us as listeners to familiarize ourselves with each delicious ripple in their “soft green metal” flavor profile. At a time where it seems like everyone tries to do everything all at once in one song, I find Human Ruins to be refreshingly balanced, giving everything a time and a place, at exactly the right time and place.
The rhythm section of Alastair Mitchell (drums) and Dane Cross (bass) prove adept enough to sell the band at each pace. Whether it’s working a fucking stomp (“Horus”), quenching some post-rock thirst (“Fallow”), or navigating sprawling moments (“Into the Night”), there’s a level of restraint and confidence that’s brimming in each track. They aren’t in the business of overwhelming, burdening, or complicating things. In fact, Human Ruins is a downright easy listen. Most of the tracks fall between three to six minutes and feature friendly, nurturing hooks that just get better with time (the stop-and-go of “Abyss” has been stuck in my head for days now). At the same time, they’ve condensed things to avoid what’s often the major gripe with genres that favor a slower-developing songwriting: long-winded, exhaustingly huge songs. But because of this, the moments they do indulge in more patient development (like the fantastic “Branches”) really, really shine. Much like their self-glossing neighbors across the pond, they’ve demonstrated the rare action of pulling together niche subgenres into what’s essentially a palatable 101 course, but with enough meat on the bone for those who regularly imbibe the longform. By way of stellar songcraft, and more importantly albumcraft, Dawnwalker crafted something truly special.