Music Reviews

Deafheaven Sunbather

(Deathwish) Rating - 9/10

Whether it’s chest-beating hardcore or frostbitten black metal, extreme music has always been about power. So tell me, what other tangible entity that we can perceive is more powerful and mighty than the Sun.  Think about it: a giant ball of superhot gas millions of times bigger than Earth which constantly generates energy and ejects flares of plasma through space. Life wouldn’t even exist without it, yet it could easily destroy all life at the drop of a hat in ways we could never even prevent. It makes you wonder why most metal bands focus so much on darkness, when it’s clear that some of the most extreme things in this universe are also the brightest.

This brings me to Sunbather, the second album and first masterpiece by US black metal act Deafheaven. The decision to include “sun” in the name certainly did not go to waste, as Deafheaven’s latest is probably metal’s closest approximation to the celestial body yet. A 60-minute firestorm complete with harrowing black metal riffs, post rock builds, and eerily serene interludes, Sunbather is an absolutely massive, all-encompassing experience, one that’s both frighteningly intense and indescribably beautiful – often simultaneously. It’s an album that will lift you up and bathe you in its warm, brilliant rays at one turn, and completely decimate you the next with fiery intensity.

Let me add that while I do have the band billed as “black metal” in that second paragraph, the term would be better off accented with quotations, italics, an asterisk linking to a footnote, hell, even a different font. Significant traces of black metal are abound throughout the album, but the term alone feels far too limiting for what’s going on throughout Sunbather. The album isn’t shy of utilizing 16th note drum and riff barrages, and Clarke's powerful, ice-encrusted scream is of proper black metal dialect, but the band twists and turns the elements at hand into dramatic, dynamically shifting environments, alternating between moods frequently and blending elements of hardcore, post rock, and shoegaze seamlessly against a black metal backdrop.

Of course, many of these ideas have already been utilized by a number of USBM artists in the past couple of years, from Agalloch’s unique blending of genres, Wolves In The Throne Room’s implementation of shoegaze, and Krallice’s colossal, virtuosic riff collages. But as much have these groups have innovated black metal’s sound over the years, the music’s tendency to be shrouded in cold, desolate blackness remained consistent. Not so with Sunbather. This is an album of blinding radiance, one that fills the listener with feelings of triumph and awe rather than despair and emptiness, due in large part to its bombastic riffs and gorgeous production. Take Dream House, the albums electrifying, wide-screen opener, for example, which fires off like a cannon blast and ascends higher and higher as the riffs become more angelic and sturdy. It has nearly all the tropes of black metal, but when you finally reach the track’s soaring climax, a powerful and almost spiritual catharsis washes over you; one that makes you immediately want to get right back in line and ride the whole thing out again.

I could listen to Dream House over and over again without pause, and that’s rare thing to say about an extreme metal track that nears ten minutes. However, this would distract from the rest of the album, a glorious, hour-long workout divided into four raging, epic pieces and three diverse interludes. These four pieces, which each clock in between 10-15 minutes and make up the bulk of the album’s run, are largely cut from the same cloth, but incorporate the band’s main ingredients in a varied number of ways, giving each track a unique sense of purpose despite the consistent sounds. The album’s title track, for instance, begins by suspending the group’s charred riffs in slow motion, bringing forth a dreamy, shoegaze-y sense of beauty and terror before unleashing the full brunt of their savage attack. Vertigo, the albums longest and bleariest track, motions between foreboding astral soundscapes and doomy, sludge-caked riffs before closing to the sounds of pure, blackened desperation. Closing track Pecan Tree, however, finds the group at their most optimistic sounding, launching in full attack mode but sporting a second half so serene and downright pretty you’d completely forget you're listening to a metal album momentarily.

Then there are the interludes, which is really where the group displays some of their most unique and experimental ideas. Interludes are often seen as filler tracks to make albums longer than they need to be, but on Sunbather, they’re essential, framing the album's four main tracks and allowing the listener a chance to catch their breath. Like the main tracks, these interludes vary distinctly in mood and form. The gentle guitars and piano chords of Irresistible, for instance, flows directly from the mayhem of Dream House, allowing the listener to stand in the scorched earth left behind as ashes fall over them like blackened snow. Windows, on the other hand, holds its own carrying a seasick, disturbing drone, backed with a street preacher monologue that greatly calls Godspeed You! Black Emperor to mind. Though they’re dwarfed in scope by the all-encompassing nature of tracks like Dream House and Vertigo, the hypnotic, entrancing segue tracks provide an added level of diversity and allow for the transition between monolithic epics to flow more smoothly.

Like most other American bands that play around with black metal’s formula, Deafheaven have been at the brunt end of standard-issue metal purist scrutiny since the release of their solid debut, Roads to Judah. That album’s strong blend of black metal and shoegaze certainly laid the groundwork for what was to come for the group, but did little to stand out from other American black metal groups. Deafheaven’s latest, with its bright pink album cover and song titles more fit for a twee-pop album, will only push those wanting something more further away, but with the dramatic leap that Sunbather takes, Deafheaven are no longer worried about purist opinions. In fact, they’re not even worried about being black metal, either. Sunbather needs not to be judged as black metal, post metal, or any other subgenre, but simply as heavy music – loud, visceral, beautiful heavy music. It’s heavy in size, heavy in scope, heavy in sound, and definitely heavy in feeling, and I would dare anyone to try and argue otherwise.