Deafheaven - Sunbather
Deathwish Inc.
Blackened Post-Metal
7 songs (59:58)
Release year: 2013
Deafheaven, Deathwish Inc.
Reviewed by Goat

Deafheaven may not be the first band to meld black metal and shoegaze but they certainly seem to be the most hated by the underground for doing so. It's not immediately obvious why – after all, Alcest are fairly popular, for example, and everyone soon forgave Drudkh for (the underrated) Handful of Stars. Yet Alcest and Drudkh haven't received anything near the level of mainstream hype this or any other year, Pitchfork calling Sunbather a 'modern classic' and truly emptying the big box of praise all over them. The band have been praised around the internet, from The AV Club to The Guardian, and Sunbather seems generally considered to be one of the best offerings to raise from black metal's foul basement into the house of respectable music. Could it be that black metal fans hate Deafheaven because they're the chosen ones, picked out by the voice of the mainstream as something done well for once, proof that not everything black metal produces is easily dismissable nonsense? The hatred hits Deafheaven only by proxy, because we know that there's real quality hiding in this basement, if only they'd come down and take a proper look, and treat it, and us with respect?

Well, perhaps. The answer lies tied up in the answer to the central question – not whether Sunbather is black metal, but whether it is actually any good? It's certainly better than the last controversial album to cause this much fuss in the kvltsphere, Liturgy's Aesthetica, less arrogant and convinced of its own supremacy, more focused and realised as a creative whole. Surging furiously into the opening Dream House, Deafheaven quickly prove that black metal was a big influence with screeched vocals and blastbeats atop an instrumental morass. Yet the vocals and the melodies, while sharing some of black metal's grandiosity are lacking in the melancholy or anger that the genre thrives on, instead opting for the sort of hope and longing generally expressed by post-rock and screamo. There's a strummed interlude straight from the Opeth playbook, before rising back into heaviness, albeit slower and with shimmering rather than cascading riffs – like Jesu if Broadrick swapped the industrial elements for something closer to Alcest, especially with the following piano interlude Irresistible.

From a post-rock perspective, this is actually a very good album. The build at the beginning of the title track, a slowly uplifting melody, is terrific, and the torrent of sound that follows is just as good, drummer Daniel Tracy providing a technical and blasting backing for the intricate sounds of guitarist Kerry McCoy. Vertigo is possibly the best track on the album, building up magnificently without lyrics for the first five minutes to an explosion of intensity that is kept up for the rest of the fourteen-minute track, even with yet another soft interlude. It's those that are my biggest problem with this album, actually, as although they're an integral part of the post-rock sound they're used a bit too obviously here, and with a little more imagination could have helped push Sunbather towards being truly otherworldly. The spoken word in Windows (performed by Alcest's Stéphane Paut) is a bit too obviously straying towards Godspeed You! Black Emperor territory for comfort, and The Pecan Tree, the final track and the seemingly high point of the album, is a bit of a disappointment, starting with a blackened storm but the final dip into post-rock melodies repetitive and unsatisfactory to these ears.

These feel like nitpicks, and I think I'm being harsh on Deafheaven, who have made quite a good album. The best moments of the album are the heaviest, when the melodies are given weight and power by the drumming and the black metal influence is coming across clearest. Compare this to 2011's disappointing album from The Old Silver Key project with Drudkh and Alcest members, and this is by far superior as a merger of black metal and shoegaze. Yet ultimately I don't see Sunbather as black metal, but as a shoegaze album with black metal influences. Even the explanation for the name and cover art of what you see through your eyelids in bright sunshine is a good one (although it is far too much like a perfume advert, when all is said and done). Despite the screeching and blastbeats, this is quite mainstream, and although it may be setting the scene for greater mainstream acceptance of what generally puts people off black metal, the aesthetic difference between this and albums that have also gotten mainstream plaudits but stick closer to black metal, like Altar of Plagues' tremendous swansong of earlier this year, are immense. Those praising Deafheaven for being the peak of black metal are under the delusion that you have to water it down to improve it, which is plainly wrong but another good explanation for underground anger. A good album that's been dragged into a destructive argument, Sunbather will please post-rock fans with an ear for something different, and Alcest's forthcoming album has a target to beat.

Killing Songs :
Dream House, Sunbather, Vertigo
Goat quoted 80 / 100
Other albums by Deafheaven that we have reviewed:
Deafheaven - Roads to Judah reviewed by Charles and quoted 83 / 100
Deafheaven - Demo reviewed by Charles and quoted no quote
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