Review: Deafheaven Embrace The Epic on ‘Sunbather’
Hipster black metal. The scourge rages on becoming kryptonite to metal purists watching in horror as corpse paint and Carpathian forests give way to wool ski hats and black rimmed glasses. The cries of foul come in many forms. From poser, to cries that these skinny jeaned kids are just borrowing from their scene, that they perform black metal as a joke, disrespecting the art form with their smirks. These bastards got bored with shoe gaze indie rock and post rock and decide to take what was ours. Honestly though, where else were these kids supposed to go?
Shoe gaze wallows in oppressed misery, using impersonal noise to generate emotion. Post-Rock is focused on the grandeur of the human drama, distortion and keyboards usually filling in for vocals. The musicianship of Post-Rock, when done correctly, soars then dives and takes our hearts with it. What these two genres share is a need to overcome awkward personal repression in order to create something that can communicate for them. Musically black metal is the same. It uses cold and impersonal music to scream a catharsis. That hollow sound comes across as “evil” so the costumes and anti-religious imagery seem suited for it. In reality, these three genres have so much in common that it was only a matter of time before a hybrid was born.
Deafheaven could be the best example of that hybrid, especially on their new album Sunbather. My first experience with the band was Roads To Judah, which I found boring and unfocused. I was a little dubious at those around me who claimed Deafheaven was something I should consider with more than a passing glance. It wasn’t until I heard their original demo that I began to see the allure. Deafheaven’s demo was powerful and cold, with just the right touch of human frailty. Now, with Sunbather, the band has figured out a way to connect the stark power of the demo with their loftier goals of post-rock grandeur and shoe gaze indifference.
Sunbather is essentially four mammoth passages broken up by smaller acoustic and noise instrumentals. To get the most out of Sunbather, you have to listen to it front to back. Some albums allow you to pull singles off of it that can spruce up a playlist. Sunbather is not on of those albums. I tried listening to it on random and became annoyed. Deafheaven have purposely put these songs in this order. Each works off the other, the shorter measures break up the longer pieces perfectly. It’s a push and pull that plays havoc with your senses in the best way possible.
Right from the start Deafheaven explore their influences. Opening track “Dream House” has the skeleton of black metal. Blast beats, thin guitars playing at maximum speed and screechy vocals. Layered within that structure are passages that owe more to Explosions In The Sky than Satyricon. Three minutes into “Dream House” a lone and simple guitar is added, one that opens up the entire piece. Where as the screams of vocalist George Clarke sound only angry at first, the addition of the guitar line turns them into screams of desperation. The sound of the human psyche as it tears itself apart. The acoustic bridge splitting up the black metal is another style of catharsis. Deafheaven leave it up to you to look beneath the rage and find out what else they’re up to.
“Irresistible” is the first acoustic interlude. It’s a gorgeous piece of work, one that allows some breathing room and introspection between louder, more abrasive numbers. The second tent pole jam is the title track. This go round, Deafheaven use the drums to open the song up. The guitars are focused on their guttural, black metal attack, but the drums are open, full instead of just bashing. New drummer Daniel Tracy replaces speed with halftime beats peppered with chaotic fills and cymbal crashes.
The juxtaposition of George Clarke’s screaming and the guitars wailing against Daniel Tracy’s drumming builds to a painful tension. A quick lull in the wailing eases you into a false sense of security then hits you over the head again. There’s no real rest for the wicked on “Sunbather”, it’s power almost all the way through. While Tracy’s drumming is key, Clarke and fellow founding member Kerry McCoy composed the skeleton of the Sunbather album. Their vision of what it should be is given some nice kick by Tracy’s drum work.
Interlude #2, “Please Remember” leans a bit too much into overkill. A simple soundscape plays beneath samples of someone lecturing. Then, for forty seconds, Deafheaven treat us to an unnecessary audio feedback screech. It’s the only example of them trying too hard on the entire album. The acoustic break after it is wonderful. Sunbather works best when Deafheaven treat it like a black metal Pixies album where loud/quiet is replaced with black metal/acoustic part. Even the beat-to-death use of a slide guitar works nicely on “Please Remember”.
“Vertigo” is where Deafheaven unite their interests. This is pure post-roc. Layered and lushly executed, the music explores various facets of itself. At times even dropping into a pop sensibility. “Vertigo” is all heart, all melancholy guitars soloing in a mix between cock rock showiness and shoe gaze disillusionment. When the black metal explodes it’s almost a let down. “Vertigo” works so well without the hammer guitars and blast beats. I wanted a whole song of Deafheaven exploring those textures. In this one instance the black metal feels like an easy default.
“Windows” is another solid interlude. A sleepy soundscape with multiple samples of people talking. The white noise of voices floats easily over the mixture of subtle noise, bass and piano. Deafheaven end the entire experience with “The Pecan Tree”. Again the band marries their influences perfectly. The power of the black metal slowly ebbs away until nothing’s left but an aching shoe gaze guitar strum playing alone. As the swell towards the ending crescendo happens, Deafheaven pour all their emotion into it. The post-rock takes over but never loses the black metal or the shoe gaze. It’s an astounding ending, one that proves Deafheaven finally understand themselves as a band and an artistic statement.
I saw Deafheaven play once. They opened for Russian Circles and I remember being impressed with little more than George Clarke’s Morrissey shirt. This time around I’m excited to see how they’ve matured in a live setting. Even with some slight missteps, Deafheaven communicate such wide breadth of emotion on Sunbather that it is impossible not to be either moved by it, impressed with it, or both. Are there more cans of PBR at Deafheaven rehearsals than upside down crosses and burned churches? Possibly, but it’s really us who puts limits on music and confines it to genres.
On Sunbather, Deafheaven communicate true emotions to the heart and soul of the listener. You can ask nothing else of any band.