“Sunbather”‘s vibrant pink cover art serves as an effective stab at the heart of black metal’s nihilistic heart.
In 2011, the foremost American black metal band, Liturgy, stirred controversy when it issued, along with its sophomore LP Aesthethica, a surprisingly intelligent and progressive manifesto detailing an ideology of “transcendental black metal.” The combination of music and polemic was met with disdain from metal fans the world over.
Why the condemnation? Because Liturgy’s statement and the album critique “actual” Hyperborean black metal on a thematic and technical level. ‘Transcendental black metal’ rejects the negativity celebrated by Hyperborean black metal — nihilism, atrophy, and depravity — in favor of more positive values such as affirmation, growth, and courage. In terms of the nature of the music, apathetic blast beat drumming is replaced by dynamic “burst beats.”
Liturgy’s technical prowess backed up its “radical” beliefs, and Aesthethica proved to be a critic-pleaser. However, this only accelerated the attacks from the black metal community, which continued to lambast the band for its positive message and began labeling its style as “hipster black metal.” Now, two years later, the San Francisco-based Deafheaven finds itself in a similar situation, fending off charges of hugging optimism, with their sophomore effort Sunbather.
Sunbather is not accompanied by a proclamation, but its vibrant pink cover art serves as just as effective a stab at the nihilistic heart of black metal. If Liturgy’s approach to the genre is “transcendental,” then Deafheaven’s approach would best be described as “romantic.” While both bands make music that is ultimately triumphant, Liturgy favors a jagged, math rock flavor, whereas Deafheaven embraces the soaring textures of post-rock, shoegazing, and screamo.
These textures are blended brilliantly on the first track, “Dream House.” The nine-minute-long piece begins as an onslaught of syncopated guitar, frenetic drumming, and wretched vocals. The song reaches a post-rock-esque climax at the halfway mark and then momentarily mellows out with some delicate guitar picking. Deafheaven then explodes into the deliberately-paced third and final movement, bringing the song to a close with a wash of shoegazy feedback.
This is followed by the short interlude “Irresistible,” which lives up to its title. A graceful guitar and piano piece, the song acts as a welcome — perhaps necessary — comedown from the earlier nine-minute-long blitz. The remainder of the album follows this same pattern: a lengthy black metal tune followed by an Explosions in the Sky/Godspeed You! Black Emperor-esque interlude.
This framework is a double-edged sword for Deafheaven. It works against the band because it makes the album a tad predictable, but, at the same time, it gives the disc a powerfully cohesive shape. What’s more, this is an outfit that is more than capable of topping itself — the perfect example being the LP’s title track. The 10-minute-long, multi-phased piece immediately replaces the precedent set by “Dream House.” The strained vocals here are particularly emotive; the arrestingly beautiful guitar tones and masterful percussion that turn up towards the backend of the track make it the album’s highlight.
The interlude that follows, “Please Remember,” is much more ominous than “Irresistible.” Here Deafheaven displays more than a bit of Godspeed worship, supplying eerie guitars and a spoken-word field recording at the beginning of the piece. A wall of harsh noise gives way to another clean guitar part that introduces some acoustic and slide.
“Vertigo” begins with a clean, gorgeous intro — the busy drumming being the only hint that it will soon explode into yet another flurry of black metal. The tortured, yet passionate vocals, the crushing guitar tones, and the pounding percussion keep the 14-minute-long piece from becoming stale, a perpetual danger for the genre.
Unfortunately, Sunbather weakens slightly with its last two tracks. Of the three interludes, “Windows” is easily the weakest, proffering a spoken-word field recording that, unlike the one in “Please Remember,” becomes somewhat grating. It doesn’t make much sense to include a snippet of a fire sermon at this point in the album.
“Windows” doesn’t lead as smoothly into “The Pecan Tree” as the other interludes preface their respective songs, but the latter kicks off with the competent musicianship that has graced the album up to that point. At the same time, the tune doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the sonic table, even rehashing the syncopated guitars that made “Dream House” a stand out. Even more disappointing, “The Pecan Tree” closes the disc with a fade-out, an uncharacteristically anticlimactic move.
Still, even at its weakest, Sunbather is an inspired, forward-thinking black metal LP. Black metal purists will be displeased, but listeners going in with an open mind will find a passionately invigorating take on a genre that is too often mired in childish misanthropy and negativism. This is black metal that doesn’t wallow in the abyss, but basks in the sun.