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Two years after releasing their solid, genre bending debut full-length "Roads to Judah", Deafheaven return with their second effort "Sunbather". Combining the post-rock, black metal, and shoegazing elements that made "Roads to Judah" so great, the dudes in Deafheaven really have upped their game this time around. Out of all the albums that came out in 2013, Deafheaven definitely were in my "top 5" with this release. It's melodic, atmospheric, bright as sunlight, and overall, beautiful. This album, even more so than it's predecessor, has garnered a lot of controversy in the black metal community for it's "post-black metal" sound. However, as we all know so well, that does not make the album bad. For me, the reason this album receives so much negativity is either simply based on personal preference, or the fact that a lot of black metal fans are elitist pricks. That really doesn't even matter, because people's opinions have never affected my own.
Like the previous album, Deafheaven continues the same idea of beginning the album with the strongest track. "Dream House" is, in my opinion, definitely the album's best. It contains every single piece of the puzzle that takes part in the overall sound. Building off of a melodic tremolo guitar riff, we soon fall victim to an explosive, rapid fire blast beat that definitely nods to the classic black metal style. This song combines this harsh sound with absolutely breathtaking aesthetics of pure beauty and ambience created with the guitars. A lot of the more harsh black metal sections throughout this album remind me specifically of Wolves in the Throne Room, who are indeed known for implementing atmospheric ambience in their music, but at the same time, can create sonic blasts of intensity as well. This album almost seems, in a way, bipolar thanks to these musical ideas; this album does an amazing job with creating a "duality effect" because of the soft, warm ambience and the classic black metal influenced sound that shines through like the summer sun on a sparkling-clean windshield. I could definitely see someone picking up this LP, looking at the album art, and making a comment along the lines of: "Oh, man! It's pink! That's totally fucking gay!" and that's definitely a problem in metal nowadays. This is a perfect example of "don't judge a book by its cover" but in this case, an album. Once you put this into your player, you'll be surprised at how truly metal this beast is.
The energy behind the entire band surely is on par with "Roads to Judah", maybe even a little more so. Everyone does their job extremely well here and plays very tightly throughout the album's hour-long run time. The drums are extremely consistent throughout, and vary between hyper speed blast beasts, mid-paced rock sections, and double bass. I must say, while blast beats are a main ingredient in the black metal formula, it never ceases to amaze me just how consistent and fast some of these drummers can play. This certainly is no exception. The vocals performed by George Clarke are still as harsh as ever, which definitely are the "coldest" element on an otherwise sweltering hot, "sunbathing" album. He does not use clean vocals here, which is another similarity to "Roads to Judah". These vocals are very much influenced by obviously black metal, but also maybe a bit of post-hardcore as well. These vocals contrast quite nicely with the otherwise beautiful, soaring, melodic black metal sound that the album tends to radiate throughout on it's main songs. Although, they are really quiet on this mix on this album, and could have been slightly louder.
Wait, did I just say main songs? Yes, I did. The album's four main songs are "Dream House", "Sunbather", "Vertigo", and "The Pecan Tree". The other four songs are basically non-metal interludes to these metal songs, which is where my main complaint with this album lies within. These interludes are surely not bad, and are overall quite beautiful and peaceful. However, they seem to drag on in certain places. This is especially the case with "Please Remember". This song is generally beautiful, but at it's over 6-minute run time, it really is too long for an interlude. That's more than enough time for an actual song. Another slight downside to this album are the lyrics, which really isn't that big a deal, but do sound downright cheesy at times. For example, taken from the title-track:
"It's 5 A.M...and my heart flourishes at each passing moment. Always and forever."
These lyrics tend to deal with love, and that's definitely the album's most "non-black metal" feature and a huge reason to why these guys receive so much negative attention. This certainly is not a big deal to me, and you really can't understand much of the lyrics anyway with the vocal style and volume, but they are somewhat cheesy.
Despite it's minimal flaws attributing to the album not receiving a perfect score from me, it is still a masterpiece and the best album Deafheaven has released thus far. I'm really excited for whatever they'll be releasing in the future. These guys have the potential to be one of the greatest metal bands in history, in my opinion, and they are certainly well on their way. So fuck the negative energy these guys receive, and just enjoy the music. Deafheaven is amazing, and "Sunbather" is gorgeous.
Many bands these days gain hype over music that is seemingly dedicated to the lowest common denominator. Deafheaven is no exception. Lacking any semblance of feeling and imagination, "Sunbather" seems to continue to make its rounds among many communities even outside of metal as a unique masterpiece. I find this baffling personally. The first time I listened to this album, my thoughts varied. "Why do something Amesoeurs perfected years ago?" "Why are the riffs absolutely lifeless and boring?" and "Why is this considered 'good'?" Okay, maybe not varied. I just found it confusing that a group of talented musicians could put out something so sub par and yet have it succeed as this album did. Then I remembered, this is the real world. Or something to that effect. So I stepped back, with the intention of giving the band another chance at a later date, in the hopes of finding some redeemable aspect. An error on my part considering I might have already made up my mind on how I felt about the music. "But some tunes grow on you" - This album absolutely did not grow on me. If anything, it festered like an abscess which I would gladly have removed, in the hopes of never experiencing it again.
I've heard countless reviews declaring this album to be a stellar and incomparable album. A 'work of art'. And for that I ask... Why? This album has its merits, don't get me wrong. The mix is clear. For the most part, most every instrument is audible which can be rare in many cases. The tone of said instruments holds well together, nothing sounds terribly out of place. The vocals seem to sit behind the mix instead of on top, adding to the atmosphere and not diminishing the musicianship therein. The vocals are also not really annoying, actually bearable. And there are SOME riffs that are catchy and/or pleasant to listen to. Unfortunately, I'd say most of these facets pale in comparison to the overwhelming pile of garbage in this album.
The album as a whole is completely boring. I would say that this is a matter of opinion, but this dynamic has already been done before. There is literally nothing new to any of the music. Time and time again it falls short in holding the listener's attention, and rehashes ideas, atmosphere and riffs that bands before have already perfected. I'd say that if Deafheaven were to play in this fashion, they should at least find a better way to draw in listeners, and keep them coming back. Do something new, you know? These guys obviously have the capacity to. First, the guitar riffs. One of the most important aspects of the music to me, in that they carry the melody (or lack thereof) as well as holding my interest, regardless of various aspects that would turn me off to an album. Like I said before, there are SOME riffs in this album that shine through (various riffs in the title track Sunbather for example). But a majority of these riffs make me feel as if I'm listening to a local rock radio station. These riffs are borderline laughable, and they feel as if they've been written with little to no emotion or imagination. I just have to pause the album at that point and let it sink in. Second, the drums. While the drums are tight, I feel like they too were written with little imagination. Fills, I've literally heard millions of times. Lines where it sounds like the drummer became bored and just did simple cookie cutter pieces. The drums rarely seem to shine through in this album. There could have been so much more to them, rather than to hold the beat, and then blast when it was deemed fit. Third, the bass. Just as boring as the guitar work. Barely audible in some points. Though this is sort of like black metal, bass has had little importance in previous works (with the exception of bands like Abigor) so I won't count that. Lastly, the vocals. I said before that the vocals are bearable. They sound underneath the mix, as to not take away from the atmosphere. Personally, I think it would sound better if it was at least 60% instrumental. What I will say is that the lyrics are interesting. Obviously not anti-theist, or satanic. Poetic in a sense. Not bad.
I give this album a 30% based on these things. The lack of imagination in the music itself, seemingly defined as a masterpiece and a work of art, greatly outweighs the few fleeting moments of decent writing. I do not revel in writing such a bad review about a band that is clearly talented. If Deafheaven were to release a new album, I would attempt to listen to it in the hopes that they do not repeat this. These guys have the ability to, no doubt. All in all I find "Sunbather" to be a dime store version of Amesoeurs. If you are all about listening to mediocre post rock mixed with black metal, this album is for you. If you're looking for something better, go listen to Amesoeurs, Wolves in the Throne Room, Onryo, Lantlos, Dopamine etc.
Gentlemen (and ladies), there is a war upon the very soil of the genre we call metal. It is a war waged not by Tipper Gore and TV evangelists howling about the Satanic ramifications of your mortal soul for listening to Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast, and not by the misguided mainstream appreciation of the genre in the light of bands such as Nirvana and Korn - but by a far more insidious and sinister force. This is a force that attempts to destroy metal from the inside, by introducing non-metal elements subtly and then slowly overtaking metal until there are NO true metal fans left at all, and instead only skinny-jeans-wearing, latte-sipping hipsters!
Yes, truly I am speaking of Deafheaven’s Sunbather. This is the war against hipsters, people; and we are the front lines of defense.
The album’s focused and clear vision of what it wants to do is realized through long and textured melodic songs with sweeping riffs and gentle acoustic melodies. The vocals are a sorta-blackish howl that contrasts quite nicely with the “pretty” music, and creates an interesting dynamic. The main focus of the music is atmosphere rather than riffs or one singular instrument, and the songs tend to work best when you sort of let them roll over you like waves, rather than sitting there and waiting for the next killer riff or “jump out at you” moment.
It is this very introspective nature, as well as the “pretty” feeling some of the music has, that makes Deafheaven’s plot so evil and underhanded - by playing these distinctly non-metal elements against rather generalized pseudo-black metal-style riffing and the harsh vocals, they are tempting loyal metal fans with 30 pieces of silver, so to speak. Who knows what evil could come if fans of metal were introduced to non-metal elements when they think they’re going to hear metal? Good thing you guys were here to catch that one before it started. Nipped it in the bud, man. In the bud.
