Somewhere between the first blast beat that erupted through the Cascade range and Fenriz’s decision to go crust-punk, black metal stopped being about Satan and bitter, Scandinavian winters. For a particular cabal of listeners and players, that’s always going to be where the genre begins and ends—that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with revisiting classic sounds when done right. But scenes and styles of music don’t progress by narrowing their focus; they need to grow and expand and discover, and it’s hard to do that when you’re hindered by the weight of chain mail and shoulder spikes.
Black metal was born of an iconoclastic spirit, save for its right-wing fringe, so it’s only appropriate those charting the genre’s path toward growth aim to break free from its limitations. Call it post-black metal, blackgaze, or any hyphenation or portmanteau necessary to make sense of it, but black metal’s mightiest triumphs of the past half-decade have belonged to those concerned less with its history than where it can go in the future. Agalloch, Alcest, Tombs and Liturgy are just a handful of bands to have caused various cracks in its force field, and San Francisco’s Deafheaven, with second album Sunbather, deliver the coup de grace.
Sunbather, much like Deafheaven’s debut album Roads to Judah, is technically a metal album, though not one that pledges any allegiance to any particular rules or restrictions about what that means. And also much like that album, it’s rooted heavily in post-rock and shoegaze albums of the ‘90s. At any given point throughout the album, there are shades of a long list of non-metal artists—Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, Envy, Slint, Godspeed You! Black Emperor—but heavier, louder, and with a lot more screaming. That combination is one that, if not handled carefully, could very well fail spectacularly; Deafheaven are committed to never letting that happen. To the contrary, Sunbather is one of the most gracefully executed, and beautifully written metal albums in recent memory.
With the thick, heavy layer of chords that opens first track “Dream House,” there’s very little indication that there’s much blackness to be found on Sunbather — the pink album cover sends that message pretty loud and clear, as well. Yet in short succession, in comes a rush of hyper-speed blast beats and George Clarke’s anguished screech. The elements of black metal are there, sure, but there are major keys, and narration dripping with introspection and emotion. As the nine-minute song reaches its soaring climax, Clarke delivers a two-part dialogue: “I’m dying/ Is it blissful/ It’s like a dream/ I want to dream.” It’s no stretch to imagine this coming from an emo band, and in a manner of speaking, it does — Deafheaven pull just as much inspiration from a band like Envy or Gospel as they do from Weakling, and their sound is all the more interesting for it.
Of the four lengthy metal tracks on Sunbather, “Dream House” is the shortest, if still one of the best, and with each one the group adds on something new. The title track is the most explicitly shoegaze of the bunch, with rich guitar textures floating in a triumphant fog. And once again Clarke’s subject matter takes a turn toward the personal and the emotional, gazing upon a sunbathing beauty while taking stock of personal failures: “I gazed into reflective eyes/ I cried against an ocean of light.”
The longest of the bunch, “Vertigo,” is a breathtaking journey from Godspeed-style guitar chimes into NWOBHM soloing and eventually a gorgeously exhausting trip back through the black metal wringer. It ends with as much grace as where it began, but more aggressive, more harried, and with a few more battle scars. Just a few minutes shorter, “The Pecan Tree” takes the opposite direction, opening up as a vicious rush of bile and venom and eventually easing back into a gorgeous instrumental section, with some guitar treatments borrowed from Efrim Menuck and Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch.
Where, on a similar kind of album, the shorter instrumental pieces that serve as interludes between the main attractions would come across as lesser creations, here they’re just as integral to the flow of the album, and often quite beautiful in their own right. At three minutes long, “Irresistible” seems far too short, its mesmerizing guitar patterns creating a moment of bliss with the simplest of elements. And “Windows,” much like pieces of Godspeed’s F# A# Infinity, juxtaposes found-sound dialogue against an ominous, slow-build of sound. It’s utterly chilling—even if ultimately it’s an act of homage—and a moment in which darkness overtakes the album’s pursuit of brilliance and light.
If there’s a complaint to be had about Sunbather, it’s in the absence of clean or more nuanced singing. The wide range of styles that Deafheaven cover here lend themselves to a varied approach, and while Clarke’s screams most certainly kill 90 percent of the time, there are times when a softer touch would be warranted. As a complaint, however, this is a minor one; even the best bands have room to grow and improve, and on an album this sophisticated and complex, a blemish merely deepens the conversation and humanizes the art. That, ultimately, is what makes Deafheaven both heroic and, for naysayers, unforgivable—they took something that was supposed to be wretched and evil, and made it human.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.