Unpretentious, rich, and emotionally devastating, Sunbather is a marvel of an album that sounds like the product of a band far beyond Deafheaven’s years.
The pre-release buzz and acclaim surrounding Sunbather, the sophomore LP by the Bay Area "post-black metal" outfit Deafheaven, is surprising. Not because of the aesthetic merits of the album itself -- put mildly, it's as good, if not better, than everyone is saying it is -- but because in its construction, it's set to incite vitriol in the two camps it appeals to. On one end, there are those who have stuck around this long because of Deafheaven's associations with the West Coast black metal scene, whose stylings are in full form on the band's impressive 2011 debut Roads to Judah. Though there are plenty of heavy riffs and betwitched screams a la early '90s Norway, there's plenty on Sunbather that's bound to piss off those wishing to tag this group as black metal. The LP's sleeve art is a striking, gorgeous pink, far from the imperceptible black-on-white band name decals that black metal is so famous for. Soft instrumental passages like "Irresistible" recall Explosions in the Sky, whose placid guitar technique (see the blueprint established by The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place) is not privy to harsh tremolo picking. Meanwhile, on the other end, there are those who are drawn to this album for its take on shoegaze and post-rock, i.e. the avid readers of indie e-zines. For all the things they might find appealing, they probably won't be keen on George Clarke's vocals, which never fall below a piercing screech.
Fortunately, as genres continue to meld and mold into each other, even ones previously thought irreconcilable, purists on either end will continue to lose relevance. This has proven to be especially the case for those in the black metal scene -- for evidence of this, look to Burzum's output over the past several years and the critical lambasting that followed. And, in the end, part of what makes Sunbather feel so definitive is how it pre-emptively cuts through this type of petty argumentation and asserts itself. Genre isn't a preoccupation here. Talking about the album "as black metal" or "as post-rock", while helpful to some extent, detracts from the fact that it isn't laying down any new groundwork or upending any genre formulas. Sunbather in large part picks up where Souvenirs d'un autre monde and even 777 -- Cosmophy left off. But for all of the ways in which Deafheaven treads through old ground here, it's made a work that both ousts Roads to Judah in overall excellence and further clarifies the uniqueness of its voice. Unlike the philosophically confrontational approach of Liturgy -- who, for some strange reason, Deafheaven is often lumped together with -- the musicians here are only concerned with sounding like what they want to sound like. The result is an unpretentious, lush, and emotionally devastating album that would be an impressive feat for anyone, let alone a group only on its second LP.
While Roads to Judah was an impressive point of entry for the band, with Sunbather the roughness present in the former has been ironed out and enhanced. Sharp, distinct guitar lines reminiscent of Mogwai have replaced the emphasis on texture on the debut, which drew inspiration from the layered approach of My Bloody Valentine. This undoubtedly was in part caused by the band's cover of Mogwai's "Punk Rock" and "Cody" for its split with fellow Bay Area metallers Bosse-de-Nage. There, as the group does on this LP, the mood of the songs is much less drenched in washes of guitar. Riffs and melodies are given space to say what they need to say without worry of being crowded out. It's definitely a nice coincidence that the influence of the legendary Scottish post-rockers has become more prevalent in Deafheaven's music; as the guitar tones become relatively cleaner and well defined, all of the other facets of the music are enhanced.
Contrast is the main constant on Sunbather. The album is sequenced in a long/short track arrangement. Clarke's screams are put against beautiful, immaculate music and arrangements. Sunlight casts a shadow as dark as the star is bright. In a list like this, these choices seem easy enough, but when put all together into the hour-long opus that this record is, each contrast adds up to a resounding, crushing sound. As powerful a track as opener "Dream House" is, it's even more powerful when followed by the elated optimism of "Irresistible". The triumphant, 11-minute closer "The Pecan Tree", while a harrowing thing in its own right, sinks its claws even deeper when led in with "Windows", which juxtaposes a sample of a street preacher and a recording of guitarist Kerry McCoy purchasing drugs to a haunting effect. Even the title of the LP itself is a thing of duality; while most would not picture someone trying to tan as malicious, Deafheaven foresees the burn produced by the chipper sunlight. "I cried against an ocean of light," Clarke screams, lamenting the false beauty of the titular figure.
Instrumentally, Sunbather is unassailable. McCoy's guitar playing spans a broad spectrum of tones. The newest addition to the band, drummer Daniel Tracy, knows just when to stop the blastbeating and let the percussion chill out, a key skill necessary to maintain the ebb and flow that sustains these songs. But the central voice here is Clarke, whose lyrics and presence dominate the core of the music. His power here is at once ironic; whereas McCoy's guitar tones span a broad tonal and emotional range, Clarke does nothing but scream. Unlike genre luminaries Alcest -- whose frontman Neige appears here to give some spoken word beauty to "Please Remember" -- there are no clean vocals to counterweigh the harsh passages. In terms of dynamics, Clarke is frequently overpowered by the music that backs him. Yet even in that push and pull, he marvelously captures the anguish that comes when flying too close to the sun, one of the core themes of the record. In final stanza of "Dream House", where the album's music is at its most epic, Clarke bellows a verbatim passage taken from a text message with a woman he was in love with:
-- "Is it blissful?"
"It's like a dream."
-- "I want to dream."
Even more soul-piercing are the last lines of "The Pecan Tree", where Clarke lays the demons of his relationship with his father out in the open: "I am my father's son / I am no one / I cannot love / It is in my blood." The screams here aren't just a means of expressing anguish; they also provide something like anonymity for a man who is putting bare some incredibly personal details about himself and his family. Moreover, Clarke knows exactly when to come in with the music; well over half of the album is instrumental, which makes his appearances in the songs like a perfectly portioned spice.
When I spoke with Clarke a few days before the record's release, he said of its tone, "I think it's all-encompassing; it's both our darkest and our lightest work." He couldn't have summarized it any better. Sunbather really is the sound of a band that wants it all. Deafheaven takes heaviness and melodiousness hand in hand. It takes the sunlight and marries it to its corresponding darkness. It takes the West Coast black metal scene and draws it even closer to the hipsterdom that sends many metal fans into a frenzy. All of these dichotomies were already becoming less and less bifurcated prior to Sunbather's release, but Deafheaven has made a uniquely compelling case that these changes should be happening faster. It's not an easy goal; of the many qualities this record possesses, "acquired taste" is one of them. The contours of the ever-shifting music and the depth of Clarke's lyrics take their time to sink in. But give it time; sometimes the best music demands a lot of its listeners. Call it black metal, call it "post-black" metal, call it "hipster metal", call it whatever you want. But Deafheaven's audacity and artistry are hard to deny, which is but one of many reasons why Sunbather is an essential listen, and one of 2013's boldest works of art.