The violin still catches some by surprise. From the moment Dawn Ray'd singer-violinist Simon B. lifts the ancient string instrument to his shoulder, photographers are immediately drawn to it, and certain fans of the black-metal trio seem amazed to even see it onstage. But committed listeners of the Liverpool act already know the violin is an essential textural, humanizing element that distinguishes both the band's extreme sound and live performances, the latter of which are known for getting pretty intense.
On their first U.S. tour this year, Dawn Ray'd landed in a basement in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and found total chaos and euphoria. "It was 40 people in this tiny basement, and from the first note people went fucking crazy," says Simon B., adding that the band's medieval "D" banner got ripped and destroyed. "I've been kicked down a few times. For me, this music is fast, heavy, cathartic music and I'm happy for people to respond in any way they see fit."
Simon B. may call what Dawn Ray'd does "straight-up black metal — nothing too complicated," but in fact the band's debut album, The Unlawful Assembly, is layered and deep, balancing ferocity with melodic passages while exploring a range of emotions and ideas, from the personal to the political. Central to Dawn Ray'd's music and identity are Simon B.'s lyrics of anarchist desire, anti-racism, class warfare and smashing the state — concepts that have been fundamental in shaping the musician's worldview ever since he was young.
He recalls one particularly important, empowering moment during his formative years when he saw an online video interview with fellow Liverpudlian extreme-metal band Carcass. The interviewer asked their thoughts on Satanism, and the band just laughed. "If you want to get into something truly edgy, fuck off Satanism and get into something cool like anti-fascism," Simon B. remembers them answering, and says, "Seeing very impressive musicians from Liverpool talk about issues, and the music I liked — it was a powerful thing for me."
Simon B. first picked up a violin at age seven, starting with a few years of classical training before veering into traditional folk music. He loved it. Then, as a teenager, his chosen instrument just wasn't cool anymore. "It didn't seem entirely relevant to my interests," he admits now. By 18, he was experimenting with heavy bands, but the two violins he kept at home kept calling out to him, demanding attention. "It does nag at you a little bit that you should keep it up. You don't want to lose that skill."
He eventually started incorporating the instrument into this heavier music, and the violin once again became a crucial part of his musical life. He first played it in the DIY screamo act We Came Out Like Tigers — which also included drummer Matthew B. and Simon B.'s longtime friend, guitarist Fabian D. — which eventually morphed into Dawn Ray'd. "Our last band broke up and we started this band basically the same day," he says. "I think we probably practiced a week later."
To this day, the violin remains with him on festival stages, in basements, at fundraisers in Liverpool and at the crust-punk/black-metal gigs in squats across Europe that he finds especially inspiring. But after once witnessing festival stage-divers stomp across the stage just inches from his precious acoustic instrument, the Dawn Ray'd frontman wisely switched to a modern, "road proof" solid-body model better suited to getting "sweated on and bashed about."
"Crust shows are a lot rowdier, and we get heckled a lot more, but always in a friendly and funny way," he says of Dawn Ray'd's live performances. "These lyrics are about very serious things. At the same time, as people, we are very multifaceted. Some days, the set is really, really angry, depending on how I'm feeling. Other times, for me, it's a very sad 23 minutes. In the middle of the night in a squat, and we drink a lot — it can be a very fun experience."
The crowds are dependably engaged with the sound or the message either way. And if something onstage gets damaged, the band is prepared to deal with it. "We're on our third version of our banner," he says. "If it gets destroyed, we'll make another one." Dawn Ray'd's music and personal philosophies have been intertwined from day one — even their name was inspired by the works of the American anarchist poet Voltairine de Cleyre. "From the start, we had a rough outline of what we wanted this band to be," says Simon B. "It was always going to be political because that's who we are as people. It takes time to work things out, and what direction you want to go in. Black metal is a very broad genre."
It was with that ambitious mindset that Dawn Ray'd entered Vagrant Recordings in Southport, England, to record The Unlawful Assembly, the follow-up to their 2015 introductory EP. Opening track "Fire Sermon" begins with waves of harmonium and feedback, then shifts into a frantic piston-like tempo and stormy guitar riff, as an enraged Simon B. growls of revolution and inhuman bondage: "It's time to empty the cells/They must be told they were never forgotten/That their suffering will not be forgiven." There are also melodic passages on violin here and on "The Abyssal Plain," colliding ancient and modern, like a sea shanty on hyper-drive. The singer takes special care in his lyric writing, and works to make his vocals as clear as possible while singing "as harsh and as inhuman as you can get." His personal favorite track on the album is "Emptiness Beneath the Great Emptiness," a raging anti-religious screed inspired by abuses within the Catholic Church. At shows, fans roar along to the lyric: "Let the fires burn as a signal!"
"The way the world is going, you have to be aware of what's going on around you," says Simon B. of his lyrics. "We live in a very working-class city. I live in a very multicultural neighborhood. These issues are very apparent to me every day. I'm also touring, and having to travel across borders, past refugee camps. These aren't abstract concepts or intellectual games. They're very real issues that involve real people."