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heat burns - 9%

RapeTheDead, December 24th, 2013

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.