Jun 11, 2013

Music Review: "Sunbather" by Deafheaven

By Ian Cory

When Josh and I choose an album to review for the site, one of the qualities we weigh the heaviest is how important or relevant the album is to the world of music. This usually involves weighing the significance of a record to the art form with how much people are interested in listening to it and talking about it. So far 2013 has been a very lucky year for us as it’s absolutely filthy with highly hyped “event” records that beg for detailed analysis and excessively strong opinions. Where this approach gets tricky is when we start to wade out into more niche genres, which is one of the reasons I’ve covered very little of what used to be my journalistic bread and butter; heavy metal. But bluntly, which considering the subject matter is apt, there is no such thing as a culturally relevant metal album. Heavy metal is a genre so entrenched inside its own values and artistic ethics that most of its big albums are only important to those already invested in the minutia. Escapees from this self-imposed cultural quarantine are artists that have some cross over with metal’s neighbors, hardcore punk (long time tenants of the same nasty apartment complex) and indie rock (well dressed young couple with PhD’s that moved into the house across the street). Doing so is a sure fire way to get metalheads to hate your guts, and its also a pretty solid path to making art that’s actually saying something interesting. Thus, Deafheaven’s Sunbather

American black metal has been ground zero for a great deal of debate for the last few years. Wolves In The Throne Room annoyed the generally apolitical* metal community by refusing to hide their environmentalist agenda. Hunter Hunt-Hendrix of Liturgy became the most hated man in metal by posting an, admittedly kind of ridiculous, explanation of the philosophical ideas behind his band’s music. And now its Deafheaven’s turn, and they might have set a new record for how little a band has to do to aggravate the metal community. First, they’re signed to a hardcore punk record label (Deathwish Inc. run by Jacob Bannon of Converge) and dress like normal people. Second they put a remarkably minimal pink cover on their album. Third, and most importantly, they sit squarely on the crossroads between black metal, post rock, and screamo. These three genres have been mixed in pairs before** but Deafheaven are the first to use all of them equally, and with enough room to squeeze in the smallest traces of shoegaze. Now I’m inclined to give Sunbather a solid review just on the virtue of how good it is at making idiots angry, but thankfully its also one of the best albums of the year, heavy or no.

What makes Sunbather so good is that it delivers on two levels: it’s immediate and compelling on a gut level, and it stands just as strong when placed under deep scrutiny for thematic content. What’s even better is that these never feel like two separate goals of the record. My enjoyment of the songs on a moment-to-moment basis has everything to do with how I feel they work in the big picture. Deafheaven are masters at evoking a very particular set of emotions marked by a mix of wistful melancholy and deep despondency. Although the band makes use of a lot of conventionally major chord progressions, rarely do these sections feel happy or uplifting. Instead these beautiful moments just serve to make the darker moments more depressing in contrast. This is a perfect match for singer George Clarke’s lyrics, which mostly deal with a specific kind of sadness that comes from feeling that a happier life is completely unattainable. This disconnect is apparent on a structural level as well. Each of the four main songs is filled with incredible stand out moments, like the seamless transition into 12/8 in ‘Vertigo” or the way the guitars start to phase in and out of key a la My Bloody Valentine on “The Pecan Tree”, but they are all fleeting and are quickly subsumed back into the hazy blur of the record. The only times that Deafheaven do slow their relentless pace are when they are building towards the album’s two biggest emotional climaxes. On “Dream House” the band turns a quiet guitar interlude into an enormous eruption of distortion and harmonic bliss before floating gently into the serene “Irresistible”. In the middle of the album’s closing track, the band lingers on a slow moving build, gradually incorporating slide guitar and piano before launching into one last explosive finale. In both cases, these moments are home to Clarke’s most direct and powerful lyrics, the former discussing the dreamlike nature of death, and the latter despairing at the burden of a broken family and its long lasting consequences.

This is a long album though, and while these highlights are truly some of the best of the year, they aren’t what make this album work. What does hold it all together is the way that Deafheaven are able to find the perfect middle ground between their three influences. On Roads To Judah it often felt like they were translating post rock songs into black metal without actually merging the two. Here, it’s often hard to pick out what elements come from which style. The mournful arpeggios at the end of “Vertigo” could fit just as easily onto a Buzrum song as a Touché Amore track, and the bible sampling noise collage of “Windows” is equally reminiscent of Godspeed You! Black Emperor as it is of Deathspell Omega. Using the blurry guitar tones of post rock, the band are able to execute deft changes in rhythm without ever losing pace or jarring the listener out of their immersion. Deafheaven have found the common ground and built a fortress on it, duel wielding each genre’s strengths for maximum emotional impact.

There’s a lot more to dissect in Sunbather, hell that one sentence about the kind of advanced rhythms Deafheaven use opens up a giant can of worms about pulse in black metal, but I’m going to wind it down here. When I review albums, I try to treat every record and artist with as much respect as possible. I often tell my friends that it’s as if I have a new favorite band every week. Even when taking this approach, its not hard to notice when I’m genuinely excited by an album and cross the line of criticism into advocacy. I don’t think this is a flaw either; one of the great things about art criticism is that it allows passions to become contagious. So I hope you don’t mind that I’m coughing all over you with this review. I think Sunbather is one of the best albums of the year and I hope that at least a modicum of my enthusiasm catches with you.

Grade: A

*Before anyone tries to argue this with me, I’d just like to point out that “it all sucks so who gives a fuck” is not a political position.

**Black Metal + Post Rock = Wolves In The Throne Room. Black Metal + Screamo = Celeste. Post Rock + Screamo = Envy.

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