It’s impossible to talk about life anymore without Covid creeping into the conversation. It’s affected all of us around the world in countless ways, and the metal world has not been immune to it. Live shows are not happening at all and may not for quite some time. Many bands are on hold, but for some with access to studios and nothing but time- there’s been a creative boom, which means more metal music for our hungry ears. Today, we’re talking to NYC’s own Dawnbreaker, who has a new album Vanquished Horrible Night that points to God as the only hope for a world gone mad.
Chris Gatto: The black metal scene has become famous for its one man bands. If I call it like I see it, their output is often like the old Clint Eastwood movie The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Fortunately for us Dawnbreaker is beyond good, it’s a masterfully crafted slab of molten metal. Why does being a one man band work best for you? And does it come with a “Doesn’t play well with others” shirt?
Cullen Toner: That’s certainly an accurate assessment of one band bands, and I’m very grateful that you count Dawnbreaker amongst the not terrible!
There are many reasons why going the solo route became, for me, not only most practical but also increasingly beneficial. For one, I’m better able to catch inspiration and ideas as they come – I can work around the clock, at obscenely early or late hours that would be impossible to string along other people into. NYC life is incredibly consuming and frantic, so committing to a “this our practice/studio time each week” would be tough to swing and, possibly hindering to creativity. Furthermore, I often work on different albums at the same time, or catch inspiration to work on one for awhile only to table it to take some of the things I learned in the process and work on another. Finally, the ability to get all the instruments in a perfect grid, a perfect tempo, to which midi can be swapped in and out – that’s given me so much room to do last minute revisions, swap stuff in and out, and do a lot of other cool stuff that I think really benefits the music.
Historically, I’m ashamed to say I’ve had a whole wardrobe of “doesn’t play well with others” and that played into why I originally attempted to do all of the instruments myself. In band situations, I was incredibly married to my artistic visions which often led me to behaving selfishly, aggressively, and all around unfavorably. I repent of these ways as I am remorseful in regards to this, and it hindered my career in many occasions – I would have been much more well known and successful if I had done a better job compromising and being patient. But that said, I’ve also worked incredibly well with some others at times, I’ve had great chemistry with musicians of all calibers from all works of life, and this has been a great asset to the work I’ve done in Dawnbreaker.
So far Dawnbreaker has been solely a studio band, and that has allowed you to release an album a year since your inception. Do you plan to keep it that way, or will you venture out to do shows at some point?
I get this question a lot, and it’s funny because I seem to answer it differently depending on the day I get asked, haha! I think I’m overall conflicted – on one hand, I’m amazingly comfortable as a studio artist. I can make my own hours, control release schedules, and make last minute switches to what goes out next. The album-a-year thing is a blessing and really gives me hope that I’ll be able to do everything I hope to with Dawnbreaker before its “too late.” I used to hate waiting around at shows – I generally don’t enjoy metal shows and always have this feeling of dread, this feeling of “I don’t belong here” although that might be different if I did a “Christian Metal show.” But I think such a thing is incredibly rare especially in the US, haha!
On the other hand, I always think about what a cool Dawnbreaker set would look like. I literally have a bunch of text documents on my PC “Live set with keyboards” “Live set as a 3-piece” “Live set vocals no guitar” with different songs arranged, haha! And sometimes a friend reaches out saying “hey we watched your gig at St. Vitus with Revenge and Krieg, you really nailed it” and I think “gosh, would God want me keeping that in a box?” Some of the Christian metal festivals – Audiofeed in Chicago, Nordic Fest in Noraway – if offered, I would do those in a heartbeat. But lucky for me, I’ll have another year to avoid figuring this out, as I think the lockdowns are going to wipe out the live shows for another year or so.
All 3 Dawnbreaker releases: Deus Vult, Total Depravity, and Vanquished Horrible Night have varied in style somewhat, while staying within the fabric of extreme metal music, with the latest much more symphonic than the first two. Was there a conscious decision to vary styles, or is your own performance progressing?
In my young days as a fan, I’ve learned that there are two types of bands – some do the same style every time, with no new elements ever introduced, and some change their sound dramatically with every album, exploring new sounds while retaining their core personality – bands like Metallica or Death. And as a fan, I’ve always favored the latter group, and as musician always sought to be in that group. So from the get go, I knew I wanted Dawnbreaker to be one of those bands as well.
