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Deafheaven - Sunbather CD (album) cover

SUNBATHER

Deafheaven

Experimental/Post Metal


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The Truth
COLLABORATOR
Post/Math Rock Team
5 stars Deafheaven's Sunbather is a sophomore album that I wasn't really expecting much from. Sure the cover excited me and the descriptions of the upcoming tracks from The Needle Drop kind of perked my interest, but the band's debut album really left me cold, I thought it was just generic black metal with very little experimentation and elaborateness.

This album, on the other hand, is a definite improvement and I'm glad I tried it out.

Although it's basis is in black metal as was its predecessor, Sunbather draws influence from several different music scenes including shoegaze, post-rock, post-metal and even some subtler influences from alternative metal. These new injections from outside the band's previous realm are a welcome sound indeed, especially the post-rock leaning moments.

On this album Deafheaven has the crescendos and sound bites of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the vocals of Agalloch and the shoegaze-laden metal of Alcest, and the final product is a beautiful record, one of the best of the year, no doubt.

If the cover indicates anything, it's that this music is different. Different in a very good way. Different in ways progheads, metalheads and genuine musicheads can really enjoy.

Report this review (#990088)
Posted Sunday, June 30, 2013 | Review Permalink
Guldbamsen
SPECIAL COLLABORATOR
Retired Admin
2 stars Potato - Potato

The last review I did, I inadvertently flew halfway across the globe from the thousand lakes of Finland to the land of milk and honey. Well that's me in a nutshell... Even when I plan something ahead - like this little review stint of mine - going from country to country, I still manage to surprise myself and do something uncalled for and silly...

Oh well all the more reason to get excited, because whereas a great portion of proggers out there bow their heads in eternal gratitude to the ever succulent and vivacious whims of the English isles, there are still some of us who believe that their bastard child way out in the west has produced some remarkable albums through the years.....and while this certainly isn't one of them, it is still what I choose to write about just to keep things nicely out of check and confusing. Just the way I like it.

I've seen a disturbing tendency on other reviewing websites of late - in particularly on Rate Your Music, where young peeps herald current albums as sonic originators, milestones of certain genres - and all of a suddenly this pseudo musical "knowledge" becomes fact. It irritates the hell out of me.

Deafheaven's Sunbather is a perfect case to illustrate this. Many people seem to hear this as an altogether fresh and progressive branching of the ever winding metal tree, and while the band must be said to have their fingers on the pulse of today's current fluctuations and musical gang-banging, the people claiming Deafheaven as unique maestros of progressive post metal shoegaze are still missing the obvious: This album is a major rip-off of the Alcest sound. It's so obvious that it literally screams at you! There's a pun intended there - especially seeing as this album basically draws on the ethereal panoramic post rock of Neige and fellow compatriots, and then leaves out any of the gentle singing.

Boiled down, Sunbather sounds like a heavier take on Écailles de Lune much credited to the cement mixing double pedal drumming and the ear shattering screamo vocals. You get the same huge wall of sound from the guitars - sounding like oceanic tidal waves feeding off one another in beautifully wavering patterns - the same nonchalant ways about the production side of things pulling the album neatly close to the current fad of Black Metal, and last but not least: the attempt at mixing all of these facets together in order to make something airy, heavy, dreamy and soaring. They do succeed on more than one occasion, but for my tastes there's a lack of subtlety. A non-existent vacuum of flow that eludes these guys from start to finish. Something that Alcest does so incredibly well.

These guys may sport chops the size of anabolic sheep farmers, but then again I've always preferred mind over matter - sauce over gravy - brain over brawl. The drums are a perfect example of this. Sounding like an amphetamine fuelled spastic, this guy seeks to highlight every note and shading to his surroundings, that every important peak seems to end up over-thought and hurried - like Mike Portnoy playing the drums during an uncomfortable pat down at the airport...

If you however are searching high and low for something comparable to the aforementioned French dreamer and furthermore feel indifferent about plagiarism, then you'll probably love this thing like sliced bread. To me personally, this is like hearing The Watch after a good Genesis sit down - or munching on an unpeeled potato after a big plate of pommes frites.