Lyrically, the band spins enigmatic tales of lovelorn emptiness and of the vast contemplations of the human soul. I won’t try and claim these are great lyrics, as they are too vague and don’t really get the point across all that well, but there is a certain level of feeling to them; an authenticity that I think makes them rather interesting. They come off as a bit like a high schooler’s attempts at writing dark poetry, albeit with an enlarged vocabulary, and the earnestness of them really shines through and gives the band a voice - I certainly prefer it over reading any more generic Iced Earth/Megadeth/Nevermore lyrics about how the world is going to shit, or reading Gothenburg word-salad nonsense lyrics, but hey, that’s me.
These lyrics are definitely not typical for a metal band, and if something released by a purported “metal band” (read: a band submitted to Metal Archives) isn’t 100% metal, there’s definitely reasonable suspicion to believe that they may be conspiring to bring down metal as we know it and let open a floodgate of hipsters. The danger is real.
The songs tend to sound alike, which adds to the unified feel of the album. “Dream House” is the obvious stand out, with its wistful melody and rather expert combination of the loud and soft parts to create a tense and yet also forlorn atmosphere - it’s a complex mood and the song remains engaging all the way through. The title track and “The Pecan Tree” are two other long, oceanic epics, and they work pretty well, though not as well as the aforementioned opener. Only “Vertigo” could probably be trimmed down by a few minutes, but even that one isn’t offensive in its length or anything; just a tad too long. Softer interlude tracks like “Windows” and “Please Remember” also work well to add counterpoint and drama in-between the more exhaustive longer songs - and they are made atmospherically interesting through the use of somewhat muffled sound clips, which lend an eerie, slightly darker feel to the proceedings. Overall its moods and textures are complex and engaging.
The atmosphere of Sunbather overall has a rather pleasant temperament to it, painting mental pictures of crumbling Victorian houses by lakes overtaken by weeds and mold and of desolate countryside fields under a pregnant sky, swelling to storm. It’s a very affecting and poignant work. While I profess no expertise in genres like screamo or post rock or anything else like that - and readily admit there are bands who probably do this sound better than Deafheaven - I still find the album enjoyable overall and it listens like a breeze for me.
But let’s not get too far away from the main point here - these kinds of interesting and multi-layered atmospheric moments are just window-dressing to distract us from the band’s true motive: destroying metal from the inside out. I can’t let myself be distracted here. By playing with a few metal elements in their stew of mostly non-metal parts, the band shows us their true colors - serpents surrounding the Tree of Life of metal; tempting those nubile and innocent metal fans away from their beloved genre and contaminating it with acoustic guitars, a melodic sensibility decidedly un-metal and screaming vocals that could easily be from some kind of post-hardcore or screamo band rather than black metal. Evil. Disgustingly evil.
This will be a long and bloody war for sure, but we do have a great line of defense in any number of black metal fans sitting at home and judging music for truly justified reasons like, “they were reviewed positively in Pitchfork.” Or, always a favorite: the band members wear clothes we don’t like and wear glasses on stage. Glasses! The gall. What would I have done if not for the presence of these valiant souls to guide me in the right direction of how to properly listen to music?
I’m sure glad I was corrected about my misguided beliefs that music was about feeling and personal expression, but clearly it’s more about hating whatever Pitchfork likes and whether or not the band members conform to a metal fashion style - these are the most important things. What more can I say but: keep on fighting the good fight, metal soldiers. Never give up.
Aesthetics are often the most noted aspect of black metal, an image that reflects the imagery and atmosphere of the music. The grainy black-and-white silhouette of Transilvanian Hunger - itself an homage to Mayhem, or the selective obscurity of the LLN - imitated often, but to little effect. These images paired with the sound, Darkthrone's being a bare, stripped-down shadow, and the LLN having a very rough sound with a very strong ideology and foundation beneath it. Here we have a band from San Francisco with a Peptobismol-colored cover bearing only a title of a ritual of darkening that is nearly foreign to black metal, California's favorite way of getting skin cancer. "It's different!" it exclaims, espousing an alleged virtue that sets it apart from the other records in the store - or, let's be realistic, the other thumbnails on YouTube.
Deafheaven collide headfirst with the predicament of imitation in black metal, and keep going. When black metal was first commercialized in the mid 90s, there was quickly a flood of second-rate bands who softened it up with a friendlier formula - a bit of blasting fury stretched out into long, wandering songs with acoustic interludes - back then it was sugared up with keyboards, now it's sweetened with major scales and the folky interludes are now post-rock. Despite the superficial updates to the aesthetic appeal, it still follows the same failures - overlong songs that go nowhere for no reason and only hope that the listener follows the trail of candy. Grim gothic/black metal may be a thing of the past, but the same follies are found here without facepaint. A new shade of gloss over the same poor construction, an hour with four songs and interludes. A bitter man once told me that this album was just a repackaging of Orchid's "Gatefold" - at two and a half times the length, this album takes that title at face value. That style of minute-long busts of fury becomes horribly deformed when stretched to 10-15 minutes, like trying to perfectly straighten a paper clip then reshape it to its original form. Dip it in sugar to make rock candy and someone will eat it up.
Same old shortcomings, new superficial gimmick. Yay, Peptobismol!
This whole shoe-gazing post black metal (whatever genre you want to call it, I'm not going to split hairs on the categorization) style isn't altogether new. Alcest has been doing this style reasonably well, with decent commercial success, but not to a level remarkable for a metal band. Deafheaven on the other hand, takes a similar approach with some twists. The chord progressions are generally major chord dominated and have overall optimistic or at least sentimental sound to them. This contrasts with the vocals, the closest to which I've heard would be to Leftover Crack on "Operation M.O.V.E.". Pretty aggressive, unintelligible and fairly monotonous in pitch. Not detrimental in and of themselves (this is metal after all... I think) but for me there is a fundamental disconnect between the instruments, the vocals, and the lyrical content.
The instruments as mentioned are fairly well produced, and in such a way that guitars are generally using a wall of sound type of approach, tremolo picking riffs that harmonize to outline chords which is a pretty standard approach. However, when taking into account that basically every song is in a major key, it is hard to reconcile the uplifting feeling the guitars provide with the vocals. The vocals just do not work for me with this style of riffing, there's a complete confusion as to what type of tone the songs are trying to set, which only gets more confused by the lyrics, which are sentimental verging on cheese. It's like a painting with a sunny setting where the main object of focus is in complete dissonance with the setting, channeling a angry melancholy. I personally think Alcest does this style of riffing a service by complimenting it with clean vocals of ethereal quality, giving a far more consistent tone to the music. Also, if one insists on harsh vocals in this style I'd say go check out Envy, who pull off harsh vocals with this type of riffing (and post rock interludes) far more effectively in my opinion.
Another gripe I have is the rudimentary melodic lines that all the songs have as far as guitars are concerned. It makes sense to add some variation and distinction to songs and not simply tremolo pick every riff. However melodies like the end of "Dream House" sound woefully uninspired, in fact the end of "Dream House" reminds me of a novice arpeggio exercise, playing a the I chords arpeggio for a while and then moving up to the ii and iii chords arpeggios... I can't say I find this particularly musically impressive or creative. The post rock elements of the guitars also don't particularly wow me. Many of the intricacies and layered melodies and harmonies that clean guitar passages in post rock utilize aren't present here, clean passages are much more basic on Sunbather, which is okay in and of itself. I think was disappointed by their quality as a result of anticipation based on what I had heard about the album before listening to it, perhaps it's not wholly fair to be critical on that point.
My final assessment would be that this album has many interesting aspects and areas for the band to grow and shine in but it is far from a coherent album. Too many conflicting and un-resolvable elements are found here. To the bands credit it is an adventurous combination of styles, but it simply doesn't do it for me. A couple final personal notes that took this album from an objective "below average" in my book to a subjective "not good / bad": The lyrics are god awful. Atrocious. To the point where knowing the subject matter leaves me even more confused as to the mood and tone of the songs and why the instrumentation was paired with the lyrical content on this album. Lastly, the god damn cover looks like a Swedish House Mafia single cover. Dear. Baby. Jesus.
As a final note in regard to other reviews on M-A calling this black metal, if this is black metal then we have final proof that black metal is in fact dead.
Post-black metal is all the rage these days. It's the proverbial "what are the kids listening to now?" music for metal, destined to drive off dedicated listeners of more traditional, "true" black metal by incorporating major keys and a decidedly brighter element to the style, both musically and in terms of outlook on life and existence (well, most of the time; see Altar of Plagues for when the genre gets gritty). The thing to remember about black metal is that of all the different styles and subgenres of metal that have developed over the last 40 years, black metal may be the most open to experimentation. It's been fused with old school speed metal (Midnight), power metal (Satan's Host), rock 'n' roll (later Satyricon and the first Kvelertak album), sludge (Coffinworm and Churchburn), hardcore punk (Darkthrone and Okkultokrati), and even some jazz at times (Swedish Shining, particularly on Halmstad). Mixing it with post-rock/metal and shoegaze is just the next step in the genre's history of experimentation and fusion. Deafheaven, America's beefed up response to the sudden and striking popularity of French shoegazers Alcest, has taken that fusion to the next level with Sunbather, almost perfectly blending the two into an hour long mass of beautiful chaos.
Beautiful chaos. I used that term originally when describing Liturgy's failed attempt at cultivating such an atmosphere with their 2011 release Aesthethica. It definitely had moments where it was going right, but those moments ended nearly as quickly as they began, preferring to rest comfortably in a meandering daze from which the album just could not recover. Sunbather is kind of like what that album would be like if the band were good at taking the great ideas that came their way and running with them. From the moment opener "Dream House" shifts into a pummeling onslaught of blasting and shrieking, you realize you've got something special on your hands, as the tremolo picking here creates an atmosphere unlike anything I've heard before in black metal. It's both beautiful and punishing at the same time, battering the listener with extended bursts of blackened mania before settling down into post-rock worthy of making one gaze at their shoe. It helps greatly that the production values here are as good as they are, with natural drums, rich guitars, and a ripe authentic feeling pulsating throughout the entire record. The instrumentation is astounding as well, with drummer Daniel Tracy stealing the show through his nonstop barrage of blasting and manic fills with the power and force to match any "real" extreme metal music. He also knows just when to dial it back enough for the spacier sections, an approach giving the tunes the air they need to make a real lasting impression.
