If there was ever an album to challenge Altar of Plagues recent Teethed Injury and Glory for most divisive black metal record of the year, then Deafheaven’s sophomore effort Sunbather is surely the strongest challenger. The band split opinion in almost every circle – black metal fans, shoegaze fans, awful hipsters, critics – no one seems to know what to do with this group or where they fit within the black metal arena….and that’s ok. It’s fine not to know what to do with a band such as Deafheaven who go against almost every stereotype there is (if the title isn't enough then check that cover art by Nick Steinhardt of Touché Amoré if you need any more convincing) and make absolutely no apologies for it and if their debut Roads to Judah is anything to go by, then Sunbather is going to divide opinion yet again.
Their demo of 2010 turned enough heads in order to get the band signed to Deathwish Inc and Roads to Judah signalled a step up and forward for the band and saw them tour a massive amount - in America and Europe as well as in Japan. This summer sees them tour the US with Marriages and earlier this year a huge European headlining tour with Italians The Secret enraptured all that saw them. All that and they’re barely in their mid-twenties? It's mindblowing and it has been incredible to watch this band grow and develop and Sunbather is surely going to see them go further than they ever dreamed.
Sunbather is a record of defining moments. It marks Deafheaven’s passage into a mature and forward thinking act, one that holds their influences close to their hearts yet pushes the boundaries of the genres it inhabits and twists them into new and tormented structures. Of course there have been stabs at shoegaze influenced, post-rock ingrained black metal – Alcest being the name brought to mind most often when thinking about Deafheaven – yet the San Fransican duo (Daniel Tracy was brought on board for drum duties and the core of the band has always been Clarke and McCoy) shine new light on the format by stretching any preconceptions out of context and roiling in the glare and uncomfortable heat of life. Deafheaven counter beautiful swathes of summer-flecked guitar with hints of bottomless melancholy and a terrifying presence in the vocal courtesy of frontman George Clarke. There’s an ocean of bittersweet regret bubbling away under the surface of Sunbather and the sense of loss shines through in the overwhelming swells of Kerry McCoy’s guitar and the tight, almost at breaking point drum work from Dan Tracy.
“Dream House” punches with a heady mix of Clarke’s suffering screams and Tracy’s incredible drum work and the fiery mood captured by the pair is off-set by a shimmering guitar undertone. The climbing, echoing and sorrowful notes that are fed through the otherwise fury-laden rhythms give Deafheaven the contrasting moods that they have become known for. For some this countering approach doesn’t work; waiting for a pretty vocal melody to shine through will leave you hanging for time immemorial. For Alcest it works. But Alcest are French and their lifestyle and experiences are completely different to anything Clarke and McCoy have had and as such the simmering love/hate relationship with their choices seeps into the tortured wails and gorgeous flashes of light found on Sunbather’s opener. Whatever your thoughts or opinions are on this group, their passion should never be called into question.
“Irresistible” is the first of three interludes on the record which serve to bridge the moods of the album and also lets us see a little deeper into what makes this band work. “Irresistible” is a gentle, piano led composition that houses a feeling of watchful hope before leading into the swirling emotion of the title track. Passages of introspective quiet punctuate the raging soundscapes wrought by the band and they allow a little breathing space from the assured intensity before the break back into the midst of absolute torment. The shift into higher gear after these moments of solitude are drenched in the truth that the storm always follow, that even in comfort you can never be sure of safety and whilst you know the shadow will be cast, you are never prepared. “Please Remember” is a strange and off-kilter work that takes in spoken word aspects (from Neige of the previously mentioned Alcest) and very unusual sounds before a painful build into feedback soaked darkness. A sudden segue into beautiful acoustic notes throws the movement of the piece onto a new track and again that opposing force that’s at work through the band allows a brief look at the tumultuous beings at its center. “Windows” offers remarkable insight into the world that Deafheaven have found themselves in. The stark contrast between a man preaching on the street and his hope in God and the utter hopelessness of doing an extremely shady deal on a street corner is blindingly apparent. Where some have mountains of hope, some have absolutely none.
After the aforementioned “Windows,” we come to the end of Sunbather with the devastating force of “The Pecan Tree.” The track bursts into life immediately and Deafheaven don’t reign anything in with a song that is an almost constant barrage of sound and screams and anguish and the deep-seated emotional heart of the record pulses through the darkness to sweep and ebb in the soaring guitar lines and Clarke’s vocal performance doesn’t lack in power or tension. Whereas before (and during live shows especially) there seemed to be a struggle with pushing the words out, this time around there’s more direction and command over his expression. It’s clear that Deafheaven have learned a great deal since their beginnings in terms of manipulating their sound to maximise the effect on the senses and soSunbather swirls in the heat of misspent youth and in the struggle to overcome the feelings associated with those mistakes and to move on to new, better and hopeful times. Deafheaven may be a young band, they may split opinion and they may not even really be black metal at all, but they are certainly a product of generation that was promised everything and received nothing and as such create haunting and personal work that resonates with desire and desperation alike.