INTERVIEW: Dawnbreaker (Cullen Toner)

Jeffrey Agyepong
Jeffrey Agyepong   Follow

Cullen Toner, the sole member of the black metal project, Dawnbreaker returns to discuss his new album Vanquished Horrible Night. Enjoy!

Hey, thanks for joining us again. Could you introduce yourself to those who might’ve missed the last interview?

It’s an honor to be speaking with you again! My name is Cullen Toner, I’m the sole member of the unblack metal band Dawnbreaker. I started making one-man black metal in 2004, at the hight of the one-man band “suicidal/depressive” black metal wave in my home nation of the USA. 10 years later I converted to Christianity, and a few years after that I decided to give my best work to the Lord in the form of Christian metal.

Who were some of the biggest influences you guys had in writing Vanquished Horrible Night?

I feel a little guilty mentioning secular black metal bands as I don’t recommend my fans listen to them, I don’t listen to them myself anymore as they’ve caused me some trouble due to the lyrical content. However I avoid your question - when I first got into black metal it as around 2002/2003, when “symphonic black metal” was at the height of its popularity. So bands like Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth were my “gateways” into the music, even before discovering the Norwegian wave. I think “Enthrone Darkness Triumphant” was my first black metal album, Emperor was probably my favorite band for a long time, or at least in my top 3. I really liked the early work of Abigail Williams as well.

So anyway I always wanted to “come full circle” someday and explore those sounds myself. But I was really motivated to do this now, because I realized how rich the Christian symphonic black metal scene was. So bands like Grave Declaration, Renascent, Vaakenvandring, Antestor, and the early work of Crimson Moonlight and Vardroger were big motivating factors. I feel like the symphonic style is a big part of the Christian black metal world not just in the past, but even in recent years. So I wanted to contribute to that myself with Dawnbreaker and had hoped to offer the Christian Unblack metal scene another great album worthy of mention with the excellent works of those classics!

What have been some of the highlights of writing it?

A lot of the stuff was written in 2011 I think, right after I wrapped up the songwriting for my secular band’s big full length. I was looking to do something even more epic and memorable than what I had done before, I was really at the peak of my songwriting I think. One distinct story I remember was when I was still living in the Jersey shore when it got hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. I had no power for two weeks, so one night I wound up putting some batteries in my keyboard and writing “Torment of Anti-Christian Souls” completely on keyboards in the candlelit darkness, haha! It was the first time I wrote a metal song on a different instrument other than guitar. Another great highlight was “Lady of the Snows” I had some of the melodies in my head before I even picked up an instrument, and ended up writing them down in a tab program. Again – a whole song written before even picking up the guitar, something I did not ever do in the past!

What were some of your biggest obstacles when creating it?

Originally most of this stuff was going to be on Total Depravity, but I had actually tracked the guitars and bass for most of Total Depravity many years before I even started Dawnbreaker, I think around 2017, as I was going to use the material for something else. So anyway, I had written some keyboards on those songs, as well as the Vanquished Horrible Night material on that one. But when I went to compose the keyboards, I had realized something to my horror – that although the instruments were in tune with each other, they were actually out of tune! So I was unable to get synth in tune with the others, hahaha. But that ended up with splitting the album into two separate records, which was great, because I got to explore two different styles more fully!

What is the central theme of this record? Is there a link between this album and “Total Depravity” conceptually?

Spiritual combat is absolutely 110% the theme of Vanquished Horrible Night. It’s the theme of Dawnbreaker in general, but for this album this was the theme specifically. All albums are also a retelling of my spiritual journey. Deus Vult focused more on “the conversion,” Total Depravity specialized in “the theological exploration” and Vanquished Horrible night focused on “the prayer warfare”

What were some of the major experiences that inspired you to write these new songs?

Spiritual growth and nourishment, and great adversity in the form of the Coronavirus pandemic. I had recently done some mysticism training in the form of “The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius” and it helped me engage with God and his word at a more intense spiritual level. This prepared me for a lot of trouble when the shutdowns happen, when the Eucharist and the daily church services were taken away. I used to go every day and just being there and engaging with God helped me stay out of sin.

I had a lot of trouble with staying out of sin after lent season, in many different forms. I haven’t been doing as well as I was last year, I’m sorry to say. But I continue to war against the world, the devil, and the flesh nonetheless. And during the pandemic, I felt it was my duty to spend more time in prayer, prayer for my city and the church leadership and the world. So the “prayer warrior” angle of Vanquished Horrible Night was very real to me.