The songs tend to exist in two halves: crazy black metal madness, and moving, emotional post-rock, and while the black metal sections have that post-rock undertone peppering the tremolo picking and blast beats, the styles usually stay a bit further apart than you'd think here. Still, the sections flow from one to another seamlessly, with special mention going to the switch in the middle of "Dream House" and when "Vertigo" really picks up about 5 minutes in (although those 5 minutes do feel very long and could disinterest those with shorter attention spans). The entire back half of "The Pecan Tree" may be the band's absolute crowning achievement, with the lush post-rock melodies glimmering out over a pulsating drum beat sure to make one feel as though you're in a vast open meadow or field just staring at the sky. Even the interlude tracks flow well here, although they more often than not work way better in the context of the album as a whole rather than as standalone tracks. If "Irresistible" were a couple minutes longer it would be a great easy listening piece on its own, but at only 3 minutes it absolutely is better as a transition from "Dream House" to the title track than it is on its own. As for which style tends to dominate over the other, black metal and post-rock coexist peacefully here, although I tend to view the album as half being more black metal based ("Dream House" and the title track) and half being more post-rock based ("Vertigo" and "The Pecan Tree").
On the subject of the album's lyrics, I've seen many people take issue with the fact that the lyrics are as inane and ultimately meaningless as they are, and...yeah, they're kind of right. Even when you don't compare them to the infinitely superior lyrics of the band's debut Roads to Judah, the lyrics on Sunbather are inane, poorly thought out, and just plain stupid. They are the one fault with this album, and the only reason I can't give it a perfect score. It's kind of ironic to me that the debut album had really good lyrics but not that interesting music has flip flopped to having excellent music but lame, shallow, intensely idiotic lyrics. It's not like you can understand them anyway, what with vocalist George Clarke's Neige-inspired shriek rendering all attempts at legibility fruitless. The way they're written means that rather than there being any real "lines" lyrically, they're vocalized in a more flowing manner, like if you just wrote a paragraph of nonsensical blabber and screamed it out over the music. It does work well enough for the music here, but I've never preferred lyrics written that way. The one time they work really well is in the back half of "Dream House", with Clarke's pained howls of "I want to dream" punctuating the music in such a manner that I was overwhelmed by just how massive it all was. The reason the bad lyrics don't ding the overall score that much is because you really can just forget all about them and still get full satisfaction out of the music, as if they didn't exist at all. All in all the lyrics are a failed attempt at introspection that are best left to the wayside as you allow the music itself to overtake you, kind of like watching a really good silent movie but in musical form.
In the end, Sunbather is an achievement previously unseen in the realm of post-black metal. While bands before it tended to either sway too far to the black metal side or the post-rock side, or were just post-rock/shoegaze records with metal elements sprinkled throughout, Deafheaven have taken the two styles and blended them together in a way that seems only fitting. Take one part atmospheric black metal, one part shimmering post-rock, mix them together so that both styles are represented fairly equally, and they ended up creating the best album of 2013. Their very hipster-y image I know has and will put off a lot of prospective listeners who have yet to experience Sunbather, but I encourage you to not let that dissuade you from the band and this album and jump right in. At the end of the day, Sunbather is just that: an experience, and it's unlike anything ever seen or heard in extreme metal music.
The first album of the Californian Deafheaven struck me as an easier to digest version of their New York counterparts in Krallice and Liturgy. While clearly more mature than Liturgy could ever hope to be, their brand of soaring black metal was only retreading grounds Krallice (among other established acts) had already explored thoroughly on their self-titled debut. Having more or less regarded Deafheaven as a decent but not particularly noteworthy post-black metal band, the overwhelming critical acclaim heaped upon Sunbather came as quite the surprise to me, so I caved in gave it a listen.
Sure enough, the album kicks off to a very promising start: the opener Dream House is one hell of a song, even if it all feels like one surging climax after another, never letting up. It's only until the obligatory clean bit in the middle that the band gives listeners a little more space to breathe, before a slower post-metal dirge finally rounds things out. The simple but innocently beautiful guitar interplay of the following song, Irresistible, serves as a perfect conclusion to Dream House; so much so that splitting the two feels completely unnecessary.
But that's when the album stops being interesting. From that point on, Deafheaven prove to be nothing more than a one-trick pony, attempting to recreate the ferocity of Dream House, but never really doing it. Vertigo, for example, briefly suggests the possibility of exploring darker territory with its haunting introductory arpeggio, but merely settles into the usual saccharine self-indulgence after a few minutes. Fast and loud, slow and soft: that's the formula the band use, both between tracks and within the tracks themselves, and it's a formula they run into the ground.
Aside from the heavy-handed dynamics, it's rather shocking how one-dimensional Sunbather manages to be. George Clarke's piercing but muffled howl, while admittedly rather impressive, is completely monotonous. Listen to the first syllable he screams – that's pretty much all he'll ever do for the rest of the album. The same goes for Kerry McCoy's riffs; distorted and tremolo-picked major key chords with lots of glistening sevenths during the predominant faster moments, or clean arpeggios whenever the band needs to go half-time... Nothing else.
Lyrically, Clarke rambles on about generally melancholic...stuff, with wishy-washy and painfully pretentious musings such as "my heart flourishes at each passing moment" and "hunched over in apathetic grief with a disregard for steps except the one taken back". Sheesh. Don't even get me started on Windows, where drug-dealing samples are juxtaposed with street preaching for five goddamn minutes.
But on their own, the mind-numbing vocals, or the inoffensively shimmery riffing isn’t all that bad. Even the insipid lyrics can sort of be forgiven if you simply choose not to read them. No, Sunbather's major pitfall is the haphazard inclusion of blastbeats. The constant blasting simply doesn't gel with the music. In fact, it almost ruins the sugary prettiness of the riffs. Now, I'm not saying blastbeats don't belong in post-black metal – they were good on Dream House, if only because it was the first instance of them – but when nearly the entire album is filled with them, what you get is an hour-long blastfest with half-assed interludes spliced in for the sake of variation. It gets worse when the guitars inexplicably get faster and faster in a desperate struggle to keep up with all the blasting. It's not a complete mess like Liturgy's outright confounding bursts of tempo, but it still takes away from what could potentially be a very rich, absorbing atmosphere.
Sunbather could have very well been an excellent post-black metal album if they'd just cut it out with all this ridiculous blasting, but instead, it turned out to be... this. It has all the immediacy of black metal, with the varying (albeit highly forced) dynamics of post-rock, but the manner in which the two styles so antagonistically clash with each other makes Sunbather, regrettably, less than the sum of its parts. If its Billboard charting is anything to go by, Sunbather is certain to please just about anyone wanting to get into post-black metal, but in the end, that's all it will ever be: ‘black metal’ for people who don't like black metal.
Deafheaven's Sunbather is possibly the most polarizing metal album of the 2010's thus far. In the grand scheme of things, there really is no middle ground. You either love this album, or you despise this album. I fall into the category that thoroughly enjoys this record. The guys in Deafheaven have made something truly special with their sophomore release Sunbather.
I remember hearing the overwhelmingly positive reviews given upon release and decided to check it out. I remember hearing "Dream House" for the first time and still to this day I think it was one of the best songs of 2013. A song with such power and force, but also peace and tranquility thrown in for good measure that makes for a truly wonderful song. The rest of the actual songs on this album are also top notch and follow in similar fashion with most parts favoring cold sounding black metal with a dash of post-rock/metal sections amidst the chaos. The interludes are also good and help separate the songs and give you a breather from the intensity, but at some cases they do become a bit monotonous.
The playing on this album is pretty top notch. The vocals from George Clarke are some of the best black metal shrieks that I have heard. The only thing that would have possibly made the vocals better would be if some clean vocals were added, but it's not a huge detriment. The guitar playing is fabulous as well. Whether they are playing blistering black metal chords amongst the shrieks and blast beats, or playing beautiful chords of post music, Kerry McCoy really plays the hell out of his guitar on this record. The drumming which was handled by Daniel Tracy can also be discussed. He plays the drums exactly the way he needs to, nothing too flashy, he just does his job and that is fine because the way the album sounds, flashy drums probably wouldn't stand out much.
So in conclusion Deafheaven's Sunbather in my opinion is one of the best albums of 2013 and of the decade so far. It's an album that really breaks the mold of the genres of post music and black metal. It's an album that has been praised by mainstream reviewers and it may be the album that puts extreme metal into the mainstream. You may simply call it "hipster" metal, but it's so much more than that. I'm also really excited to see where Deafheaven will take us on their next album. So please if you enjoy the genres of music that have been mentioned in this, then please do yourself a favor and listen to this metal masterpiece.
2013 was a year ruled by oddities within the music world. Outside the world of metal, artists released albums way out of their normal standards and were lauded for it. But nothing is as odd as the fact a black metal album is almost unanimously the #1 album on every end of the year list. It's really just insane if you think about it. Black metal. On a list of the best albums. And at #1. Who's pranking us?
Deafheaven are a post black metal band from San Francisco. They've released some highly regarded albums before "Sunbather", and are a highly buzzed about band in the music world. Musically speaking, "Sunbather" is just really straightforward black metal, but apparently it's not because bands like Mayhem aren't on Rolling Stone's list of their favorite albums for the year 1994. It's almost like listening to a drum exercise, except there is a man standing in your face screaming wildly for 9 minutes, with intervals of really shining guitars and a bunch of people telling you to love it. I kid, it's not that bad. 9 minute opener ""Dream House" is, admittedly, a beautiful song. Beautiful that is after the 5 straight minutes of mindless screeching and blasting on the drums. It's taking two obtuse formulas and putting them together. The shoegazy sadness of indie rock, and the raw, soul piercing rage that is raw black metal. If these formulas weren't meant to work (a la rap metal, or industrial grind snooze core or some bullshit), they wouldn't work. But it works, if not in an intriguing non-corrosive way.
