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Deafheaven - Sunbather CD (album) cover




Experimental/Post Metal

3.86 | 66 ratings

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4 stars Divisiveness

I remember well the day that Sunbather first leaked. Well, I should, as it was only a month ago. But regardless, it was an interesting day. I had known of Deafheaven prior to the release of Sunbather, after Roads To Judah became part of The Great Black Metal Awakening Of Early 2013 (as I am now calling it), so Sunbather was certainly on my map for new releases. But I learnt of its leak from, of all places, 4chan's /mu/ board. It was everywhere. For every thread about its greatness, there was another thread about how it wasn't trve or kvlt and that real black metal isn't made by hipsters. It was quite interesting, in fact, to have the internet's most insanely stupid music board talking about black metal for a full 12 hours or so. But it most certainly shoved Sunbather right into my need-to-listen list.

Sunbather is a divisive record by the word's very definition. People are flinging abuse at each other from either side of the arguments, with good ones coming from both directions. I noticed, a couple of weeks ago, Alcest's Neige posted a link to Sunbather on their facebook page, calling it an "amazing record". But even then, fans were divided, with the top comment simply saying, "Actually, this album is bad. Really bad." 25 replies to that comment and a full thread later, and fans of one of the most divisive bands on the planet are arguing about another band who are seemingly even more divisive.

All of this, of course, is fueling the machine that is Deafheaven. They're fucking loving it. Hype is an extreme force in the age of the internet, and these guys are lapping it up. I don't actually think they care whether or not people are talking positively, because people are talking. And, for the first time in possibly ever, black metal is at the forefront of the music industry. Fantano slapped a Light 8 on this, and even Pitchfork gave it 8.9 Best New Music, and when Pitchfork are giving a decent rating to something like this, it means that this scene is definitely on the way up.

Due to the extremely mixed and divided opinions on this release, I'm going to run through a few of them and give my thoughts on why groups of people think this.

Opinion I: It's bad because it's watered down post-black metal for people who don't like black metal.

For those who read the thread on Alcest's post, you'll see that that is a direct quote from one particularly disgruntled kvlt warrior. And, if I'm to be honest, he's right. I don't really like black metal. I find it difficult to listen to, and although I can see what people enjoy in it, I'd still prefer a bit of variation. And better recording quality. Black metal is supposed to be about sheer brutality. It's supposed to be about image. In the beginning black metal was more of a fashion statement than a genre, with many of the early artists condemning the death metal scene, particularly the Gothenburg bands, for "selling out" and heading towards mainstream. Black metal existed solely to be out-there and over-the-top. Their actions were purposefully gruesome and absurd, to try and alienate anyone who isn't kvlt enough.

And so, in this sense, Deafheaven must look like the antichrist. They have taken what is trve and kvlt and bottled it into little P4K-approved pink packages for the hipster realm to enjoy to their heart's content, because they think it's real black metal. Although personally, I think this honour should go to Alcest, who began this whole watered-down black metal thing, but at least Neige kept the image. Alcest's lyrics were dark and their imagery was pretty bleak too. But here are Deafheaven, with their button-up shirts and their blonde hair and their bright pink album cover. It's not fucking brvtal at all. It's even called "Sunbather". Sounds like a fucking indie pop record. Where's the corpsepaint? Where are the mutilated band members on the cover? Where's the sandpaper production and the lamp noises? "If it's not Burzum, it's bullpucky", as Cal Chuchesta rightly pointed out.

I don't even think I need to clarify why I think this argument is stupid, but it does have a point. People have unnecessary hatred towards bands who try and bring their style to the mainstream. And I understand, because it feels great liking someone that no one else does, but it's a bit of an elitist attitude. The original Norwegian black metal scene shared the same beliefs about 'mainstream' Gothenburg metal, but to be honest, most of them were Nazis just to put people off.

No argument here.

Opinion II: It's good because emotion

Well, yes, I guess. There is no shortage of emotion here, in both the music and the vocal delivery, combining the emotions of anger, hatred and frustration from black metal, and the emotions of euphoria and elation that stem from post-rock and shoegaze. It is most certainly gut-wrenching at times, but I guess this effect wears off after the fact that it seems to be the album's only asset.

If you've heard any album from this "Post-Black Metal" scene that's been emerging for the last few years, you know exactly the emotion Sunbather houses. I guess, if this was the only album you've heard from this style, then it would be impressive, and it would definitely rank highly in the ranks of emotional music. But this style of emotional delivery has been portrayed so many times before within the new black metal scene, and it feels a bit stale, running on clichés of crescendos laced with tremolo picking and blast beats for its emotional content. Even Alcest, with their mainly melodic and less raw approach reach a higher level of emotion in my opinion, and although it's great, this is hardly unique.

Opinion III: It's bad because those vocals are yucky

In the realm of holier-than-thou music criticism, a statement like this would be met with immediate ridicule. Music fans and critics jump to attack anyone who uses "I don't like the vocals" as a legitimate reason for disliking an album, saying that harsh vocals are amazing and just as good as cleans for everything, and if you don't understand or appreciate them then you are a plebeian and should kill yourself.

I try to be open-minded about music. I really try. I often feel my opinions don't count unless I can understand and appreciate all forms of music. And I do, to a certain level, at least more than most people. But in this case, and in several similar cases, you've just got to admit that those criticizing the vocals are maybe just a little bit right.

The vocals here are raw. Maybe not as raw as some 'trve' black metal, maybe due to the use of a proper microphone, but they are pretty chilling. They exist somewhere in the realm between black metal shrieks and the harsh screams associated with screamo music. But the problem I have with the vocals on Sunbather isn't necessarily that they're ugly, but that they don't really have any variation. Ugly is good, in context, and some bands realise that. But the fact that you have the vocals pummeling you for 50% of the album without cease gets a bit boring.

There are definitely moments where the vocals fit perfectly, the second half of "Dream House" and some of the moments in "Vertigo", but Sunbather could definitely do with some cleans or softer screams every once in a while.

Because, as close-minded as it sounds, the vocals are really the only think preventing me from giving Sunbather a higher score. The music here is phenomenal, really emotion-packed post- rock. Instrumental track "Irresistible" and the last few minutes of "The Pecan Tree" house some of the best music I've heard this year, but every time I hear it, I can't help but think that the vocals hinder this, rather than enhance it.

All of these opinions, including my own, are stupid in their own way, but have their merits to the discussion on this record. Regardless of whether you love it or hate it, Sunbather is definitely an interesting and defining record of the new 'blackgaze' genre, and after only a month it's already the most rated blackgaze album here sans Alcest/Amesoeurs. It's taken me a while, but I think I've finally settled on the "I like this" side of the spectrum, even if the vocals put me off at times. A solid release and a solid improvement over their earlier material, here's to hoping Deafheaven bring some more attention to black metal.


Originally written for my Facebook page/blog:

Gallifrey | 4/5 |


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