My goal as a guitarist – since for many years, I was “just” a guitarist – was to be the BEST black metal guitarist in the USA. I wanted to learn every style, every technique, from every album I loved and every micro genre. For my early years, whenever I would learn a new style, I would say “OK I’m gonna start a war metal project” “I’m gonna start a black & roll project” which led to a lot of incomplete or short demos lost in obscurity. But eventually, I started meshing everything together and I would try to do albums that have all kinds of micro genres combined. However this didn’t get a great response in many cases, and I realized that listeners of this age would prefer to have an album be in a single style. So this is where my strategy of “a different album in every style” first originated.
But furthermore when I started Dawnbreaker, I decided “OK, it’s going to be a reboot. My whole career until now, it’s ret-conned (retroactively discontinued), I have all the music I ever recorded, plus all the stuff I wrote and never recorded.” So I wrote down all the songs I had written or recorded, and made recent revisions, and moved them around to form new and original albums in totally different sequences. Sometimes I changed the nature of a song completely with layers or massive revisions. So with Dawnbreaker, I’ve got 20 years of riffs and songs, in many styles, and I hope to do a new style with each album, and do a plethora of styles before I call it a day. Only by completing this ambitious work, will I feel complete as a metal musician, and that Dawnbreaker reached completion as a metal band.
The first 2 albums are packed theologically, but for Vanquished Horrible Night you chose a concept album with this as the prologue:
A plague of darkness has devastated the Earth.
The Vicar of Christ summons the three Light Warriors to wage Holy spiritual warfare against the great evil.
The Witch Hunter, The Crusader, and The Exorcist set out to vanquish the darkness from the Earth.
The Witch Hunter, a former occultist, recovers the DAWNBREAKER, the legendary Sword of Evil’s Bane.
He travels to the evil’s keep to confront the wicked forces in their own domain…
After reading and listening, I conclude that this concept album will be a trilogy, with this being Witch Hunter’s story? Is that right? Do you see yourself in any of these 3 angelic warriors?
You are correct – God Willing, there will be a “Light Workers Trilogy” with album featuring the story of one of these characters as well as motifs introduced on Vanquished Horrible Night. However, it’s likely not going to be directly sequential and may not be awhile before I pick up this story arch again. There’s other sounds I want to explore before coming back to the symphonic style. But I do think it will be cool to have this series, it’s own “canon within a canon,” as a means of rewarding the more passionate long time fans of the band. But I hope I’ll have the time to do all of this, because I truly don’t know the time or the hour that I will be harvested.
All of these characters were based on my own journey as a Christian. On Vanquished Horrible Night, we learn the story of the Witchhunter – a former occultist elected by Christ to do spiritual warfare against evil. This is my own story – many years in new age and other wicked beliefs, messing around in all kinds of spiritual nonsense, only to be won to Jesus Christ by his everlasting grace and mercy. Around the time I was working on this album I was doing “The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius” – a type of Christian mysticism tied to the word of God and under the guidance of a spiritual director. I thought it would be cool to do a story about a “mystic” type character, although (the good and proper) real life mysticism is much different than what we see in video games and novels.
But I still attempted to ensure that all of the lyrics were tied closely to the word of God. Nearly every song with vocals has a direct biblical quote, and there are almost 30 carefully numbered references to scripture. There are many controversial theological themes explored here ranging from the presence of Christ in the Eucharist to the veneration of the Virgin Mary. I continue to test all things, holding fast to what is true.
There’s so much that can be unpacked with this album. No one will miss the plague of darkness ripped right out of 2020’s headlines, the plague of Covid and all its aftermath, as well as the spiritual blindness that has descended upon our world. Living in New York City, how were this year’s events made real to you?
I am grateful that you found the deeps of this album worth exploring! I labored intensely to make Vanquished Horrible Night enjoyable on surface listens but rich in detail to make multiple listens a worthy listen and worthy exploration of its further depths.