The true spotlight on the album is meant to be the guitar work. Many times when a guitarist is deciding how to construct a riff, they will take nods and influences from whomever inspired them or what they enjoy playing. Deafheaven guitarist Kerry McCoy has taken two horrifically non-alike genres of music and somehow made them almost mesh into one, with ease at that. Black metal is not meant to be able to blend so well with a genre like post rock, or shoegaze, or indie rock if you will. But the slew of bands that have made it so immensely popular over the last 5 years or so have taken that notion out of any music fans minds.
When black metal began some eons ago (it feels like eons), the music was meant to be more a statement than a real genre of music. There were rules, and guidelines, and inevitably there were fatalities. Only rivaled by hardcore rap, no genre of music takes itself so damn seriously as black metal does, or did I should say. Bands like Mayhem, Darkthrone, Gorgoroth, etc really believed that they were somehow instilling fear into the hearts of "non trves" and posers by wearing corpse like makeup and wearing all black. It may seem like a joke now, but Mayhem's Dead's infamous death photo was referenced in the liner notes of "Dawn of the Black Hearts" as his assertion of absolute trueness. He blew his head off with a shotgun, and they loved him for it. That was the attitude. However, nowadays, black metal's entire demeanor and ethos has almost completely changed. That idea of extremity has been pushed into new avenues, and the one that has seemed to flourish immensely is the idea to musically challenge both yourself and the listener. Deafheaven haven't, by any means, created a noise album a la Lou Reed, but they have challenged the listener to step out of their box of comfort, all while treating them to some immensely pleasing melodies and soundscapes. It's as though they too have tried to instill an emotion in the hearts of people, albeit not fear and suicide.
In summation, Deafheaven do ultimately deserve the accolades they have gotten for "Sunbather". While not a perfect 10/10 by any means, this is, at its weakest, a really strong atmospheric black metal album. The title track is a true work of art if you were to look at it subjectively. There's so much going on, yet not really much going on. It's like Jackson Pollock meets minimalism, with a touch of Fenriz for good measure. If you're looking for a good album to just space out to, this is not it. This demands attentiveness, even in its most pulled back moments. But if you're looking for a good album to swaddle you in a mayhemic landscape of beauty, brawn, and bestial rage.....You may need help but this album is for you. Kudos to Deafheaven for trying to different, because God knows there's a whole lot of slackers out there.
Concerning whether it's (black) metal or not: play it loud and ask your neighbors.
Self-absorbed lyrics? Yes, indeed. Like in most metal bands, regardless of the sub-genre. Isn't metal thought to be embraced by all the lost and introspective souls out there anyway?
Major keys? True. And if 'major key' does not equal 'metal', well then, strike Iron Maiden off the list of metal bands immediately!
Juvenile lyrics about unrequited love? Yup. But: symphonic/gothic metal, anyone? And while we are speaking of 'juvenile', it's of course metal enough to record “Pure Fucking Armageddon” and “Deathcrush” shouting juvenile crap about ghouls and gutsfuck into the microphone, right? Any other type of juvenile crap is out of the question. Oh, but maybe you have to be juvenile AND grammatically incorrect at the same time to be metal? Or is love as the theme of lyrics the problem? Hm, why is Nightwish metal then? Or are they?
But does this reviewer care? Not really. Categorizing as such is mostly pointless, but it seems that the whole discussion on Deafheaven being 1) metal (or not), 2) innovators (or not) seems to overshadow the album itself. What I tried to point out above is the fact that traits present for decades in metal music of various kinds are suddenly being used against a band that combine them in a bit different way, adding significant post-rock influences (also less uncommon in metal music than would seem, only Deafheaven make the influence more pronounced). Different, mind you, does not mean, innovative or groundbreaking. This album is neither. What is it then?
A piece of highly enjoyable, well-composed, and well-played music – on constant heavy rotation in my stereo. What I enjoy about this album the most is how well-composed it is. Contrary to what you may read in some places, it's not all major key. What Deafheaven do is mix major and minor key harmonies and melodies, at times adding some note bending and dissonance on top. True, initial listens may not reveal it, but this is the key component of songwriting on "Sunbather”. Also, there is a degree of unpredictability in the compositions which makes me want to revisit the album. Each time the songs move into the 'less pretty' territory (and they do), the listener may rest assured that there is a release awaiting them just around the corner. And this is an immensely rewarding technique. If you listen carefully, you'll notice that the motives do not tend to be repeated too often. The music shifts and twists constantly, through harmonic and melodic variations, and it's highly effective.
The drumming is all-out excellent. The hyperactive playing adds a great amount of dynamics and power to the music. The long stretches of unrelenting blasting (“Vertigo”) are also a nice touch. The way the drums are mixed, along with the rest of the instruments, makes this album sound powerful, yet not overbearing, and create the feeling of 'riding the waves' that I like so much (Wolves in the Throne Room and Alcest come to mind).
The vocals are what I expect from this kind of music. One-dimensional but powerful and mixed low enough to be present but not overwhelming. On a sidenote, I used to think that vocals in post black metal are totally unnecessary until I heard Morphinist. The music was severely lacking precisely due to the lack of vocal. So, there.
The interludes? A pause for breath between the blasting sections. Maybe the album could do without them, but they are there and this face does not bother me, nor does it lessen my enjoyment of it. (Another sidenote, the track "Windows” sounds similar to a section of Godspeed You! Black Emperor's "Lift Yr. Skinny Fists...” album.)
In short, this is one of the best (if not the best) albums of 2013, which I listen to very often, and each time with pleasure. It's also emotional and naive – but in a good way. Simply put, I like it. A lot. And whatever anyone would say or think about the band and this album specifically – "Sunbather” delivers what I expect from music in general, hence the perfect score. Hipster black metal? There's only good and bad music. This is the former.
Footnote: I mentioned Alcest. Curiously, they seem to receive less scorn for being un-metal than Deafheaven. Is it because most people don't speak French and can't bash the lyrics?
The amount of people who have expressed their utmost surprise at my dislike of this album is probably in the double digits at this point, and they're not without their justifications. I love anything that sounds bright and euphoric within a black metal template, hell, I don't even care if a given band completely stops being metal to try and further concentrate said hopeless euphoria; the end justifies the means. Sunbather sounded like it should have been right up my alley when I read about it in reviews prior to hearing it, and it's even caused the band to explode in popularity and receive a lot of attention from people who don't normally listen to this type of music. I think they may even be headlining a tour passing through my neck of the woods soon. I first caught wind of them back when Roads to Judah came out, and it was decent but didn't really stand out amidst the sea of other stuff coming out that was drawing from the exact same wells as most other music in the post-black vein. I then kind of forgot about this band for a couple of years, so watching them rise to prominence on the heels of Sunbather was a bit surreal. They've certainly upped the ante here and tried to write something more bombastic and individual, and it obviously seems to have given them a fanbase, but it isn't working for this post-black geek.
A substantial amount of people are going to be tricked into seeing this as revolutionary due to the remarkable drumming on display here. The drumming really is excellent, no other way to put it; there's a constant flurry of activity and texture within the blastbeat base that single-handedly saves this album from being the absolute nadir of all music and even may make it initially seem like something really is going on. The ebb and flow of the drums is so lush and smooth that I really wish this sort of drum style could be applied to an entirely black metal framework, but unfortunately that's not the only style influencing the music. There's a significant post-rock influence at play here, and its grandeur and major-key passionate bombast entirely dominates the clean breaks and additionally manages to permeate its way into the metallic riffs. This ends up counteracting the effect of the frantic drums completely, no mater how well-done they may be in their own right. Through hybridization and attempting to create a superior sound through synthesis of styles, Deafheaven have lost what made the parent styles beautiful in the first place.
People often mock black metal bands for overusing blastbeats in their music, but I personally never see them as anything but necessary to my black metal when used in the appropriate context, even if they run through the entire duration of the song. There's a certain focus and energy in black metal that only the stark repetition of blastbeats can accentuate properly, a passionate release of anger that with guitars that respond and acknowledge that the release in itself is cathartic with a prominent melody. In being overwhelmingly fast and frantic, they can make the music really powerful. However, the near-reliance on them when the black metal-esque riffs are present on Sunbather doesn't properly give the oomph to whatever emotion the guitars are supposed to be representing. Rarely does Deafheaven ever play anything but uplifting, major-chord tremolo riffing alongside the slick, frantic drums, and seldom do they ever come together to capture the emotional explosion they're attempting to. The edges are rounded off of the black metal template and there's never quite enough attention given to any particular riff for the songs to have their necessary staying power. Constant focus on contrasting delicate, drifting post-rock guitar with fuller and more bombastic blackgaze loses the sense of captivation post-rock brings with its gradual crescendo and the fluttering activity everpresent in the drums limits the music's range of motion and doesn't give things a chance to breathe or function in either a post-rock or a black metal context. The flurry of active tremolo riffs after three minutes of lackadaisical clean guitars is supposed to be "bursting" out at me or something, but the two disparate elements never really feel connected. The music is flashy and diverse but does little in the sense of a narrative when it comes to melodies. Apart from the title track, which features a few interesting sections midway through reminiscent of something like Drudkh, the riffs most closely resembling metal fail to be noteworthy in any regard. They're too safe and stable in their melodic form and the music has a too short of attention span in both texture and composition. At least Hunter Hunt-Hendrix really, really seemed to passionately believe in whatever wishy-washy crap he was peddling; Deafheaven can't even stir up an ounce of anything beyond indifference to what they're playing. There's nothing actively repulsive on display, but it doesn't seem like this band is capable of branching out in a way that would sonically offend anybody.