What is your view on the non-canonical books of the Bible(Maccabees, Enoch, etc)? You occasionally reference them in your lyrics.

While I’m Protestant, I think the books in the Catholic cannon considered “apocrypha” by most Protestants should be read by all Christians. It’s a heresy that these were removed from the Bible out right, as all of the great reformers quoted and preached on them. They were even in the King James Bible! I spent a long time researching who it was that definitively, officially, removed them from cannon, and the best I could find was that book publishers would print Bibles with them in the table of contents but not in the bibles – do you want your cannon determined by book publishers?

The arguments against them are really weak as well, the best of which is that “They’re not in Hebrew” but guess what, Tobit and Judith were in the Dead Sea Scrolls in Hebrew! But I also think 3 and 4 Esdras should be read, which are not in Protestant or Catholic cannons, but were in the Septuagint Old Testament translation that all the apostles used and quoted from directly. If we’re to imitate Jesus, we should read the books he was reading, and these were all in his Bible! Enoch is another story, the Apostles clearly were reading it and I think it sheds light on the proper interpretation of Genesis 6. But gosh, if you read the whole thing, you’ll see that that book is a mess!

If you could send one message to anyone who hears your Vanquished Horrible Night, what would it be?

I searched the depths of the darkness, explored the evils of the spiritual, indulged in the fleshly pleasures of the Earth. But my heart was never at peace until I surrendered to the yoke of Jesus Christ. I looked everywhere for the truth, and all along it was right in front of me – in Christianity.

You said in your last interview the plan is to release a set of three albums, this being the first, is there anything you’d like to share about the next record?

I had originally intended to do a “Light Warriors Trilogy” of epic symphonic albums, starting with “Deus Vult” and doing a prequel and sequel story. But life circumstances, and probably the spirit, lead me in another direction. I hope to return to the Light Warriors and the symphonic keyboards, but if it does happen it won’t be for many years. The next album I had begun working on already before Vanquished Horrible Night. The working title is no longer “Ad Majorem Dei Glorium” but is not “Pactum Sanguine Novum” and focuses on the power of blood, of Christian ritual, of the sacred mysteries of faith. It will have a foreboding cultic sound, and it’s faster, more chaotic, and darker than all of the other Dawnbreakers. It has a lot of elements from Deus Vult and some from Total Depravity but I think the riffs are a lot better and the songs are to be more memorable.

In your own words, what is the Gospel?

That although we live in a fallen world, and though our nature is depraved, and though we are in bondage to sin and our hearts think evil thoughts continually, our hearts can be at peace, and our minds renewed, because the saving graces and cleansing blood of Jesus Christ has already redeemed us from death and hell. If we only believe, God will work in us to bring us to completion.

Any advice you would give to an up and coming musician wanting to start a band?

It’s a very thankless journey, but if it’s your calling, be sure to not set your expectations too high. It is a difficult age to stand out. Make friends, be humble, don’t compete with others – competition and arrogance will hinder your career. Both kept me from many great possibilities. Don’t expect your record label to do the legwork – a lot of PR and connections are necessary for success. Show humility, promote other bands and musicians, be patient with people.

What are your favorite recent album releases from other bands? Who are some of your personal favorite bands in Christian metal?

I really liked Within Thy Wounds’s latest album, Skald in Veum’s full length album, the new Symphony of Heaven EP, “Slain from the Birth of Flesh” by Inflamed, and Dying Blaze’s “The Angel Destroyer.” I most strongly recommend the two albums released by Hosts of Lord last year, “Afflicting Blackness of Day” and “Prophetic Visions of Harrowing Despair.” My favorite bands are Crimson Moonlight, Antestor, Renascent, Grave Declaration, Horde, and Mortification in that order. I objectively recognize Vials of Wrath, Pantokrator, Elgibbor, and AntiDemon as top-tier even though I don’t listen much to those styles anymore.

Thanks for taking the time to do this, any final words?

I got some very exciting news this week that the first two Dawnbreaker epics “Deus Vult” and “Total Depravity” will be released on vinyl in the coming months! This means you can get each album in the first Dawnbreaker trilogy on vinyl!!!!!!!