It’s a cliché that times of political oppression lead people to produce great art in response, but in anarchist, anti-fascist black metal band Dawn Ray’d, it’s also true. Left-libertarian black metal is nothing new, but Dawn Ray’d’s continuation of the kind of red-and-black metal pioneered by Iskra feels refreshing, timely and empowering. The band’s debut album The Unlawful Assembly was a powerful, heartfelt triumph, taking the radical leftist politics of the likes of Crass and Dropdead and harnessing them into sinuous and intensely melodic black metal..
While genres like d-beat and crust punk lend themselves to straight-up sloganeering, lyrically The Unlawful Assembly matched the emotion and anger in its music with pointed, poetic dissections of oppression that build on the legacy of forebears such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Voltairine de Cleyre and Federico Garcia Lorca. Railing against fascism, the prison system, class prejudice and nationalism, it’s clear that the fight against these issues is something that Dawn Ray’d would bleed red and black for.
Ahead of their European tour with Unyielding Love last year, we caught up with vocalist and violinist Simon Barr to talk about anti-fascism, hunt sabotage and the importance of place in their music.
Your first full-length LP, The Unlawful Assembly, has been out for a while now and has been widely praised. What has that success meant to you, and how has it influenced what you want to do next as a band?
We were so stoked on the reception it got, the reviews as far as I’m aware were exclusively positive, and people said some really amazing things about our record and our band. For me, that is one of the things that makes it worth it, earning the respect of your peers and knowing you made something good. I think there is a pressure on your first record; your first demo just has to show potential, but your first record has to be you realising that potential, and you also have to have enough good ideas to fill a whole full-length! For me, writing that many sets of lyrics is always a challenge! I think it has given us renewed confidence in the sound we have made, and that we are doing something right. I think now we need to develop the sound we have created, but not necessarily reinvent the wheel or go back to the drawing board!
Speaking of the future of Dawn Ray’d, do you see ever yourselves expanding on the folk side of your sound, like Panopticon did on their latest album, or maybe doing something more leftfield like Ulver’s last few electronica influenced releases?
I honestly couldn’t say at this point. Currently we have no plans to reinvent ourselves or take a radically different turn, but you also can’t write the same album five times or whatever, you have to keep developing all the different sides of your band. We are focusing on our next full-length at the moment, so we don’t have a pure folk record in the works or anything. It is still too early in the writing process to say exactly what this record will be though!
As a band with a single guitarist and no bass player, do you find inspiration in some of the restrictions that places on you, in terms of recording and playing live?
I only write the lyrics, I don’t write the song structures, Fabian [Devlin, guitar] and Matthew [Broadley, drums] do that, but I do think the line-up we have massively impacts the writing. We all put the maximum we each can into each song, and because we all play very different instruments there is definitely nowhere to hide! In a lot of ways it makes things easier, however, because we each have very clear but separate roles in the songs. None of us ever clash with each other, we aren’t competing for space, and the same goes for the live sound, which makes everything sound less cluttered and more succinct.
You’re very clear about being anarchist and anti-fascist in your politics. Have you had any experiences on tour that have made you think that those political messages are connecting with people?
Yes, a lot. People thank us at every show for speaking out about these things which is great, I feel like these are ideas that everyone has had, it just needed saying. No one wants Nazis at shows or in the scene in general, they just make it more exclusive and divided in a scene that is meant to be about acceptance and inclusion. There have been a few messages in particular that have stood out. We got a message from a friend of Heather Heyer who was at Charlottesville when Heather was murdered which was really moving, plus it’s a great honour to be invited into queer, radical or femme spaces that might otherwise be hesitant about including black metal bands. We also get to meet thousands of people who love great music and harsh riffs and aren’t absolute pieces of shit which is the ideal scenario! I don’t want to go on about how many nice things people might have said, we are just the latest band to say this stuff, there have been a ton before us. I will say though, the more people speak out about inequality, the safer it is for everyone. Do your part, make the world a better place.
When was the first time that you, as a band, decided to incorporate anarchist and anti-fascist ideologies into your music?
From the first second this band existed, it was always going to be a black metal band, but unfortunately black metal does have a slightly negative legacy, so we knew if we wanted to be included in the DIY and crust scene that we came from we would need to be explicitly “not dickheads”. Also, this is one of the things I care about the most, so it’s what I naturally started writing lyrics about, I’m not going to pretend I’m really depressed or believe in Satan just because that is the fashion. I sing about the most honest, heartfelt things I can. Also, if you are going to start making music in this day and age, I feel like there is responsibility to try and fight for change, especially as a band of straight white men. People treat this as a niche belief, but we must exist in the only scene in the world where it is actually controversial to be anti-racist, anti-capitalist and anti-sexist.