Indeed, for all the cross-breeding going on here, one would expect something mind-blowingly original, but the methods that Deafheaven take to blend the metal/ post-rock/ screamo/ shoegaze/ post-hardcore/ whatever you think you hear in their sound (any one of them could be true for all I know) have already been frequently trodden upon. Bombastic major-chord tremolo over blasting? Neige has been getting flak for this kind of stuff for years. Sparse, ambient guitar and occasional acoustic bits leading into triumphant, midpaced post-metal? Pretty common in Cascadian and Californian black metal these days. Long, swirling noisy bits? Ignored completely when Agalloch slapped them at the end of Ashes Against the Grain, but since on Sunbather they're jammed in between the songs, they give the illusion of acting as bridges. They're terribly unfitting and the spoken word vocal samples over "Please Remember" and "Windows" reek of pretensions at Godspeed You! Black Emperor sort of levels. I'm going to be frank here; the amount of actual metal present on this album is not nearly as high as you may think. The three interludes between the longer tracks cannot be considered metal in any way, and they take up almost fifteen minutes of the album's runtime alone. There's an additional three to four minutes of delicate clean post-rock guitar in the longer, meatier songs- that's almost half the album all in all if you're keeping track, and on top of that, there's a good deal of riffing on this album that could much more easily be linked back to screamo and post-hardcore than any form of metal. This is, objectively, at least 50% not a metal album. That's not a bad thing on its own, but the soup of other influences on display don't blend and feed off each other. The three interludes don't serve as a rest from the frenzied displays that came before them, because those lighter breaks were already a feature in the four main tracks, "Dream House", "Sunbather", "Vertigo" and "The Pecan Tree". As a result, those other three "interlude songs" serve as little more than self-indulgent trash. Sunbather does stumble on some small segments I don't mind because I'm a fan of post-black and have a casual interest in post-rock and post-hardcore, but the songwriting is a bit too adventurous and loses thematic congruency in the process.
I could have forgiven all of that though. Seriously, if that was everything that was wrong with Sunbather I could have given it a passable mark. Sure, I wouldn't be recommending it to anybody but the beardiest of neckbeards, but at the very least, it wouldn't be something I actively disdain. Sure, the songwriting and genre exploration makes everything seem a little bit high on its own fumes, but at least they tried to mix it up a bit, even if the result wasn't really anything all that fascinating. The ideas are intriguing, but the execution is sloppy. With a cool concept or backstory to an album like this, it could have even been a solid presentation of the range of influences a band can have in the post-black subgenre.
But then, they had to go cock it up and write those lyrics.
If the aesthetics of the vocals are justification for why Deafheaven could be considered a metal band despite writing an album with at least 25 minutes of completely unmetal music, the lyrics could be justification for the exact opposite. Sure, weeping love stories have never been much of a stranger even to metal at times, but the endless hopeless pining was just as annoying when Warning did it years ago, and it's even worse here. The weird, scatterbrained obsession this guy expresses with his love may be an emotion a lot of us may be able to resonate with, it sure as shit isn't all that interesting to hear about because I've heard the same sort of thing from all my virgin male friends and they at least do without the plastic imagery and the pseudo-intellectual navel-gazing. There's no sort of change in the rhythmic focus to them, either, which translates to a bland vocal performance; every rasp has the same inflection and there's very little additional personality or charisma injected into them. You'd think that with the post-hardcore influence at play, this guy would take advantage of wailing, shrieking, yelling, anything he could do to get out the frantic depression of unattainable love, but he seems perfectly comfortable just doing the same high static rasp over and over again. The vocal performance, fittingly, is as bland, emotionless and self absorbed as the lyrics that lie behind it. It's too bad they chose to include the lyrics, because you probably couldn't decipher what they are from the music and just not knowing the words to Sunbather would have made it much, much better. Adding nothing to the music but another layer of pretension, the uncomfortable whining turns what could have been an unexciting album with potential into a thoroughly irritating piece of shit. This is an attempt at creating something profound out of apathetic infatuation, but if I really wanted to feel this mix of uncomfortable and embarrassed about something attempting to be heartfelt, I'd just read the poems I wrote to my crushes when I was 13. Man, if I was to ever have written that I "cried against an ocean of light" in one of those things, I would burn the page then track down and formally apologize to the girl I wrote it for.
This kind of whiny crap used to get crucified when it was big in metalcore outfits, but mask it with incoherent black metal vocals and jam in some self-indulgent post-rock interludes and some people will let it slide, apparently. Deafheaven needed to further develop their own personality after a decent debut, but in doing so, they picked all the worst ways to try and stand out. I don't know why they chose that band name of theirs; All I know is that when Sunbather is playing in my general vicinity, if only I was deaf, I'd be in heaven.
I remember Hunter-Hunt Hendrix (of Liturgy infamy) once defending the new wave of ‘uplifting’ black metal as being in keeping with black metal’s doctrine of controversy and rebellion. Indeed, the pejoratively-titled scene of ‘hipster black metal’ has polarized audiences; some embrace the softer approach as a relatively fresh innovation, and others have lavished the ‘hipster’ bands with the greatest execration and disdain since Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth. Love or hate them, bands like Liturgy and San Francisco’s Deafheaven are causing a stir, and it’s always interesting to see people taking such equally vehement stances for and against a band. While I’ve always been skeptical that a style so historically rooted in darkness could (or should) be translated into feelings of hope and optimism as Deafheaven strive for on Sunbather, I’ve kept myself open to the possibility. Unfortunately, while Deafheaven’s shoegaze-laden approach to black metal clearly intends to revive and invent the genre, I find it difficult to be particularly moved one way or the other by the most polarizing metal record of 2013. Sunbather is not an excellent album, nor is it the horrendous abomination genre-purists claim it to be. Rather, its predictable dynamics and washy atmosphere leave it somewhere in the neighborhood of ‘moderately enjoyable’. In short, Deafheaven’s second album is an only slightly above-average take on blackgaze that doesn’t warrant the extreme opinions from either side.
In addition to the counter-intuitive emotional spin Deafheaven have placed on black metal in Sunbather, the album’s cheerfully minimalistic cover makes it fairly obvious that they mean to rebel against the traditional order. Conceptualized as a reflection of the colours seen on the insides of one’s eyelids when basking in the sun, it’s an apt reflection of Deafheaven’s emotional appeal. Operating in terms of melancholy and hopeful optimism, Sunbather gives an impression closer to that of a post-rock record than any metal I’ve heard this year. The guitars are laden in reverb and distortion, but the songwriting never betrays a sense of malice or anger. Conventionally beautiful harmonies are used in abundance here; particularly on some of the clean sections offered, Deafheaven will overdub guitars to create a dense, yet accessible wall of sound. Although it often feels like Deafheaven choose the most obvious sequence of notes to resolve their motifs, the compositions demonstrate a talent with knowing when to change up the pace. “The Pecan Tree” really excels with its dynamic, switching between soft and heavy sections, each contributing towards a powerful emotional payoff.
Although Sunbather feels rooted in a fairly narrow emotional context of longing and melancholy throughout, Deafheaven have a firm grasp of songwriting dynamic. In spite of that, Sunbather feels constructed out of a mere handful of tricks and ideas, to the point where the formula begins to feel predictable long before the album is over. Deafheaven are remarkably consistent throughout the album, but the everpresent euphony filtered over blastbeats and vocal shrieks feels too narrow a range to stay engaging through the album’s hour length. Especially considering the roots of the genre the band is apparently trying to reinvent, Sunbather offers a nicely blended production, with textural detail aplenty to keep the atmosphere afloat. While the instrumentation is dynamic and powerful (with special merits going to Daniel Tracy for an excellent drum performance!) the vocals are painfully underwhelming. George Clarke’s harsh screams are high pitched and raspy (in keeping with frostbitten traditions) but they’re undermixed, lack resonance and fail to add a relevant emotional dimension to the music. Screams in ‘blackgaze’ music can be used plenty effectively, but Deafheaven’s failure to properly integrate the vocals into their atmosphere is a sullen reminder that the effort to reinvent black metal as an ‘uplifting’ sound feels ultimately contrived and needlessly contrarian.
Most of all, Sunbather is a case where the hype (both good and bad) has left me disappointed. There are moments here where I come close to feeling the awe and admiration others have clearly felt, but the feelings are fleeting at best. I’m pleased that a fairly young band like Deafheaven is getting such an enthusiastic reception, but I’m simply not feeling it at much. Its uplifting, graceful beauty comes at the cost of emotional tension or challenge. The blackgaze style has potential aplenty for an emotionally evocative experience- Alcest’s excellent Écailles de Lune and Lantlos’ .neon come first to mind- but in the case of Sunbather, I wish I could be feeling more from it.
When I first heard about Deafheaven’s Sunbather I was awfully excited. It seemed to be gathering near universal praise from critics as well as substantial support from fans. There were a few detractors, but they were often dismissed for being “close minded” or that they just didn’t get the musical genius contained within the album. I rarely find myself disagreeing with the community at large; if something is generally well thought of, I can usually enjoy it. Even better, I’d heard them compared to Alcest, which I adore (well, Écailles de lune anyways). So it’s with no small amount of disappoint I find myself after listening to Sunbather. If Deafheaven is like Alcest, they are only related in that they are somewhat similar in terms of musical style, yet leagues apart in terms of musicianship and overall quality. Just like Wonder Bread is similar to a fresh croissant, or Kraft singles are like Roquefort, or how Franzia is like champagne, or… Well, you get the picture.
