Black metal, or at least the genre’s aesthetic, is in a precarious position of trendiness. While many see only the surface of it, the stark imagery of cartoonish xenophobes extolling Satan in costumes of corpse paint and spikes, the reality is that many of the form’s originators actually lived their art. So, while Etsy deals with a clogging bandwidth of kittens in corpse paint and leggings with inverted crosses, we remind you that people were killed, churches were burned, and the originators of black metal were generally deplorable people in every way. This adds an intangible danger to the music in the same way gangster rap made by proper criminals inherently holds more danger than that of its suburban counterparts, and why fans of authentic, “true” black metal will give little credence to anything other than that created by the genre’s heathen forefathers.
Deafheaven hails far from the isolated and frigid black metal birthing grounds of Norway, instead forming in another metal hotbed — the San Francisco Bay area. The band’s sound fuses black metal’s sonic onslaught with the lush bombast and expanse of shoegaze in a way that adds considerable aesthetics to both genres while delivering it far from the tropes of either.
With the group’s sophomore effort, Sunbather, Deafheaven has taken the concepts initially explored on Roads to Judah and successfully painted a dynamic masterpiece in sounds harsh and lush. The album displays black metal through an art school filter in a way that might be off-putting to staunch proponents of the authentic, but forges new territory for what can be both heavy and beautiful. Gone is the awkward gait and busy feel of the band’s promising debut.
Sunbather, instead, displays a massive production built for the solitude of headphones and the full attention of the listener. From the entrance of nine-minute opening romp “Dream House”, the album’s immediacy and blooming quality rivals that of any of the current post-rock heroes twinkling away on delayed guitars. The cinematic shifts from vocalist George Clarke’s screams to Kerry McCoy’s tsunami guitars on the double-bass fueled sonic apocalypse that unfolds over the 14-plus minutes of “Vertigo” is revelatory.
There are moments of ethereal, dark ambience (“Please Remember”, “Windows”) that punctuate the album’s segues through its many epochs while hinting at early Swans or a scaled-back Wolf Eyes, and while we have yet to hear what Twilight is going to sound like with Thurston Moore’s involvement, we doubt the result will be anywhere near as crushing or beautiful as this release. Sunbather is a developed, mature, and, above all, an original statement that truly lives up to the unbelievable amount of hype it has earned.
Essential Tracks: “Dream House”, “Vertigo”, “Sunbather”, and “The Pecan Tree”