Deafheaven gets a lot of flack from trve kvlt metalheads for their perceived hipsterdom – not to mention their fondness for pink/orange cover art1 or the band members’ lack of long hair2 – which is ironic considering how the band is deeply ingrained within heavy metal traditions. Even from the Venom and Bathory days, black metal rooted itself in wall-of-sound production and vocals that served as percussion and atmospheric force. Shoegaze music also utilizes both of these trends; although black metal and shoegaze realize these influences in entirely different ways – compare My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless with Emperor’s In the Nightside Eclipse – the merger makes sense on theory alone.
Now then, fucking up such a merger would be no difficult task. Tons of albums already have; it’s a cliché in US black metal for your six-track, hour-long album to have extended “atmospheric” passages, acoustic bits, a bit of meandering around the Dorian scale, and production so manufactured to sound “spacious” that the riffs sound like someone applied the Photoshop blur filter with maximum prejudice. Such effects are annoying and tiresome; with the exception of Wolves in the Throne Room, Xasthur, and Leviathan, they very rarely works to the album’s advantage and instead serve only to obfuscate poor songwriting.
That doesn’t happen on Sunbather. The reason why “Vertigo” and “The Pecan Tree” sound so fuzzy isn’t because of any studio trick, but because the album is just that loud and the production does an amazing job at capturing the sheer sonic puissance achieved at each and every climax. The listener is hearing incredibly powerful tremolo under absolutely blasting beats, with George Clarke’s banshee screech somehow coming out on top of all the noise. Rather than recycle hackneyed minor or power chord riffs, Deafheaven start off Sunbather with a resolving major chord progression. It’s easy to view that introduction as a mere heckle toward black metal – not to mention that damn album cover – and that would be true if Deafheaven weren’t so obviously dedicated to the sincerity of their art form; something that Liturgy – with whom Deafheaven are often (erroneously) categorized – cannot claim. True transcendence need not claim itself to be transcendent, it just is through passion and dedicated songwriting.
There are three tracks that are not black metal, but one would be amiss to call them mere interludes. “Irresistible” is a short duet on electric guitar and piano that acts as a coda to opener “Dream House.” “Please Remember” features Neige from Alcest – a black metal band with similar post-rock and shoegaze tendencies – reciting in French from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being for the first half, dissolves into white noise, and ends with a solo acoustic guitar strumming progression. Finally, “Windows” juxtaposes a field recording of lead guitarist Kerry McCoy purchasing drugs while addicted to opiates with a preacher dealing in hellfire and brimstone. They add quite well to Sunbather‘s themes of moral relativity and self-actualization; this is much-welcomed in a genre whose ambient and progressive non-black metal experiments are more often than not forgettable.
There’s one major problem with this album, and it’s what I like to call Sunbather-Syndrome. Sunbather-Syndrome is what happens when the first track on an album is so damn excellent, so fantastic, so life-affirming, that every other track is underwhelming. Deafheaven’s black metal and shoegaze hybrid is a brilliant example of heavy metal’s ability to synthesize seemingly disparate genres in new and exciting ways so effortlessly that the relationship is obvious in retrospect; but there’s nothing here that compares to “Dream House,” one of the most impressive feats of musicianship, transcendence, and catharsis within the last decade of popular music history. Perhaps this could have been remedied by changing the track order, putting “Dream House” toward the end of the album as a closer rather than as an opener; indeed, the plaintive interlude “Irresistible” does seem like a terminator rather than a lead into the next track. “Vertigo” and the frenetic “Sunbather” come close to the track’s power – especially in the former’s anthemic middle section – but the rest of the album simply cannot compare to its opener.
Sunbather does not deserve your respect, but it does deserve your ears if you are a fan of challenging, progressive music that coherently synthesizes its diverse influences within the context of music at once heavy and light. This is an album where those who do not enjoy the tracks may still find that the music assists them in clarifying their own tastes and opinions within and without heavy metal and independent music at large. Alcest, Les Discrets, and Bosse-de-Nage may have been the big names in “blackened shoegaze” prior to Sunbather‘s arrival on the scene; but this album is what made Deafheaven the face of the genre, and “Dream House” is its tour-de-force of ingenuity, musicianship, and heart.
1. Dream House – (9:14) – ★★★★★
2. Irresistible – (3:13) – ★★★★☆
3. Sunbather – (10:16) – ★★★★★
4. Please Remember – (6:26) – ★★★☆☆
5. Vertigo – (14:37) – ★★★★☆
6. Windows – (4:42) – ★★★★☆
7. The Pecan Tree – (11:26) – ★★★★☆
1… which I think is one of the best album cover arts of the decade thus far.
2George Clarke is a handsome man: https://www.google.com/search?site=&tbm=isch&source=hp&biw=1366&bih=667&q=george+clarke+deafheaven