I suppose the best place to begin when describing this disappointment is the music, though they get bonus points for having one of the shittiest album arts of the year. Deafheaven plays a mixture of black metal and post rock, and throws some shoegaze into the mixture. It has plenty of blast beats and tremolo but this is most certainly not black metal. Not good black metal anyways. Imagine yourself as a newcomer to black metal and have just heard In the Nightside Eclipse. Now, assuming you aren’t suffering from a debilitating brain injury you’ll only naturally go seek out more. But then imagine that instead of checking out Immortal, Mayhem, or Darkthrone, you somehow find yourself listening to Zarach Baal Tharagh or newer Dimmu Borgir. Since we’ve already assumed you aren’t suffering from a brain tumor that ruins your ability to reason, naturally you’ll dislike this, and it might even put you off from listening to anything else. That’s kind of the experience that I’ve had after listening to Sunbather. I’m certainly no purist or kvlt master, but this album has certainly soured my views on post-rock/black metal/shoegaze combinations. “If something like this gets rave reviews, then what’s the worst of the genre like?” I find myself wondering. Indeed, if this is one of the better of the genre’s offerings I’ll likely stay away from it in the future.
And back to the music now; like I said, this album has a large amount of black metal influence and contains a fair amount of tremolo and blast beats, but it’s just incredibly boring. The riffs are stale, shallow, repetitive, boring, etc. etc. It’s not actively terrible in the way that pop or country are, but it’s just completely pathetic, weak shit. There’s no real variation in the songs, and there are two different styles; loud black metal inspired parts, and quiet, acoustic or finger picked guitar sections. That’s it. That’s the extent of these Californians’ creativity and songwriting ability. Hard to see why they’re being praised for such an unexciting effort. On my fourth or fifth listen, I suddenly realized that I remembered exactly zero riffs or anything. The entire album is just a forgettable, misshapen, poorly-cobbled-together mishmash of genres that fails at every level. On top of the mediocre guitars and songs, the vocals are just abysmal. Sure, George Clark screams his little heart out, but it’s just poor. The vague, distant shrieks are neither wrenching or stirring, and at most conjure up mild annoyance. And to cap all of that, the lyrics are a joke, and have more in common with teenage angst ridden metalcore lyrics than actual metal lyrics. To be fair, Alcest’s lyrics might be like this too, but since I can’t speak French (I have testosterone in my body) I can’t really complain about that.
The only thing about this album that saves it from being a complete loss is the drumming. Sure, it’s not outstanding or anything, and it certainly won’t make you forget about how terrible the rest of the album is, but it gets the job done. But that’s not something that can really get Deafheaven any praise because it was done by a session drummer. It’s most definitely not a good thing that the best performance on an album was done by a session member, especially when it’s not done by a well-known musician (i.e. Hellhammer, who will apparently do drums for a six pack of Heineken, so I don’t know why they didn’t hire him). The mix might be helping me view the drumming in a more positive light than it deserves though. Everything is thrown together and compressed to the same depth within the songs, and it all blends together. Perhaps Deafheaven realized how weak the guitars and vocals were so they simply make the decent drumming louder in an attempt to mask this.
As far as failures go, this is definitely not the worst they can get. Sunbather isn’t the worst album of the year or anything quite so drastic. It’s quite a disappointment to be sure, but to rank it as the worst album of 2013 would give it more attention than it deserves. Indeed, this is one of those releases that should be allowed to die a quiet death. It’s too forgettable and boring to do anything else. It’s not something that will make you rage at how terrible it is. No, it’s more like one of those releases you check out on YouTube, listen to for a minute or two, shake your head, and move on to something more enjoyable.
Originally written for vtmetalreviews.blogspot.com
The moment I heard 'Sunbather' by Deaf Heaven, I knew a lot of people were going to loathe it and a lot of people were going to love it to death. This is often the case when a modern band experiments using a black metal template, but what Deafheaven did with 'Sunbather' is a whole new level of BM genre mixing.
With blast beats, lots of tremolo picking and shrieking vocals, the musical delivery certainly resembles black metal. What does not resemble black metal is just about everything else on the album. Even when the drums are blasting away at ludicrous BPMs, the guitar riffs make this release more of a post-rock or even a 90's screamo album. I'd much sooner recommend 'Sunbather' to a fan of Godspeed You! Black Emperor than I would a fan of Wolves in the Throne Room.
Another aspect of this release that defies typical black metal standards is the very liberal use of major chords and scaled. The album opener, "Dream House" starts off with a typical wall of noise, tremolo riff that is far more upbeat and hopeful sounding than anything I've ever heard over a blast beat. The even numbered tracks on the album are instrumental interludes. These three tracks provide a nice break and compliment the flow of the album, but the last two suffer from annoying voice samples muddling the music. I understand that Deafheaven had philosophical reasons for including them, but they make what would otherwise be beautiful songs sound harsh and abrasive (not in a good way).
There isn't much to say about the vocals or the lyrics. The vocals are mediocre and typical. The lyrics are angst ridden and come off as pretentious. In a Deafheaven interview, it was said that the lyrics on 'Sunbather' were incredibly personal and not meant to be relatable in a literal sense.
Overall, I find 'Sunbather' highly enjoyable. The drums do what they need to do and nothing more. They provide a washy backdrop for the rest of the band. What stands out for me on this record is the guitar work. I find myself liking the quiet passages reminiscent of Explosions in the Sky more so than the aggressive, biting sections. Deafheaven knows how to create a beautiful, euphoric atmosphere with the use of clean, delayed guitar and piano. 'Sunbather' is an okay black metal album, but it's a spectacular post rock release (if that's your thing).
I wasn't going to write this review. The fact that I did means that I listened to Sunbather again, which means that said amount of times is an integer larger than zero - and that happening will forever weigh down on my conscience, keeping me awake at night in the sad and lonely nights of melancholy in which my aching heart returns to the dying dream of my memories of sunlit windows that... Oh my, I'm already starting to sound like Deafheaven too, it seems.
Terrible, painful, worthless (did I mention bad?) lyrics (did I mention the lyrics are the worst thing ever?) aside, the core issue with this album is a bad case of The Borings. Now, Deafheaven are clearly a Midwestern US screamo band masquerading as a metal band, but that's not the real reason why Sunbather doesn't even have the punch to build itself up so it can fall apart on its own; this is an album in which nothing ever happens. The guitar riffs never shy away from tremolo-picked major scale runs (sometimes they use minor scales too! Sadness!), which at timed intervals stop to give way to post-rockish acoustic sections.
That's it. This whole album is composed of just two things: You have the "loud" sections, which are all walls of noise generated by guitars played with a spaced out reverb-heavy tone over some admittedly very good drumming. However, good drumming, like the act of simply holding hands with one's significant other, is only a tool to make an already pleasant entity even better, but it does nothing by itself, and it's downright saddening if paired with an entity that is actively unpleasant (like if the only reason she lets you hold her hand is because she's made it clear she will never sit on your face while wearing yoga pants. I weep at the possibility). In contrast to the loud parts, we have the "soft" sections, which are acoustic guitar arpeggios or chords which may or may not have drumming underneath. Neither of those two elements are pulled-off in an interesting fashion, and that's basically what the entirety of Sunbather is like; just those two things going back and forth and transitioning between each other for an hour, with the exact same style of screamo vocals with a tinge of black metal all the way through. Nothing else happens here, there's no real use for seven whole tracks with an average duration of eight and a half minutes each when you can take any of them at random and play it on a loop for the exact same effect.
There might be an element of mood and feeling at work here; some kind of lingering concept within that I'm missing. I could go on a long-winded essay about how sixteen year old girls on tumblr write better poems than "Vertigo" by cutting the words on the flesh of their thighs, but to achieve such transient level of understanding upon the aesthetic aesthetics behind the inner workings of Sunbather, I'd have to read all of its lyrics again. No thanks. On the other hand, nobody would want that friendly fellow with the half-shaved head, thick-rimmed glasses, skinny jeans and holding a can of Pabst at the front row of a Deafheaven concert to be distracted from his hypnotic, entrancing all-emphatic voyage through the beautiful atmosphere by way of anything even remotely resembling a change of pace out of octave-harmonized tremolo picked sections. That would be too rude.
But seriously, fuck these lyrics.
Black metal meets post rock/shoegaze is all the rage in metal circles today, and myself admit to being sucked into the craze. I find that when this style is done right it can create some of the most beautiful and emotional atmospheres within the metal scene, with bands such as Agalloch and Fen instantly coming to mind. Deafheaven is another band riding the waves created by bands such as Alcest and hopes to gain their own foothold within the post black metal territory.
Yet whilst Deafheaven are no doubt capable of creating long, beautiful and emotional post rock inspired pieces, I hardly see them making a serious mark in the black metal scene. Simply for the fact that they are not a black metal band, I hate to break it to their supports but nothing about Sunbather has much to do with what black metal is typically associated with. Instead, Sunbather seems to focus on a similar wavelength to Envy’s Insomniac Doze rather than anything black metal related. This isn't to say that this is a bad thing, whilst I’m admittedly a huge fan of black metal, I also greatly enjoy post rock inspired screamo such as the aforementioned Envy and Deafheaven do a great job within that field.
The songs have post rock structures interposed with harsh guitars and screamed vocals. Songs are constantly flowing, similar to a band like Isis. Songs range from harsher, more metallic sections to subtle, post rock inspired sections. This gives the album a sense of forward momentum, as similar to sharks, Sunbather’s purpose is solely to continue moving forward. Songs never feel languid or drawn out, the long structures allow for multiple interesting transitions to happen within each song, maintaining the listeners interest as no single idea is settled on enough to wear out its welcome.
