FBR#3: Deafheaven – Sunbather

Here is a glowing review of Deafheaven’s Sunbather.

 

Deafheaven – Sunbather

(http://deafheavens.bandcamp.com/album/sunbather)

 

It’s impossible to talk about Sunbather’s strengths without exploring Jack Shirley’s unobtrusive but extremely effective mix. At the foundation, Daniel Tracy’s drums are round and full, audibly flirting with warm analog distortion. That hint of rumble contains not the sickly static of logic switches, but the menace of rolling thunder. You can hear an early example of Tracy’s blastbeats pushing up and loosening the floorboards, threatening to break loose like all hell during album opener “Dream House”.  

 

Vocalist George Clarke also fares well. On Deafheaven’s previous album, “Roads to Judah” Clarke was somewhat obscured in the mix. You could generally hear his scary black metal growls over the billowings of the molten shoegaze guitar squall, but Clarke was hardly the focus. That seemed like part of the album’s vison, its idea, and at the time it worked. How were we to know that Deafheaven were hiding their star performer? 

 

I can’t overstate how inspired Clarke’s vocals are throughout Sunbather. If you’ve listened to a lot of Black Metal, you know how an unexpectedly thin croak or a goofy howl can puncture the sails before the ship leaves the dock (The stage lights fall and explode with sparks, a sheet tears loudly and hangs limp, dripping wet with artificial rain, a big fake castle wall falls over, and the band is left sheepish in their corpse paint and viking armor, playing painfully on). But no! Not George Clarke, not Deafheaven, not Sunbather. Clarke pushes the record to heroic extremes by delivering the most frantic, heart-rending, man-screaming-in-a-room (you can hear the room, and the room is good) vocals since Shelby Cinca made the walls weep in “Drone Academy Fight Song”. 

 

The guitars, orchestrated by Kerry McCoy, are layered immaculately. The leads are clear and melodious, and the rhythm guitar and bass fill out the mix with tempered grace. Hats off to Jack Shirley and the band. Any suspicions that Deafheaven were hiding something in that Roads-to-Judah-mix-of-designed-obscurity have been thoroughly debunked.

 

But a good mix does not a great album make. If it did, we’d only listen to pop music and Steely Dan (shudder). What about the composition? The Ideas? Is Deafheaven making bold strides forward in black metal, or are they hipster posers jockin the style?

 

“Roads to Judah” put a dim spotlight on a very long year in the life of George Clarke (“Oh I am weary, I am tired, tired of leaping” “Catching my head turning to find you again. I hated myself for it, I hated myself”). Sunbather is also abstractly conceptual, exploring feelings of being on the outside looking in on wealth, comfort, self-esteem and so on. The sunny tone of some of the guitar leads can be taken literally as a reflection of sun-drenched California. The darkness here is carried within heavy hearts, and manifests in bizarre scenes that are hard to understand. But to read too deeply is to miss the journey. Enjoy the screamed poetry and the sounds, the lush, soaring guitars that take the touchstone melodies of post-rock, shoegaze and other offshoots and stretch and pull them like cloudy gauze onto a skeletal zeppelin frame of black metal. Gasp at the headlong runaway speed, momentum and power of the band at full tilt in “Dream House” and “Sunbather”. Shiver at the palpable cloud-covers-sun darkness that spreads over the middle section of said title track, and marvel happily as that grand, dread black metal spirit looms to give his four-minute blessing to the dark heart of the album (“The hardest part, for the weak, was stroking your fingers with rings full of teeth”), then gracefully dissipates before the bright vapors of a more bittersweet striving spirit.

 

Like “Roads to Judah” there are four songs here, but now there are interludes. The most striking of which is “Windows”. This track features what sounds like a recording of a man buying drugs from a Jawa. You can hear the buyer trying to hold on to his cool, his reasonableness and maturity, as he does a shameful, helpless thing. It’s more sad and embarrassing to imagine the transaction happening on a sunny day with palm trees and well, sunbathers, than in a dark urban alley with rats and dumpsters. And the identity of the the drug buyer? A sample from a movie? Some random Joe who let the band record him? ACTUALLY, LEAD GUITARIST KERRY MCCOY. Now that’s putting yourself out there for your art.

 

Are there weaknesses? Shortcomings? Well for one, “Vertigo” seems long and tedious and sort of tuneless. The quiet moments in the songs and the interludes themselves are constructed so deliberately that they serve their purpose, but there are no happy accidents to be had. Deafheaven don’t quite recapture that essential romance from the very beginning of “Violet”, and there is no “Sonic Dust” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQ9Rj1gXkJk) here. These are small matters though, trivial disappointments forgotten in the face of the power of Sunbather in whole.

 

Album closes with “The Pecan Tree”, which has a cool My Bloody Valentine flourish toward the beginning and some wonderful self-guitar interplay toward the end. After it’s all over, it’s easy to realize how seamless, how well constructed Sunbather is. The songs twist and wend, yet still kick ass. The sheer momentum and wild fury that Deafheaven are capable of kicking up is enough to make the most skeptical metalhead grimace with pleasure. Sunbather is raw and furious, yet aspirational and panoramic. It’s a fantastic balancing act. Deafheaven have refined the ideas behind the stately and suprising Roads to Judah and made something special – a black metal album that is contemporary and urbane and American, but still respects the form and its traditions. Even if Deafheaven are unable to successfully follow up Sunbather (tough task!) their endeavor may shine a light on, and light a fire behind the Lantloses, Vallendusks and Blutmonds of the world – bands urbanizing and humanizing a subgenre that still bears the infamy of it’s early years. This cross-pollination of subcultures and musical subgenres – a populist liberation of the deep dark secret art of black metal – has terrific potential, as evidenced by the strength of Deafheaven’s Sunbather.

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