Album Review: Deafheaven – Sunbather

[Deathwish; 2013]

Oh, black metal. That great dividing line that separates so many of us music lovers like a jagged mountain range. For some, it’s a deeply spiritual experience, akin to walking through fire unscathed. For others, it’s a joke, grown men growing like demons and taking photos of themselves in corpse paint in the woods behind their parents’ house, to laughable effect. Lately however, there’ve been some tiptoes just over this line by the hipster set, though as always with those folks, one can’t tell whether the interest is genuine or some attempt at obscurist, post-modern irony.

In this rank netherworld exist bands such as Wolves In The Throne Room, Liturgy, Sannhet, and our friends here from San Francisco, Deafheaven. Deafheaven are, on the surface, everything black metal isn’t. Lead growler George Clark appears on stage not only sans corpse-paint but looking like he’s taken more than a few cues from the Duran Duran stylebook. Their music is crushingly heavy, yes, but also bears the aching beauty and transcendent, shimmering shoegaze heroics of post-rock titans present and past. There’s more than a hint of Mogwai and Sigur Rós in their thunder, even if it’s the vocals from “A Blaze In The Northern Sky” underneath.

Perusing the stickier corners of black metal fandom across the web, one finds violent amounts of hatred directed at Deafheaven, especially from the TNBM set. For their part, Deafheaven seems ready and willing to provoke the haters. The cover of their second LP, Sunbather, is decked out in dayglo peach with the kind of white lettering you’d find on 4AD releases from the eighties. And, y’know, it’s called Sunbather, which seems a whole lot like a jab at the indoor-bound, pale, frozen-tundra sort of music fan that would be drawn to black metal on any given day.

But all these talking points and controversies amount to very little the second you hit ‘play’ on this album. Not only is there nary a flaw to be found in its perfectly-sculpted structure, it’s also a journey album, epic in a way so few albums take the risk to be anymore. This is a disc that not only revolutionizes black metal as we know it, but breathes new life into post-rock, as well. These are some of the most hauntingly gorgeous guitar fireworks that the genre has produced in years, long since most of the players in other bands have fallen victim to cliches and mediocrity.

“Dream House” is fist-in-the-air majestic, churning through multiple movements loud and soft, ebbing and flowing and at last reaching ten stories tall in a flurry of blast drums and tremolo-wailing guitar. The more delicate tracks such as “Irresistible” are crucial gaps of bittersweet tenderness laid between the triumphant explosions of thunder that pierce the album’s longer sections. The acoustic-and-slide campfire chill-out near the end of “Please Remember” segues perfectly into the soaring theatrics of “Vertigo,” and the street preaching unfurling over the reversed piano drones of “Windows” leads expertly into the album’s startling swan song, “The Pecan Tree.” We close out as we began, with unfiltered glacial awesomeness.

Clark’s vocals may be a sticking point for some, deemed unnecessary by those who like their skyward eruptions howl-free, but they’re low enough in the mix so that, as the old saw goes, they’re truly utilized as just another instrument. And as impressive as the dual fretwork is here, the true MVP of this album is Daniel Tracy, whose inventive, unpredictable drumming is the glue holding this machine together.

Here’s the thing: I’m not a huge black metal guy. I appreciate the genre aesthetically and there’s a few bands I can really get into. I am however a huge post-rock guy, and a huge shoegaze guy. But from whichever angle you approach this album, the fact is that in the creeping years, once all the cacophony about genres has subsided, this will be seen for what it is: a landmark album. Sunbather is a future classic, no matter where you pigeonhole it, and that’s the mark of a true sonic masterpiece. Black metal, not black metal, just call it what it is: perfect.