It is true that the “Plague Hunters” were indeed inspired by life in the COIVD era. NYC entered the most intense lockdown in the US – a lot of crazy information was going on, such as the virus stays on surfaces. I remember asking my wife (a research scientist whom I’m proud to say has been cracking away at a vaccine in the labs of a top NY hospital) “how is it NOT possible to have gotten this as a New Yorker?” It was haunting to see the great city of legend in days where her gates have been made desolate, and literally mirror the writings of Lamentations – I once a took a trip to Times Square, when it was completely barren – all of the digital advertisements glowed to empty streets. Restaurants were boarded up, the stock markets were closed, and the theatres were buried. It was a humbling reminder of God’s imperial providence, he who sits high above all idols and Earthly powers with the might to silence them all in one swift of his bow!
The spiritual blindness was most frightening – many lined up to bow down to idols in the high places, including many pastors. Many of them locked the doors of their churches while gathering in thick crowds with those in another religion, one that openly seeks to destroy Christianity and all of its values. May consumed the Holy Eucharist, and the most precious blood, while withholding it from their people – a frightening mirror of Daniel’s vision of “the daily sacrifice being taken away!” I had a vision one evening of Christ holding scales – though I’m not sure if this was meant for me personally, as my heart was likely found wanting in those frustrating days of riots and violent hatred. Please pray for me readers, that my heart be found favorable when weighed – that I am successful in loving others as my lord Jesus Christ loves me! Please forgive me for the hateful thoughts and emotions that I daily fight to expel from my heart in these most trying of times!
Love the symbology. There was an Australian Christian metal band called Force 3 in the late 80’s with an album Warriors of Light that comes to mind here. Equating Dawnbreaker as the sword of evil’s bane. May we assume that this is no mere talisman, but the sword is the Word of God itself, from the armor of God analogy in Ephesians 6:11?
Those Aussies really dominated the scene in the 80’s, huh? Hahaha. Love Australian Christian brothers. Yes, it is allegorically the sword of the spirit, and the sword of the word, as seen in Ephesians and Revelation. But it’s also influenced by the Arthurian “sword of destiny” mythology that we see in a lot of popular fantasy tales. These include “The Sword and the Stone” which perhaps had a great influence on me in my youth, “The Master Sword” of Legend of Zelda lore, and of course the Elder Scrolls Series classic weapon of “light that repels the darkness” – the DAWNBREAKER!
DAWNBREAKER is my sword of Evil’s Bane. The band is my weapon against the darkness, that which I wield in the deepest depths of music, the most wicked reaches of human art and culture!
Can you tell us a bit of your personal history? I know that you’re a veteran in the extreme metal genre. How did black metal capture your imagination? What were your experiences in the black metal mainstream? What brought you to salvation, or back to God? What is your goal now as a musician?
I knew Jesus as a teenager, I was true believer, I loved him. I was never “going through the motions” through my years in Catechism training – I always believed that he was truly God. But I grew up in a household that didn’t talk about religion, did not pray together, and half my family did not know the Lord. Between that, between soul destroying antidepressants prescribed and for-profit psychotherapy, between all of popular culture being weaponized against Christianity, I fell as far away from the faith as you can fall. But – thanks to my baptism – the spirit remained with me in the darkness. So after many years of loss, failure, disappointment, never achieving potential or success or ever being where I wanted to in life, I started reconsidering life without Christ. I sought spiritual direction and, though finding it with someone impure and manipulative, did in my heart surrender myself wholly to Christ again about 6 years ago. It took a long time before I started to understand the true faith, the true nature of God, the true Christian way, but I did learn prayer and fasting right away and those alone got me through the years of my life that saw the most tribulation I would ever see.
Although I deeply regret the lyrical content of my black metal years, I really enjoyed the fellowship of being in a touring metal band with some of the best friends I ever had. We had a lot of fun and a lot of laughs together, and I maintain many of those friendships until this day.
But now my goal is to atone for my past work, for many sinful ways, for my past life. And I hope, with Dawnbreaker, to make my best work for Christ. To have a career better than I did with any other band, to put out the best quality work (something I’ve already done, I think) and to use all of my musical talent to the best of my ability. I offer Christians Dawnbreaker to help them “wean them off” of secular metal bands that they may have loved, bands that have evil and harmful lyrics. That’s another reason I try to cover so many different styles of black metal as Dawnbreaker – so the band can be a “replacement” for many different bands they used to like.
In your opinion, is there a place for Christian music purely as entertainment, or do we have a duty as believers to make music that edifies, counsels, evangelizes?