The overall atmosphere of this album is rather bright and pleasant. There’s no shred of malice or hatred buried within the music. The post rock instrumentals are light and airy, bringing to mind are lighter version of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Whilst I know that this a relatively generic comparison to make, the monolithic compositions and soothing instrumental passages are highly reminiscent of said band. The harsh, metallic sections are often compared to Liturgy or Weakling yet I am not seeing it. These sections are much better compared to Envy, even the vocals sound like a higher pitched Tetsuya Fukagawa. Being a big fan of Envy I must say that I enjoy the similarities in style and most certainly are not carbon copies of one another. Deafheaven mix the screamo/post rock ethos in with slight leanings towards black metal. The vocals in particular are delivered in a harsh, shrieking style whilst some of the guitar’s compositions bring to mind bands such as Altar of Plagues and Wolves in the Throne Room with their long and droning sense of melody. The guitar tone I suppose can be considered quite blackish, having a fair amount of distortion with it. Yet it never sounds muddy or abrasive, rather the distortion is more soothing rather than barbaric and primal. The monolithic track Vertigo in particular brings Deafheaven’s black metal influences into the forefront, with a solo that wouldn’t be out of place on an Agalloch album and a particularly frantic and relentless drum performance. The guitars themselves have a much darker tone than the rest of the album and are played in the traditional tremolo picked style. The occasional upbeat, melodic section coincides perfectly with the rest of this track and overall makes for an enjoyable listen.
Yet despite all the outstanding moments of Sunbather there is one, minor flaw. Some of the sections go on for too long. It’s not a particularly glaring problem, but it’s enough to stop me from considering this an absolute masterpiece. Whilst the riffs in their own right are good enough, I personally don’t feel that they make for good, hypnotic drones. They’re not structured well enough for this kind of droning, post rock inspired material. The harsh sections would work better in short, frantic blasts of energy rather than a continuous drone. Altar of Plagues is a band who can do this kind of finesse, droning pieces interposed with a good sense of structure, melodies that never become bothersome and overall just a general idea on how to construct long, monolithic songs. Deafheaven, whilst undoubtedly creating very beautiful and entertaining music, specifically in the first half of the album, unfortunately begin to lose some of their momentum by the end of Vertigo.
It’s a shame really, as Sunbather definitely contains elements of outstanding music. The post rock sections are beautiful and work well in conjunction with the metallic crash of the harsher sections. The first three tracks constitute some of the best music released this year, with absolutely gorgeous atmospheres and some stunning melodies. The vocals, whilst often becoming one dimensional, are very powerful and expressive. Sunbather is a definite leap from the somewhat mediocre Roads of Judah and will undoubtedly receive critical acclaim throughout the board. Yet whilst I am immune to some of the ecstatic praise leveled at this album, I greatly enjoy it, and would definitely urge open minded metalheads to listen to this album. Whilst it’s not a masterpiece, it’s close and I will most certainly be playing this much more in the future.
I'm gonna do something a little different here, an experiment if you will, so bear with me. Deafheaven is a band that's been generating a lot of fuzz. Neckbeards around the world have been ovulating with excitement over this new "different black metal" band since the hype of Liturgy and their unbearably inane frontman seem to have fallen by the wayside in recent months. Places like Pitchfork and probably Anthony Fantano (I haven't looked yet, but I can guarantee he's reviewed and loves this album) have just been drooljizzing all over the place since the release of Sunbather in the middle of June this year. Now, this will be an experimental review for me for a few reasons. 1) Hipstery post-black metal is entirely out of my element. I like post rock and I like black metal but I rarely seem to fall in love when the two are blended (notable exception for Altar of Plagues' first album), and 2) This is clearly the kind of album you need to sit down and lose yourself in. "Experience" more than "listen to", something with many layers that you can tune in and drop out to, ya know? Well I'm not doing that. Nope, I listened to this once about a half hour ago and now I'm reviewing it. Consider this different because it's a first impression from an outsider.
And what do I think? Well... I like it. I like it a whole shitload, to be more precise.
You see, most reviewers I know and trust have been pretty lukewarm about this album, whereas others with taste I rarely mesh with and unknown noobs and noted hipsters and whatnot have just been showering this with praise. This usually indicates that the album's content and quality is probably more in line with the minority I trust, but here I actually think I'm gonna have to side with the jizzlobbers, though not nearly as fervently. I don't find Sunbather to be any sort of world changing effort, nor do I foresee this ranking on my year-end list, but I do find it highly enjoyable, and even when this experiment is done I can easily see myself spinning it more often.
I'm not going to pretend that I'm entirely well versed in this style. I mean, I'd like to think that I'm pretty kvlt with my post rock tastes (Godspeed You! Black Emperor is good in theory and atmosphere but sloppy in execution, Gifts from Enola is sheer brilliance, God is an Astronaut are basically a pop band but I love them to death anyway, and then I can namedrop a bunch of horridly obscure bands that I adore like Yndi Halda, Foxhole, you.will.die.in.the.desert, Up+C Down+C Left+C Right+C ABC+Start (I swear to God they're way better than their name implies), The Samuel Jackson Five, Six Parts Seven, et cetera), but most of the bands Deafheaven are compared to are bands I have little to no experience with. I haven't heard a single note of Alcest's music, I know who Liturgy and Weakling are but I've never actually listened to their music, Wolves in the Throne Room are pretty rad I suppose, and Skagos is okay, but I haven't heard Fen or Lantlos or anything like that. Basically the entire atmospheric-post-black-shoegaze-cascadian-whateverthefuck scene is entirely foreign to me, and so I have no preconceived notions on Deafheaven or Sunbather, nor do I think they're diametrically opposed to black metal for simply trying to be pretty and not singing about Satan buttraping virgin ibex.
"But what do they sing about instead?", you may find yourself asking. The answer is simple: mundaneness. Of course the band has some really esoteric sounding explanation but it really boils down to "inane shit". I suppose they're trying to be poetic or something but there are only so many ways you can screech about ogling topless women from afar before you're forced to throw up your hands and just admit that there's no higher art here and move on with your life. Luckily the lyrics are as inconsequential as they are stupid, because the music itself is very evocative and romantic, along with a sense of psyched out urgency, remorseful interludes, and frenzied blasting atop very soothing melodies. I feel like whatever the band was trying to achieve here, they nailed. I'm sure there are much better things hidden in the underground within the style based on how many casual fans are blown away by this record and how many well acquainted with the style are underwhelmed, but dammit I'd be lying if I said this wasn't a very strong, emotional sounding album that can't help but make one hell of a connection to the listener. Maybe it's because it's so accessible (who am I kidding? Of course that's why) that it's been so successful, but I have to hand it to the band, after merely one listen the entire experience stuck with me. I remembered the weird, hypnotic pulsing of "Vertigo" and the soothing melodies of "The Pecan Tree", I remembered the spoken word sermon in "Windows" and the major melodies permeating throughout "Dream House". I can't lie, the songs are all very well written, and the atmospheric black metal transitions to the post rock sections so smoothly that it never once comes off as clunky or forced.
Of the seven tracks here, only four are really traditional "songs" like you'd expect, with each one being broken up by a shorter (semi)instrumental interlude. These interludes are actually very well done and flow remarkably with the mood and pace of the album. "Irresistable" in particular really stands out for me, being so damn calming and gorgeous, though "Windows" is also extremely captivating with the aforementioned spoken word samples. Of the more structured "songs" on the album, I feel like it's cliche to say but I really find "Vertigo" to be my favorite on this first listen. It's the longest one, but it never feels like it's being stretched out. It moves along at a deliberate pace and contains a lot of ideas, but it's all very well thought out and the complexities make themselves known without being obnoxious about it. What I mean is that throughout all the pretentiousness and cliches of post-black metal, this entire album is very well written and yet doesn't seem to feel the need to be all in-your-face and intellectual about it. It's content to tell you its story, relay to you its imagery, and just sit back and let you soak it all in. I like that about it, Sunbather is a very passive album. It's a pleasant listen, with many moods and relatively simple execution. It's basically a lot of ideas boiled down to a minimalistic approach to songwriting and it knocks it out of the park. It's not showy or irritating, it's just... good.
In the realm of pretty, atmospheric black metal, I may not be an expert but I suspect that Sunbather is far from one of the worst in the genre. The vocals are very distant and brash, the guitars are clear yet kinda dirty, it's basically everything you'd expect from a production standpoint, but therein lies what I like about the record. Nothing in particular strikes me as horribly new or innovative, but it's just a simple album with a simple goal and it's done very well. There's nothing worth hating (nor praising to high heaven for that matter), and overall I can't think of too many bad things to say about it. For a first impression, Sunbather left a hell of a mark. Again, I don't see this making my top 10/13/15/however many I decide to do this year, but if there's not much I would change about it and it keeps me engaged for a full hour despite stupid pretentious lyrics and waves of unnecessary hype, I'd have to say that Deafheaven hit a pretty strong ball. It's no 700ft over-the-bleachers moonshot, but it's a solid double in the perfect seam between two outfielders.
Originally written for Lair of the Bastard
Starting off with what sounds like a pop-punk band covering a Catherine Wheel song while a spastic ADD drummer hits his kit randomly, it's safe to say the rest of this album is a pretend metal sham, and it is. This part then goes into a fast strummed indie chords part for a "bittersweet" effect. This is pretty much the extent of the emotional expression contained in this album, aside from some "reflective" clean guitar pieces that accomplish the same thing sans the pretending to be a metal band part of it. The worst thing is Deafheaven fail to even do that. This whole things feels like the byproduct of focus groups coming up with a way to repackage Orchid's Gatefold album in a way that would appeal to Slowdive and Emperor fans at the same time through the "post-black" gimmick.
To start off, the lyrics are inappropriate for metal. They read like some whiny hot topic kids egocentric musings about how life has wronged him because of heartbreak and other mundane "high school" topics. I suppose they felt metal topics can be cliche and felt the need to drum up their indie "slam poets" card to show people how deep they are, but the whole thing comes across as something AFI would do than any metal band. These lyrics are appropriate enough, however, for the "emo" that they bury under black metal aesthetics to fool morons into believing that they are buying the next new thing. Bittersweet, mundane topics for a hoaky, whiny album. You can tell these whiners have made a bad album just by looking at them (indie haircuts and Aeropostale shirts in "black metal"...how IRONIC...). The whole thing reads off like some self-pitying, Kurt Cobain styled bored youth vapidity. Just moping and whining about first world problems.
