Deafheaven – Sunbather (Deathwish)
It’s impossible to talk about Deafheaven’s 2013 without talking about the metal “scene”‘s consternation over the band — a feeling that was seemingly mutual, in many respects. Regardless of the San Francisco duo’s explanations or ostensible intentions, they had to know that a black metal album with a bright pink cover — and a title like Sunbather, no less — was going to be viewed by even casual observers as provocation. Furthermore, they were surely aware that allowing Apple to use that bright pink cover in images promoting the new iPhone 5 (reportedly an agreement on which the band signed off, but for which they received no financial compensation) would make Deafheaven an especially easy and public target for a subculture already wary of tourism and gentrification. For these decisions and others (such as the black leather riding gloves worn onstage by dapper frontman George Clarke during the Sunbather tour), Deafheaven might be viewed as either bold individualists refusing to be reined in by a suffocating dogma, or pandering opportunists cannily courting blogs and enraging purists — both of whom were sure to react quickly and loudly to each new development regarding the band — while also presenting to mainstream audiences a “palatable” version of black metal: taking a subgenre built on theistic Satanism and suicidal ideation (and worse), and making it softer and safer.
That was the Deafheaven conversation in 2013, and it was inescapable. It was also, however, a narrative construct that either ignored the music made by the band, or (at best) treated that music as a distant-secondary concern. But Sunbather, the album, feels like neither an act of brave defiance nor a crass attempt to soften sharp edges. It is, simply, an immersive and exhilarating work of art — huge swells of brilliant noise; crystalline pools of placid beauty — a breathtaking, transporting physical experience not unlike the one delivered by Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. In those respects it is a unique and hugely generous record. But that generosity, those thrills, are the result of painstaking attention to detail on the part of the album’s creators: Kerry McCoy’s melodic chord patterns and deft, richly textured guitar playing, which ranges from gentle to frantic to muscular; Daniel Tracy’s percussion, an instrument with the precision and power of a jet engine; Clarke’s whispery, expressive hiss, which delivers his unusually thoughtful lyrics with a careful ear toward rhythm and momentum; and Jack Shirley’s production, which captures the full scope of the band’s ambitions and abilities the way Ansel Adams captured mountain ranges — with massive scale and minute focus.
Of course, Sunbather is no more a black metal album than it is a post-rock album, and no more a post-rock album than it is a shoegaze album. It belongs to all of those genres equally, and to none of them, exactly. It is neither a revolution nor a betrayal. In 2013, the Deafheaven conversation got so loud that it largely drowned out the music. But all the talking precisely misses the point — Sunbather only works if you shut up and listen. –Michael [LISTEN]