Report this review (#1045836)
Posted Friday, September 27, 2013 | Review Permalink
Conor Fynes
PROG REVIEWER
3 stars 'Sunbather' - Deafheaven (6/10)

I remember Hunter-Hunt Hendrix (of Liturgy infamy) once defending the new wave of 'uplifting' black metal as being in keeping with black metal's doctrine of controversy and rebellion. Indeed, the pejoratively-titled scene of 'hipster black metal' has polarized audiences; some embrace the softer approach as a relatively fresh innovation, and others have lavished the 'hipster' bands with the greatest execration and disdain since Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth. Love or hate them, bands like Liturgy and San Francisco's Deafheaven are causing a stir, and it's always interesting to see people taking such equally vehement stances for and against a band. While I've always been skeptical that a style so historically rooted in darkness could (or should) be translated into feelings of hope and optimism as Deafheaven strive for on Sunbather, I've kept myself open to the possibility. Unfortunately, while Deafheaven's shoegaze-laden approach to black metal clearly intends to revive and invent the genre, I find it difficult to be particularly moved one way or the other by the most polarizing metal record of 2013. Sunbather is not an excellent album, nor is it the horrendous abomination genre-purists claim it to be. Rather, its predictable dynamics and washy atmosphere leave it somewhere in the neighborhood of 'moderately enjoyable'. In short, Deafheaven's second album is an only slightly above-average take on blackgaze that doesn't warrant the extreme opinions from either side.

In addition to the counter-intuitive emotional spin Deafheaven have placed on black metal in Sunbather, the album's cheerfully minimalistic cover makes it fairly obvious that they mean to rebel against the traditional order. Conceptualized as a reflection of the colours seen on the insides of one's eyelids when basking in the sun, it's an apt reflection of Deafheaven's emotional appeal. Operating in terms of melancholy and hopeful optimism, Sunbather gives an impression closer to that of a post-rock record than any metal I've heard this year. The guitars are laden in reverb and distortion, but the songwriting never betrays a sense of malice or anger. Conventionally beautiful harmonies are used in abundance here; particularly on some of the clean sections offered, Deafheaven will overdub guitars to create a dense, yet accessible wall of sound. Although it often feels like Deafheaven choose the most obvious sequence of notes to resolve their motifs, the compositions demonstrate a talent with knowing when to change up the pace. "The Pecan Tree" really excels with its dynamic, switching between soft and heavy sections, each contributing towards a powerful emotional payoff.

Although Sunbather feels rooted in a fairly narrow emotional context of longing and melancholy throughout, Deafheaven have a firm grasp of songwriting dynamic. In spite of that, Sunbather feels constructed out of a mere handful of tricks and ideas, to the point where the formula begins to feel predictable long before the album is over. Deafheaven are remarkably consistent throughout the album, but the everpresent euphony filtered over blastbeats and vocal shrieks feels too narrow a range to stay engaging through the album's hour length. Especially considering the roots of the genre the band is apparently trying to reinvent, Sunbather offers a nicely blended production, with textural detail aplenty to keep the atmosphere afloat. While the instrumentation is dynamic and powerful (with special merits going to Daniel Tracy for an excellent drum performance!) the vocals are painfully underwhelming. George Clarke's harsh screams are high pitched and raspy (in keeping with frostbitten traditions) but they're undermixed, lack resonance and fail to add a relevant emotional dimension to the music. Screams in 'blackgaze' music can be used plenty effectively, but Deafheaven's failure to properly integrate the vocals into their atmosphere is a sullen reminder that the effort to reinvent black metal as an 'uplifting' sound feels ultimately contrived and needlessly contrarian.

Most of all, Sunbather is a case where the hype (both good and bad) has left me disappointed. There are moments here where I come close to feeling the awe and admiration others have clearly felt, but the feelings are fleeting at best. I'm pleased that a fairly young band like Deafheaven is getting such an enthusiastic reception, but I'm simply not feeling it at much. Its uplifting, graceful beauty comes at the cost of emotional tension or challenge. The blackgaze style has potential aplenty for an emotionally evocative experience- Alcest's excellent Écailles de Lune and Lantlos' .neon come first to mind- but in the case of Sunbather, I wish I could be feeling more from it.

