Deafheaven – Sunbather (Deathwish Inc.)
I’m neither proud nor ashamed of this, but I’m confident in saying I wrote more words in 2013 on the subject of Deafheaven than did any other writer — a large number of those words coming in our May Premature Evaluation of Sunbather, in which I called the album “a masterpiece.” But no matter how much I say about the band and that album, I find there is still more I want to say, and six months after writing that review, I am even more impressed by Sunbather. Initially, for instance, I considered the album’s shorter, quieter tracks to be simple interludes, but my understanding of them has since evolved: Even if they are intended to serve as connective tissue between the longer, heavier songs (all of which are woven with short, quiet sections themselves), they are nonetheless elegant, and detailed, and distinctive, and purposeful. And powerful. It would be missing the point to declare “Irresistible” or “Windows” one’s favorite track on Sunbather, but at any given moment it would not necessarily be wrong.
But those other songs, the longer, heavier songs: “Dreamhouse” and “Sunbather” and “Vertigo” and “The Pecan Tree” … Jesus Fucking Christ those songs are momentous. I’ve read a lot of criticism of Sunbather — e.g., it covers ground already broken by Alcest and Envy; the vocal approach doesn’t mesh well with the instrumental performances; it’s too pretty or unchallenging or bombastic or opportunistic or something — but none of it seems to contend with (or care to contend with, anyway) the actual music. And no matter how intently I confront and challenge and even doubt my own notions, none of it has managed to diminish Sunbather in my estimation. I’m still blown away by the thing, thrilled by it, awed by it.
There are some neat parallels (and perpendiculars) between Deafheaven and the other band about whom I wrote more words in 2013 than did any other writer: Darkthrone. Both are duos made up of two very visible, recognizable members, and those members seem absolutely integral to their respective band’s identity and artistic process. Musically, both bands start with a thing called “black metal,” but from there, they bring so many other influences and ideas to the music that when it is complete, it no longer really resembles black metal. On Darkthrone’s recent albums — and especially so on this year’s outstanding The Underground Resistance — the Norwegian duo have stripped away all progressive elements from the genre they helped to create, and built a raw, anthemic, atavistic sound with ingredients borrowed from metal’s earliest practitioners, many of whom have otherwise largely been lost to history. Deafheaven, meanwhile, have set up camp on black metal’s lushest, loftiest terrain, and amplified the aspects of the music that borrow from or resemble shoegaze, dream-pop, post-rock, and slow-core, to the extent that Deafheaven’s music at points becomes shoegaze, dream-pop, post-rock, and slow-core.
Of course, Darkthrone are the very definition of a black metal band — perhaps the very definition of a metal band — while Deafheaven are, at best, a new definition of what a metal band might be, or at worst, a metal band for dilettantes. Oh, I’ll just say it: a hipster metal band. When I saw Deafheaven in Brooklyn on the Sunbather tour, they played to a packed room, but as far as I could see, I was the only person in that room wearing a T-shirt bearing the logo of a metal band. That doesn’t happen at metal shows. Furthermore, the only people I recognized at that show were either other bloggers or publicists. That also doesn’t happen at metal shows. That night, that bugged me a lot, and I left, irritated, before Deafheaven finished their set, before they played my favorite song from Sunbather, “The Pecan Tree.” In a very real and important way, metal, for me, is about community. And as much as I love Deafheaven, my community was not in the room that night.
To that end, I found myself oddly touched a couple weeks back when Deafheaven announced a 2014 tour supporting North Carolina metal band Between The Buried And Me. Not because I have any special fondness for BTBAM, but because I knew those rooms would be full of metal logo-bearing T-shirts, and I knew Deafheaven knew that, too, and I suspected they saw this slot as an opportunity to connect with some of those metal fans who’ve been suspicious of the band thus far. A crossover metal band trying to cross over to a metal audience, trying to be part of this community: I can’t imagine that’s an easy proposition, and I’m encouraged to see Deafheaven making those efforts, trying to build and grow, even more than they have already, and in unexpected ways.
But I digress, as I often do when discussing Deafheaven. What comes next year has no bearing on what occurred in 2013, and great music is great music regardless of who’s in the room listening alongside you. Sunbather is the best metal album of the year not because it pushes boundaries or topples walls or crashes gates, but because it is a mesmerizing and absorbing and invigorating work of art, a thing that demands and deserves the passion it inspires. It is — still, wholly, legitimately — a masterpiece. –Michael [LISTEN]