Okay, I admit it – I was never a fan of Black Metal. I know this makes me tragically unhip, and I know it tarnishes my credibility as a music journalist (acceptance is the first step). It wasn’t for a lack of trying. I listened two dozens upon dozens of Black Metal albums. I watched a couple Black Metal documentaries (Until the Light Takes Us and One Man Metal) and left both viewings telling myself that I had to like something that was so pure, so raw, and so brutal. Yet, no matter what band I checked out, I just couldn’t get past the machine gun drums, grating guitars, and rasping screams. I was doomed to be lame (in the right measure).
I guess all I needed was for someone to come along and take this jagged, bulky genre and make it more accessible. In 2010 it was Norwegian band Shining’s Black Jazz, an album that melded the core tenets of Black Metal with jazz scales and saxophones. Of course, I enjoyed the jazz side more than the carnage, but it was a step in the right direction.
It wasn’t until Deafheaven’s Sunbather that I finally got it. I’m not going to go so far as to suggest Deafheaven are a Black Metal band (although the argument could be made), but with Sunbather they’ve taken those same elements of the movement that I despised and polished them up for me to enjoy in all their splendor. The key to their approach is their ability to bring a little light into the darkness. Rather than tear through one heart wrenching song after another, Deafheaven have mastered the ability to move impeccably from a blistering guitar riff to a soft piano interlude in mere seconds. It’s these hills and valleys that make the release so much more rewarding.
Not only does Sunbather explore new territories in the quickly aging Black Metal genre, but it also breathes new life into the epic, instrumental approach taken on by such bands as Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Recent releases by these bands and others of their ilk have not had the grandiose impact of their earlier work. Had the cinematic swoops and the crescendo loops lost their luster? Or did the use of the genre in films and TV shows weaken their emotive qualities? Whatever the case, Deafheaven have ripped that ever growing, dramatic sound from the 2000s and brought it kicking and screaming into the Tens (that’s what our current decade is called, right?).
Sunbather is comprised of seven songs that range from three minutes to fourteen minutes, but you’ll never know the difference thanks in large part to the band’s seamless transition from one track to another, the crushing assault perfectly countered with brief moments to collect your thoughts before the storm returns. While the vocals and drums often take on the spirit of Black Metal, the guitars are far from the low-fi garble often associated with the genre. Instead, the guitars serve as a wall of ever-growing splendor, layer upon layer of distortion accentuating the chiming lead guitar riffs, all working together as one well oiled, metal machine.
Vocalist George Clarke has said that the album is focused upon the idea of growing up in a poor household, always wondering what life would be like on the other side. The album title comes from the image that stuck with him of a young girl sunbathing, living the good life that Frank Ocean explored last year on The Orange Channel. When I read the inspiration behind the album, I was a bit shocked because I’d drawn the same theme from the music. I certainly didn’t draw it from the vocals (completely incomprehensible) rather from the emotional heft of the music.
In fact, in recent listens I’ve made mental connections to the last season of Breaking Bad (no spoilers, I promise). Much like Clarke’s yearning to live the lavish life, Walter White was always propelled by that same need to be accomplished. Unfortunately, the show is turning out to be just as tragic as Deafheaven’s Sunbather. And much in the way potheads listen to Dark Side of the Moon while watching Wizard of Oz, Sunbather is the same type of classic album that would match-up impeccably with the most recent episodes of Breaking Bad – the anger, the sadness, the violence, and the aftermath. Just like Breaking Bad, Deafheaven have masterfully created an album that balances the chaos with the misery, resulting in music that is beautifully tragic.