Report this review (#1090589)
Posted Sunday, December 15, 2013 | Review Permalink
5 stars Calling Sunbather "uplifting" or "hopeful" is a mistake. Themes such as poverty, lust, existential crises, broken homes, insecurity are everpresent throughout the album. Certainly, it offers small shreds of hope, moreso than most Black Metal bands outside the Liturgy fanclub, but the main focus in its method of expression is how it brutally tears down that hope, and, in this sense, it is a more painful, hard-hitting, and heart-breaking experience than most black or post metal bands can claim to have created.

The guitars at the beginning of opener "Dream House" are red hot and the riffs expressionately bittersweet. The drums are colossal but progress with incredibly brevity. The song fades into a clean guitar interlude with chords that make use of open strings to create moments of heart-wrenching dissonance. The band then returns, this time with a kind of crushing intensity playing those gorgeous chords with emotive screams and a soaring delay drenched riff. Singer George Clarke screams of the dream house he will never have and mockingly recites drunk texts he sent to a woman he was once obsessed with.

"I'm dying." - "Is it blissful?" "It's like a dream." - "I want to dream."

Dream House gives way to the post-rock-ish interlude "Irresistable," which in turn, leads into the 10-minute title track. "Sunbather" is about Clarke's lusting and obsession with a woman he saw sunbathing while driving through a wealthy neighborhood? the solace she gave him and the despair of having to live without ever seeing her again. The next interlude, "Please Remember," features Neige from Alcest reciting a passage from the Milan Kundera novel "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." "That passage is really important to me," Clark claims. "It just screams insecurity, which I have huge faults with."

The tone gets darker with the final three tracks. "Vertigo" is true to its name channeling the shoegaziest of shoegaze in a swirling mass of alienation and depression. The interlude "Windows" which is perhaps the darkest moment on the album features a recording of a fire and brimstone sermon and another of a live drug deal by guitarist Kerry McCoy. "Thematically, it's supposed to be about this guy talking about the evils of hell intermixed with one's own personal hell and the actual realities like addiction and self-worth, not the fire and brimstone," explains Clark. "[McCoy] didn't have a lot of money, and he was kind of desperate; he's showcasing the true horrors that are here on earth?one's own personal demons." The album ends with the haunting Pecan Tree, where Clark tackles the issue of his inability to love that he believes he inherited from his absent father.

Sunbather does not attempt to be uplifting. Instead, the album intends to have a full range of emotions, not excluding hope, but not totally indicative either. Is it metal? Is it innovative? Those questions aren't really important in the overall scope of the album. It certainly is a very good album. The music is expertly composed and the lyrics are phenomenal. But more than that, this album is something that few black metal albums are: human. It is perhaps one of the most moving albums of the year and one of the most beautiful emotional expressions that I have ever had the privelige to experience, Alcest notwithstanding.

Report this review (#1112072)
Posted Friday, January 10, 2014 | Review Permalink
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 [%*!#]ing 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 [%*!#]ing brvtal at all. It's even called "Sunbather". Sounds like a [%*!#]ing 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.

6.9/10

Originally written for my Facebook page/blog: www.facebook.com/neoprogisbestprog

Report this review (#1205214)
Posted Friday, July 4, 2014 | Review Permalink
Warthur
PROG REVIEWER
4 stars Deafheaven's Sunbather is certainly a divisive release, with some listeners embracing it whilst many - especially black metal purists - passionately disliking it. The thing is, I think the album's detractors are correct in most of their criticisms but short-sighted in their conclusions: that is to say, when you get down to it this really is a post-rock album with black metal vocals and blast beats parachuted in.

Where they go wrong is dismissing this combination in the first place; the album is actually a really entertaining listen, though I think you would need to enjoy both post-rock and black metal to really get the most out of it. And in expanding the lyrical subject matter of black metal as this album does, with songs about heartache and feelings and all sorts of stuff that more kvlt bands are too busy praising Satan or Odin (or, in some unwelcome corners of the subgenre, Hitler) to really address.

Report this review (#1557925)
Posted Sunday, May 1, 2016 | Review Permalink

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