August 16, 2022

Dawnwalker are a collective of musicians based in London and led by songwriter Mark Norgate. Their music blends heavy rock and metal with more experimental and pastoral, folky, styles. There are no two of their records which sound quite the same, but they always feature a revolving cast of musicians who join forces to create something heavy, atmospheric and enigmatic. Since 2012, it has grown from a home studio project into a revolving collective of musicians and a fully fledged live outfit. With four albums, three EPs and numerous side projects, the band has continued to evolve with each release.

House of Sand marks a slight change away from the post and folk metal influences of Dawnwalker’s last LP Ages for something slightly darker and more difficult to pin down; see our very positive review of Ages.

Their music blends the modern prog-metal of Opeth and Tool with the melodic folk and progressive rock influences of 1970s heroes King Crimson and Comus, not to mention heavyweight stuff like Hawkwind, Sabbath and more recent prog bands like Porcupine Tree and The Pineapple Thief. Fans of Steven Wilson will not be disappointed, nor should anyone else!

It’s all I could do to find a photo with four on, let alone all eight!!

The current cast of Dawnwalker:
Chris J. Allan – Drums
Matteo Bianciotto – Guitars, Vocals
Dane Cross – Vocals
Mina Jackson – Piano
Robin Melinda Koob – Violin
Mark Norgate – Vocals, Guitars
Roisin O’Toole – Vocals
and featuring Alastair Mitchell as “The Master”

The set opens with R.I.P., a typically chirpy outlook (not) – I do sometimes worry about these guys! The song has the band’s trademark mix of minor keys, dense slabs of prog-metal chordwork, surmounted by floaty, quite folky vocals (except for the brief screamo bit near the end). Its not instantly uplifting music, but I do enjoy them in the same way as I enjoy Richard Thompson – that strange mix of downbeat tune, wistfulness wrapped around a strong melody. Elegaic is another word that springs to mind? Vocalist and guitarist Mark Norgate explains: This track is both a beginning and an ending. It’s the first track on the album but could be seen as an ending to the story, there is an air of fatalism that hangs over the song, of events being put into motion with almost a will of their own. Standing on the precipice and relinquishing control. Like the album art, the video is set against a backdrop of idyllic English countryside but something evil is lurking just beneath the surface. Also, for any anoraks out there, R.I.P. doesn’t actually stand for ‘rest in peace’ in this instance. Answers on a postcard, please!” Assuming it’s not simply the latin equivalent, I’m going to reach for my bobble hat and go with “Reaching Into the Past”?

Demon of Noontide is heavier and darker, as mentioned before this Dawnwalker repeatedly like to explore this sense of spiritual malaise. Vocally, Roisin, Dane definitely add an extra counter-point to the vocals and element of echoing beauty. And this is a good point to praise the overall sound-mix, it’s almost sepulchral, a perfect match to the musical ambience. I’ve said before that these guys give Steven Wilson a run for his money in the dark v. light v. dark stakes; that hollow atmosphere married to some mega-meaty riffs certainly does it for me! A quote from another previous review captures it nicely: “…the sound of hope against hopelessness; togetherness and isolation; and a dawning sense that something is wrong

And then you’re confronted with the gentle, bucolic nature of Witness, an all-to-brief ode. False Doors brings back that softly pastoral vocalising of Mark’s, again allied to distinctly darker lyrics, the structuring again on a par with Porcupine Tree in their Deadwing era (my favourite). Egypt continues that darkly soporific theme, a simply strummed number before the fuzzed guitar work crashes in at just the right time – I love this track, it’s short but somehow feels like a true Epic, a blend of elegy and pure majesty in its arrangement!

It seems to me, as with the last album, that Dawnwalker have this cunning trick of alternating shorter, lighter, almost breezy numbers with really meaty stuff, maybe not the ten-minute+ beasts from Ages but weighty tomes nonetheless. The overall effect is to lay you open to the constant changes in mood that routinely zap you throughout! So for instance the title track lulls you into a sleepy sense of things being not quite right, continued into The Prisoner, then again into Repeater – this is almost an old-fashioned concept album where songs are structured to flow in order, you can’t and shouldn’t easily just dip in and out. Repeater feels like the natural crescendo of the story up to this point, with subtle changes in time signatures, clear vocals, denser choral effects, grinding slabs of riffs, as with the last album this is Prog, but not as you would normally know it!

Any sense of pause after this trio is quickly lost as Coming Forth by Day slams into you. A previous release as single, a Sabbath-esque riff pins you to the floor while the vocals entreat you to Pay Attention! And again, there’s the clever change in direction towards the end, hysterical vocals taking over, a demonic tone enveloping you. Yet again, it’s followed by the gentleness of Standing Stones, a real 70’s folk-rock feel to this before the post-rock chords kick in, but subtly so – a bridge but not a bridge, more a punctuation mark. This is where the sense of Pink Floyd permeates, accentuated by the voice-overs.

The Master is a brief punctuation, to reset the mind before House of Sand II hits you, a crescendo of guitar-led brick-building while still featuring deceptively floaty melodic vocals. And Mildew brings the whole tale to a soporific, relatively upbeat end. The remix bonus track feels slightly alien in this respect, sort of slightly outside of the broader narrative. It’s ok but lacks continuity?

Eh up, there’s five (and a bit) musicians in this!

At 43 minutes without the bonus track, House of Sands is Dawnwalker’s shortest LP by some distance, but each of these thirteen songs is packed to the brim with inventive ideas which belie their length. Together with Joe Clayton of No Studio, they wanted to get away from the overproduced sound of modern metal and computer-generated artifice. As such, no click tracks or synthesized instruments were used at all on the album. Instead, an ensemble of eight musicians wielding acoustic guitars, piano, violins and four vocalist performed whole takes live in the room, choosing to make a feature of their imperfections rather than airbrush them away. The end result is Dawnwalker’s darkest but still almost folksy, perhaps their most human and affecting album to date?

As pictured on Mitchell Nolte’s wonderful cover painting, House of Sand is set against a backdrop of idyllic suburbs and the darkness that may be lurking beneath. References abound to the darker side of the human psyche and a spiritual malaise (the “demon of noontide”) which once contracted gradually destroys all in its path. Musically, there are touchstones from across the British indie and progressive rock canon – Pink Floyd and Radiohead to name but two – but these influences are blended with a modern heavy sensibility to create a unique sound all of its own. It might be thought of as something akin to the lovechild of Opeth and Kate Bush! 

I’ve said before that each Dawnwalker album that I have heard tells its own story, set in its own world, using almost classical compositions, heavy, heavy stuff contrasting with and interspersed by a pastoral, almost folky ambient-rock vibe that hints at 70’s style Prog but (for me ) is so much more. Dawnwalker hold you entranced as the compositions unfold, building a real sense of mood and soundscape, and leaving you with a real sense of completion when it’s over….and breathe!

Whatever your tastes, try this out – And Enjoy!