A black metal album that isn't really a black metal album, San Francisco group Deafheaven's sophomore effort Sunbather ended up being one of the most polarizing and unique releases of 2013. Many people are immediately turned off by the label 'black metal,' not subsribing to the screamed vocals or lengthy track times you'll find throughout the genre. At first, I was one of those people. My knowledge of metal in general is minimal, as I have no clue as to the nuances that separate subgenres and for a long time didn't understand the appeal. Then, I decided to go in with an open mind based on all of the positive reviews from critics and fans alike. Clearly, something was remarkable about this record, whose soft pink cover and stylish lettering didn't exactly scream "metal." It actually ended up the highest-rated original release of 2013 on Metacritic, excluding reissues, box sets, and a Wonder Years album whose score was skewed as it only had four critic reviews total. It also landed in the top ten of year-end lists at Pitchfork, Stereogum, and SPIN, among others. Clearly, there was something presumably excellent that I was missing out on, so I tried something I'd never seriously done before; listening to a black-metal album.
From the moment "Dream House" started, I knew something was special about Sunbather. Yes, the screams are there, but they are pretty much buried in the mix, and actually add to the music (but more on that later). What is so different about this so-called black metal album is that it's just as much post-rock and shoegaze as it is metal. On the surface, Sunbather presents a wall of furious guitars, thundering and lightning-quick drums, and snarled vocals. However, as each song progresses you are greeted with a wave of emotions, including one not typical of a black metal record; happiness. While whether the album is truly metal has been debated by self-nominated "true metalheads," there's no denying that Sunbather is one of the year's most cathartic pieces of music. Fury, grief, melancholy, loss, happiness, tranquility, anxiety, and everythhing in between are represented here. This is because so much emphasis is put on the instrumentals, particularly on the chord progressions of the guitars, which climb summits and sink into valleys time and time again throughout the blissful journey that is Sunbather.
The basic structure of the album also plays a significant role in how the music is experienced. Each of the four, lengthy, heavy songs are split up by an intermediary instrumental piece. After every nine-minute plus of eardrum-bursting metal, you are given a cool-down period of calmer, lighter music. It all starts with "Dream House," the soaring opener which landed at #3 on my songs of the year list. A comparatively subdued intro of power chords invokes a sense of warmth as the drums and bass enter with a bang. George Clarke's role in terms of vocals is clear here as well; though you may not know what he's saying, it's clear that he's exposing himself and his feelings in the most earnest, sincere, organic way possible. This all adds to the overhwhelming feeling of catharthis that protudes from every corner of Sunbather. The fierce roar continues for about three minutes until a crisp, uplifting guitar piece pokes its head in. About four minutes in, the song subtley shifts to a more post-rock feel, and a minute later everything washes away, leaving a simple, harmonious guitar part in its wake. It's a sudden change from fury to peace and beauty, but not a long-lived one. The song goes full-on post-rock in the three-minute vamp to close the track, with a slowed tempo and a more deliberate collaboration between the drums and guitars simultaneously suggesting resolution and melancholy.
Immediately following this monster of a track is "Irresistible," a tranquil guitar-and-piano-only piece that serves as an early but necessary break from all of the wondrous noise that "Dream House" brought to the table. It's just as beautiful as the tracks preceding and following it, but in a completely opposite way. While "Dream House" and as you'll soon learn "Sunbather" rely on volume and power to evoke strong emotions, "Irresistible" utilizes space and quietness to its advantages.
The title track immediately throws you back into the fray with an anxious set of shoegaze-y power chords and jittery drums. The chorus, if you can call it that, is simply outstanding in the way it pauses briefly to allow the impact of the song to set in. It undergoes even more transformations than "Dream House," as plenty of sprawling metal tracks do. By the end of this ten-minute epic, you've heard everything from a semi-thrash metal section to a snare-roll driven march forward, and even a mysterious "quiet" area around the eight-minute mark. The final three minutes or so are where the track climaxes, hitting the peak of raw and befuddled emotion. The following transition piece, "Please Remember," features a discombobulated and unsettling mix of spoken word, industrial noise, and looming guitar riffs for the first half, and a relaxing acoustic-electric dual guitar interplay during the latter portion.
"Vertigo" stands mighty at a daunting 14:38 in duration, as the mysterious intro evolves into a dark descent into the deepest trenches of George Clarke's pysche. More transformations are in store as a power-metal guitar solo pipes in between waves of noise. "Windows" comes next as the creepiest song on the album. The combination of ambient noise, intermittent piano, and spoken word reminds you of a similar piece from a surprising source. The composition of "Windows" can easily be compared to, weirdly enough, the beginning of '80's indie-pop legends The Smiths's tune "Last Night I Dreamt Somebody Loved Me." It's an amazing parallel considering just how different the bands appear to be on the surface; one a bouncy, overtly British hook-minded group known mostly for shorter songs, the other a metal group that creates sprawling ten-minute epics. It speaks volumes about Deafheaven's mission and influences, and is further evidence that Sunbather is hardly your typical black metal album. The album reaches a conclusion with "The Pecan Tree," which contains a much longer "quiet" period than the other metal-oriented tracks. Though probably my least favorite of the four heavy songs, it's still quite the experience at eleven-and-a-half-minutes.
Nowhere did Deafheaven claim to be the most commercially appealing band in the world. Nor did they say that Sunbather would be the most straight-forward metal album one could expect. In fact, it was pretty much the exact opposite; a metal album on the outside, but a moody, expansive record when really paid attention to. The landscapes shaped by Sunbather's guitar work are oftentimes ones of beauty, happiness, and warmth, but also of genuine sadness and confusion. Where some metal albums will fill gaps with bleak tones and masked anger, Sunbather turns towards sincerity, making the experience all the more relatable. Perhaps this is the root of Deafheaven's alleged rejection by the metal community, having been given the label of a "hipster metal band." Surely lots of metal fans connect with the disillusionment a lot of the genre's music displays, and maybe aren't used to such a raw display of more "embarassing" feelings. Regardless, Sunbather is doubtlessly one of 2013's best, a crossover hit that may turn the tide of metal music in a major way.
Key Tracks: "Dream House," "Irresistible," "Sunbather," "Vertigo"