Photo: Reneé Parkhurst

A Full Remix Makes Deafheaven’s ‘Sunbather’ Worth Revisiting

Deafheaven’s Sunbather was the first time a black metal act broke through the clutter of heavy metal releases to be appreciated outside of the genre’s fans.

17 November 2023

It’s been ten years since Deafheaven‘s second album, Sunbather, set the worlds of metal and music criticism on its ear. For the critic community, it was the first time a black metal act really broke through the clutter of heavy metal releases to be heard and widely appreciated outside of fans of the genre. From the metal community, though, there was a lot of pushback. Of all the bands to break through, it was these guys from San Francisco, not a Scandinavian band who had been doing it for decades. Not Alcest, a French act often cited for his pioneering work combining black metal sounds with other musical genres.

It’s a dichotomy that Deafheaven still deal with to this day. They’ve developed a strong following since Sunbather hit, but they’re unlikely to be touring with other groups in their ostensible genre. Instead, they play shows with indie rock acts like Drab Majesty, shoegazers like DIIV, or those that sit on the edges of metal, including Baroness and Coheed & Cambria. Deafheaven doesn’t really fit with the aesthetics of straight-up black metal, which is part of how Sunbather managed to gain recognition in the first place.

The album has cover art done in a pink gradient, with the title in large white letters that aren’t fully visible. It suggests white shadows from sunlight, with the sun off somewhere beyond the top right corner of the record, where the pink color gains hints of orange. This is not typical for black metal, where the band logos are often so jagged and busy as to be nearly illegible. Also not typical for black metal is Deafheaven’s sound, which incorporates melodic elements of indie genres like shoegaze and post-rock.

Once again, this is not to say that Deafheaven was the first or even necessarily the best band to use other styles in their heavy metal sound. Metal aficionados who go deep can assuredly rattle off a half-dozen others who also do this kind of thing. Sunbather was relatively uncompromising and had the correct elements at the right time.

This is apparent right from its opening notes. “Dream House” opens with 25 seconds of melodically ascending guitar noise from Kerry McCoy, a technique ripped from 1990s shoegaze music. After that intro, drummer Daniel Tracey comes in with pummeling blast beats, doubling (or more) the amount of noise. At the 50-second mark, George Clarke enters with a throat-shredded howl. There’s no melody in Clarke’s vocals anywhere on the album. It’s all shrieking and howling. Yet McCoy’s fondness for melody gives the listener musical anchors. Over its nine minutes and 15 seconds, “Dream House” repeatedly hits small sections of melodic guitar leads. These tuneful moments keep the song accessible, and it’s a technique the band employs to great success throughout the record.

The other appeal of Sunbather, at least for me, is how the constant distorted, reverbed guitars, blast beat drums, and howling vocals blur into a pleasant kind of heavy metal white noise. It’s always been a superb album to listen to on quiet walks, zoning out as its sound waves wash over. This is also a way of saying that the record’s original release has a muddy, washed-out mix. Maybe this is why the tenth-anniversary edition warranted a complete remix and not just the typical remaster that is more often done with reissues.

The remix treatment is immediately apparent to listeners familiar with the record. It’s very clearly the same recording, but the layers of guitar at the start of “Dream House” are more distinct, and when Tracey’s drums come in, we can suddenly hear each drum and cymbal hit clearly. For the first time, the drums don’t feel like dull blast beats all the way through. Now, individual rhythms and fills stand out amongst the pounding. Clarke’s vocals are clearer as well, although that doesn’t make him any more intelligible. This is the case throughout the record. McCoy’s guitars are toned down just a touch in the mix, but each one (and there are sometimes four or five different guitar parts) is more separated. The tweaking of Tracey’s drums and Clarke’s vocals really brings the sound of Sunbather into much clearer focus. The remixed edition does lose the “pleasant white noise” aspect, but it’s not like the original version of the album is going away.

There aren’t many other perks as far as the reissue goes. There are, of course, limited edition expensive colored vinyl versions to be had. Other than that, though, it’s just the same album, fully remixed. There are no outtakes, alternate takes, or B-sides included. Still, this version of Sunbather is absolutely worth hearing.

These seven songs are a weird mixture of fully realized pieces and half-baked ideas. Four epic, punishing metal songs and three calmer, medium-length interstitials exist. On future albums, Deafheaven got better at combining these elements into single songs, but here it’s split. This time, the relationships between the heavy songs and the quiet transitions stood out.

“Dream House” gradually loses speed, ending with a chunky, melodic outro that disperses directly into “Irresistible”. “Irresistible” opens with at least two, possibly even three, quiet, clean electric guitars. Another guitar comes in on the low end with the melody and is soon joined by another guitar harmonizing that melody line. Eventually, the piano enters, but Clarke and even Tracey are nowhere to be found in the song.

“Sunbather” has both more melodic stops and longer heavy sections than “Dream House”, and it pushes harder into its ending. Consequently, “Please Remember”, with its eerie backward guitars and muttered, heavily accented spoken word lyrics, is more disconcerting than the pleasant “Irresistible”. Around 1:20, the song gradually starts to be overwhelmed by white noise, culminating in almost a full minute of a high-pitched drilling sound that’s as hard to take as anything Clarke howls on the record. Eventually, it stops, giving way to the second half, where strummed acoustic guitar buttresses a mournful, reverb electric guitar melody.

“Vertigo”, the record’s longest track at over 14 minutes, is also its most dynamic. It opens with a genuinely creepy guitar riff and some tense drums from Tracey. Another new treat for the remix is that the bass guitar is clearly audible in this section. The band builds gradually into the heaviness, with McCoy bringing in a 1980s metal-style solo before the song kicks in with Clarke, a full five minutes in. The track also ends with a significant slowdown, culminating in a final chord that fades into “Windows”, Sunbather‘s oddest track.

“Windows” begins with a man negotiating a deal with a primarily unheard person, while the scratchy sound of a writing pencil dominates the foreground. Slow piano chords and feedback-laden guitar noise accompany the voices as they shift to what sounds like a street preacher speaking through a megaphone about Jesus, but mostly Hell. From the beginning, the man resurfaces and continues making deals. It’s strange and unsettling, and the remix doesn’t help it make more sense.

“The Pecan Tree” closes the album with a blistering, black metal beginning. This opening is buoyed by the remix, putting a really clear focus on Tracey and Clarke. After four minutes, the song enters an extended quiet section, drifting from a subdued reverb guitar lead to a piano-based melody. This is also the first instance of McCoy pulling out his “seagull sounds” on his guitar, something he will return to in the future. This section settles into an eight-bar vamp as the band drift along lazily for several minutes. Finally, the chunky guitars kick back in, Clarke returns, and the album ends on a mid-tempo but triumphant note.

Sunbather is a landmark album for Deafheaven. It put them on the musical map and gave them a career. It helped carve a narrow path for bands with harsh vocals to succeed with audiences that aren’t generally into that style of music. Fans can argue whether or not it’s their best (for me, nope, that’d be Ordinary Corrupt Human Love), but it’s their most important record. This tenth-anniversary remix genuinely helped me appreciate it more, which is not always true with a remaster.

RATING 8 / 10