I take the position of my favorite classical composer and Lutheran brethren J.S. Bach that “all music should be for the glorification of God!” But Bach did not always write exclusively Christian music – in fact, some of his organ pieces would become the foundation of modern horror movie/Halloween music! Quite ironic indeed, haha! So as a Christian I try to give my best stuff to the LORD but I’ve been working on some secular stuff as well, that I may bear proper witness to my secular friends and be “in the world but not of the world.” So I don’t think a Christian has to be confined to music that “edifies, counsels, and evangelizes” if they, through the band life and the music world, are winning the other souls in that world to Christ just by being a great friend, and through acts of love. I firmly believe the Gospel is best preached without words!
Something I think a lot about, is the effect of music and media on our subconscious minds. Some people have music playing all the time, even if they’re not paying attention to the lyrics or even selecting the songs. I think this can be scary, much like people falling asleep with the TV on, not even knowing what’s being played to their subconscious and what’s being embedded into their thoughts and beings. Same goes for having Spotify on “random.” Just look at the social degradation of a world where “WAP” is the number one song! Think of the millennial generation, who throughout their youth were bombarded by the Toys R’ Us jingle “I don’t want to grow up, I just want to be a kid forever” – how many fail to take wives, collecting toys and comic books deep into their thirties and incorporating “nostalgia” into their very identities!
So with that considered, having an all-Christian playlist – I think, could be very, very healthy for people. Even if the Christian music is just entertainment, you’re listening to it all day, your subconscious mind rests on Christ all day. This I do myself, to keep the enemy at bay when some of my best weapons of spiritual warfare have been taken away!
Vanquished Horrible Night was released digitally and on cd on October 31, with vinyl (your first!) to follow next month, and Duane (www.visionofgodrecords.com) has Dawnbreaker shirts and board shorts available. Was releasing the album on Halloween intended as a kick in the teeth to the devil, or more for marketing purposes?
Yes! Halloween is traditionally identified as “the Devil’s night,” and one of great spiritual activity, so what better day to release an album of literal spiritual warfare? What better day to sing of God’s holiness, of Christ’s supremacy, of the Trinity’s uncontested divine reign? It’s a perfect execution of what’s in the lyrics “I wield the sword of Evil’s Bane, in the darkest depths!”
But furthermore, October 31st is a special day for Lutherans such as myself – it is Reformation day! The day Luther nailed the 95 thesis, contesting the corruption of the medieval church! And in a time where the Coronavirus has brought a great deal of corruption to light, in churches of all denominations, we too must stand against the evils that have silently infiltrated the church and the faith!
What’s next for you, Cullen? Can we expect to hear more from Dawnbreaker soon?
Oh yes! I’m still wrapping up the release cycle of Vanquished Horrible Night which should culminate in a music video that I hope to complete in the coming weeks.
But more excitingly, I’m happy to declare that the drums have already been completed for the next album, and I will likely start tracking guitars before the year is over. I worked on it in parallel with Vanquished Horrible Night, and it was almost Dawnbreaker 3, but I was moved – I believe by the spirit – in the preproduction phase to do Vanquished Horrible Night this year instead. This new album will please those fans who loved Deus Vult but found subsequent albums unfavorable… it’s a grand reawakening of dissonance and the chaotic riffing found on that work! The working title is “Pactum Sanguine Novo” – and it will address, in both sound and lyrics, the more mysterious and more cultic aspects of the Christian faith perhaps most exemplified in the books of Leviticus and Hebrews. I believe this to be the darkest of the Dawnbreaker albums, but by judging what other Christian black metal bands are currently popular, I think it’s also one of the most contemporary. It’s a style I was once long famous for, one I know very very well – fans of Skald in Veum, A Hill to Die Upon, and the most recent Symphony of Heaven will find themselves very, very, pleased with this one, I think!
And there is another – an album I started since before I even worked on Deus Vult, one I’ve been working on for a long time, that should see its completion soon as well. One in a very popular style of black metal , different than everything I’ve ever done, one long preserved for the exact perfect moment. And down the road, I hope to return to the LIGHT WARRIOR trilogy once more, perhaps in another symphonic work like Vanquished Horrible Night. I’m excited to tell the tales of the Crusader’s quest for the relic of righteousness, and the Exorcist’s battle against evil at the end of time! Oh LORD, God of infinite power and might, by your grace may I live to see the day where all of these works are completed!