Anarchism, as an ideology, is often misunderstood or talked about in clichés that don’t properly relate to it. Outside of Dawn Ray’d, how do you carry your anarchist values into your day to day lives and are there any good examples of anarchist practice that you’ve come across?
For me anarchism is direct action. When you see the far-right in your town, organise to stop them yourself, don’t just hope the police will do it. Women in Ireland still can’t access abortion (until all the legislation is finalised and put into practice) but they still need that healthcare, so there are people who help women come to England to access those services themselves. The resistance to the oil pipelines in the US and Canada was really inspiring, and more effective than any petition or hand wringing plea to the rich and powerful could ever be. Eating vegan food is all well and good, but cutting the locks yourself and physically liberating the animals saves lives a lot quicker. So does disrupting hunts. It is naïve to think that any political party will work in the best interest of normal people. We are appalled by the separation of migrant families in the US, but we have Yarlswood Female Immigration Detention Centre here in the UK, built by a Labour government, and currently being filled by the Tories. Our best hope for liberation is working together in our own communities to change things from the bottom up. If you are interested, check out The Abortion Support Network, your local anti-fascist network branch, your local Hunt Sab organisation, your local anti-fracking site, or (UK only) Unis Resist Borders for migrant solidarity actions.
As a traditionally working class city which has been devastated by the class warfare and de-industrialisation of Conservative governments, what role does the history and character of Liverpool play in Dawn Ray’d’s identity? Is the sense of place and identity that comes from the city important to you?
Yeah it really is. The unions are really strong here which is amazing, and it has a history of militant unionism and syndicalism, especially during the Great Unrest in 1911 – there was a syndicalist led transport strike which was so effective the government sent gunboats up the Mersey pointed at the city to try and break the strike. That strike is often credited as one of the things that ended religious sectarianism in the city too.
Liverpool is easily the most anti-fascist city in the country, there were two far-right demonstrations within a year in 2015 that attracted less than a hundred Nazis, but literally thousands of local people came out to oppose them, which was an incredible echo of the resistance Mosely was met with in the 1930s when he tried to bring the black shirts to Liverpool.
I also have a lot of respect for the ‘Shun The Sun’ campaign, The Sun newspaper [a right wing tabloid] said some terrible things about the people of Liverpool and lied about the Hillsborough Disaster, and ever since there has been a very successful grassroots campaign to stop that paper being bought or sold anywhere in the city. It sounds like hyperbole, but you will not find that paper in a single shop in this city, which is amazing!
Being from the same city as Carcass rules too…
What influences the content and writing style of your lyrics? Like a lot of classic left-wing poetry, they seem to fulfil the dual function of being both poetic and instructive in terms of the issues they address.
It’s cool you noticed that, thanks! I read a lot of poetry to inspire me, a few poets that have had a big impact on me are Michelle Cahill, Ocean Vuong, Yannis Ritsos, TS Eliot, Sharon Olds and of course Voltairine De Cleyre.
There are scenes like punk or crust where you can be very literal about the politics, but black metal has to have a bit more imagination and poetry to it, if it’s going to stay true to the genre. Also it’s interesting to try and write songs that haven’t been written before, ‘Nazi Punks Fuck Off’ [by Dead Kennedys] is a great song, but we don’t need another copy of it!
Do you ever see a time where far-right ideologies become unacceptable or unviable in black metal? A lot of people take the stance of “separating the art from the artist”, but is that ever a viable stance if someone is an avowed racist?
I don’t know, I think this is a really interesting and important conversation to have. There are definitely artists that for me are too gross to listen to, it becomes impossible to separate the fact that Inquisition are Nazis and paedophiles from their music for example, but then that is an extreme case. I think you have to do what you feel is right, but at the very least I would never openly or financially support bands that are clearly racist or fascist. I wouldn’t berate anyone for it, and have no interest in “policing” the shirts people wear or the things they like. I would rather people challenged racist ideas when they see or hear them, and make sure that we stick up for our fellow metalheads when necessary!
Dawn Ray’d play Riffs Against Fascism tomorrow in London. Tickets available here.
Words: Andrew Day