The hippies have won. Everything that's wrong with modern "metal" can be found on this album. For starters, it's not even a metal album, having more in line with the screamo with more minor chords and blastbeats variant that is referred to as "emo-violence", like their clone targets Massachusetts band Orchid. The only thing that makes this "black metal" is a couple rare moments where a "blackened" part akin to something maybe Strid would have done makes an appearance to break up some of the monotony (even then, it feels like a generic DSBM part that could have been borrowed from Shining or Xasthur). The rest sounds like Slowdive discovered trem picking and hired the wrong drummer, which is where people came up with the conclusion that they mix black metal with post-rock and shoegaze elements. The songs go nowhere, droning on incessantly in one fixed mood (bittersweet melancholy) underscoring "emotional" vocals that are more akin to what an "extreme" screamo vocalist (like the one in Orchid) would perform than any kind of black metal vocals. The end result is whine rock with nothing to offer, but since it's in a more "extreme" form, you can lie to people and tell them that this is a "nu" kind of black metal and they would buy it, even if it is cut from the same mold of things they supposedly hate. The fact that these guys have no problem riding the waves of this marketing gimmick for the sake of popularity reveals just how insincere their band is.
These guy don't understand metal and this album feels like it was written by a bunch of guys who should be known for playing LUSH covers to Starbucks aficionados than anything remotely related to metal. If you think ironically juxtaposing underground metal aesthetics (where only the fast drumming and fast chord strumming speed are utilized) with the music of a Sigur Ros LP is the next "nu" creative frontier, then do yourself a favor: stop listening to metal (or pretending to), and go search for early 90s 4AD records releases. At least that way you can listen to crap in it's original form instead of this insincere whine rock. Vapid.
Surely you’ve been drawn in by the waves this album made in the metal world and of the trench war of its detractors and admirers. Deafheaven succeeded in making a statement within the metal world and essentially presenting their music as a glitch in the system, and you’d be surprised at how metalheads swarm to such anomalies in the genre, not to mention that it’s very fun to annoy the purists, but I digress. Music is the bottom line, and while Sunbather may in time become a mandatory listen for its innovation, the music isn’t quite as attractive as its vision.
Let’s get straight to it. The music is a combination of the happy-go-lucky, major chord black metal of Liturgy, the more shoegaze-y end of Silversun Pickups and monolithic, quintessential post rock of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. The slight shoegaze leanings seem to be the binding element between the more distant black metal and post rock and also one of the greatest strengths of the album, the shoegaze grounds the songs and reins them in, so that there is always something tying these songs together. The largest selling point here is the “seamless merging of black metal and post rock” (not quoting anyone) which is only a half truth. Occasionally the songs transition effortlessly, gliding smoothly and without pressure. New elements are progressively added and the subsequent sections are inconspicuously hinted at, culminating in effective crescendos. And sometimes transitions carry the subtlety of waking up with a punch in the balls. More than once they will drop whatever they have going and go for its polar opposite and it is jarring, especially hearing how well they can mix the genres, when they plan it correctly. So no, the marriage of genres is not as flawless as it is often lauded to be.
Another glaring blemish in the album is that the individual genres that make the music here are simply not capably executed. The black metal parts, when taken separately from the rest of the music are quite simply not very good, same with the post rock parts. For example, the black metal feels not much different from the same, tired stuff any black metal fan has surely heard before, the only clear difference is that it is clearly played in major scales so it sounds very joyful, and that’s where the differentiation ends. The post rock falls flat, it fails to entrance and bewilder, like post rock is pretty much required to do. We do get these great genres within the same package here, but they are subpar on their own, and are far too often not allowed to work in conjunction either, because the transitions are regularly so poor. One of my greatest pet peeves in music is when a band has a song so good that it makes the rest of the album obsolete. Here we have the magnificent Dream House. Sadly, the album never meets the standard of the colossal opener, the rest of the songs lack the incredible energy that this song has almost a surplus of.
There is reason enough to keep your eye on Deafheaven, because this band seems to be setting the stage for something grand. It’s not Sunbather, though, which is invigorating, relaxing and generally pleasant. For about ten minutes. Then it is simply boring. Much like sunbathing, I guess.
I was fairly confident of liking this album- the super cool album cover, reports from various people-whom-I-respect of the album's quality and what seemed like a general consensus as to how well it mixed post-rock with black metal. Numerous contexts and numerous plays later though and I'm still left feeling rather underwhelmed- bored is perhaps a better way to describe it.
It's hard to articulate why as Deafheaven certainly give a good fist of things; and the simplest answer is perhaps the worst. I don't like the riffs. I don't like the music. Songs are structured well enough, and when there are some good sections the crisp, powerful production and all that do make it pretty cool. But there's not many of 'em, and in between there's just these long stretches of boring, featureless, vaguely-aggressive haze that I forget as soon as the parts pass me by.
The opening track's a good enough example, although most of the songs do the same. Stuff bursts out of the gates- I really rather like the energetic drums throughout- but the riffs (chord progressions, not sure what you could really call them) are really boring. There's all these colour tones, heaps of minor 7ths and fourths floating around and there's nothing wrong with that, but shit man that's all these things are. Super boring chord progressions with a few krazy intervals and a tiny bit of dissonance thrown on top so that they sound interesting- and they fail at that, which is quite a big problem when you get down to it! It's like the band wrote all the drum parts, all the lyrics and then quickly shoehorned a bunch of guitars into it. To quickly digress to the subject of lyrics- I like the theme of them, but the vocalist is terrible! One of the most one dimensional you've ever heard, but also easily ignored... totally redundant to Deafheaven's sound.
There are some decent moments throughout- the title track rolls along like a particularly out of control freight train through some of the darker riffs of the album, and the awful clean break that bookends this section doesn't change the fact that it is a pretty cool few minutes. Likewise, the album closes on quite the bang- from what I can tell Pecan Tree is the oft-cited standout track of the album and I'd agree- quite a huge track, with a frantic opening that continues to pick up as the track goes on, all amidst a very tasty Mono v Explosions in The Sky clean break that quickly acquires a rather charming life of it's own. It's the track that suggests to you that perhaps, with a bit of practice, Deafheaven could finally be the band that manages to mix two disparate but super awesome genres together.
But they aren't the one to do it yet, basically. Playing jangly chords quickly with a lot of distortion does not equal a well executed (let alone interesting) black-post hybrid. Doing a "First 50% of the song blasts, last 50% of the song does a half time feel" (half time feel= double the feels, apparently) does not equal a well executed post-black hybrid.
All things considered, Deafheaven have a long way to go yet.
Deafheaven turned a lot of heads with its 2011 debut Roads to Judah. In a year that was highlighted by a number of notable fusions of black metal with post-rock and/or shoegaze, Deafheaven gave one of the most stellar examples of how these genres can be unified. Deafheaven merged long, droning passages of black metal with climatic post-rock peaks and soothing chamber rock low points. The songs were well crafted, using the long drags of black metal to gradually lead the listener to the emotional post-rock crescendos.
Yet, for as impressive as Roads to Judah was, Deafheaven still showed plenty of room for growth. For one, the music was at times overly derivative: the black metal passages heavily referenced Weakling; the post rock passages, Explosions in the Sky. Those are certainly not bad sources of inspiration, but the transparency of the influences at times minimized the impact of the record. Also, while the post-rock passages were all top notch, some of the black metal passages were overextended.
Deafheaven's sophomore release Sunbather sees major improvement in all areas. Sunbather offers a very original sound. The black metal and post-rock passages are not as isolated as they were on the debut, but rather are interfused, creating a multifaceted sound. This is evident right from the get-go. The first five minutes of the opener, "Dream House," interweaves a variety of guitar styles: a bright major chord progression, rumbling black metal and droning shoegaze, all unified by a steady tempo and seamless transitions.
The quality of the arrangement is matched by that of the composition. The record contains four longer tracks (9-15 minutes), all in the same style, but each with its own wrinkles. Each track is a fantasia, traversing dramatic emotional spectrums while maintaining a unified vision. The musical unity is reflected in the lyrics, which paint disillusioned visions of modern life (especially suburban culture) from a first person perspective. The word choice is sparse and impressionistic, like a series of distinct sense-impressions within an otherwise blurry memory.
While there are some shadowy moments, most of the record ranges from solemn and inspired to outright ecstatic. It's unusually uplifting for extreme metal, yet quite authentically so. The riffs are so fervent and heartfelt that it's hard to not be swept up into their pathos. Still, the constant presence of shrill, blackened howls serves as a counterpoint, an element of pain that accompanies even the albums most exquisite moments. It’s almost impossible to pick out highlights from a record this stellar, but the final five minutes of the record is absolutely staggering: a semi-tragic piano melody accompanied by crying guitar and anxious drumbeats builds to a breathtaking apex of screams and burning, romantic post-metal riffs.
The four longer tracks are split up by three shorter tracks. "Irresistible"—a beautiful piece for piano, bass and two guitars— is essentially a coda to "Dream House." "Please Remember" begins with whirling ambient noises and samples of a French guy speaking in monotone and then shifts into a dreamy, twangy post rock ditty. "Windows" is the albums only weak moment. It consists of audio samples of a crazy preacher and a guy buying drugs on the street embedded beneath ambient noises. While this does fit into the record’s “suburban nightmare” theme, the whole rambling, crazy preacher trope—fittingly enough—is really overplayed in both post-rock and black metal.
Setting that small blip aside, Sunbather is an excellent album. While many bands have played black metal and post-rock off each other (and to be fair, some quite successfully), nobody has interfused the two styles as elegantly as Deafheaven. Add to that the quality of the musicianship and songwriting and you have one of the best albums of 2013.
Originally written for Deafsparrow.com