Some records are giant mistakes. A revered artist or a promising young band will take a sharp left turn and make an overtly ambitious, expectation-defying record… And miss. For instance, Bad Religion have a long-lost (or at least well-hidden) second record, 1983’s Into the Unknown, on which they abandoned punk for a kind of limp and breezy take on light prog-rock. (And then came back with 50 or so great punk albums.) Other records are surprise, genre-breaking masterpieces. In 1965, Bob Dylan discarded his folk credibility and, gasp, plugged in an electric guitar to rock at the Newport Folk Festival before releasing the classic Bringing It All Back Home. Then there are the records that split the fanbase and leave the critics fighting over the merits of the work: See the Flaming Lips’ 1997 four-disc sound immersion experiment,Zaireeka, or Kanye’s wounded electro-pop love-letter, 808’s and Heartbreak. Different artists, all seeking to make vastly different records, with disparate motives, often have wildly varying degrees of success with this same concept. But they all share one common element: they made records that no one wanted.
San Francisco’s Deafheaven have now pulled up alongside these artists and secured their spot in the why-would-they-go-and-do-that?? ranks with their unexpected and unbelievably satisfying second record,Sunbather. Up until now, Deafheaven have existed in a kind of DIY safe space, releasing a demo and a full-length that played with the boundaries of black metal, incorporating atmospherics and other post-rock flourishes into the standard mix of blast beats, lightning-fast guitars and shrieked vocals… much like Wolves in the Throne Room and Xasthur (and probably many others) before them. They were good at it, though. Maybe even better than most. That, in and of itself, made them a band to watch. With some discipline, the right tweaks and a lot of touring, Deafheaven may have become one of the leaders of the American black metal scene. Instead, they inverted all the major tropes of the genre and made the only “black metal” record that you could relax to at the beach this summer.
Starting with its beautifully minimalist cover artwork, Sunbather is an album of the light. Where traditional black metal records boast dark blue or purple as their most vibrant hues, this cover implies the sky on a hot day with a color gradient that stretches from light pink to the barely visible orange of a cloudless California afternoon. In place of the illegible spiderweb-like logos of most modern metal bands, this album cover has SUN BAT HER laid out in a font that would have most commercial graphic designers drooling on their Taschen reference books. They don’t even put the band name on the cover. Fuck you, it’s art.
The song titles evoke, rather than provoke. “Dream House” conjures both yearning and melancholy, while simultaneously inviting you to step into the daydream space of the album: a place where “Irresistible” is a modifier for “Sunbather,” a place where “Vertigo” leads to “Windows” and not the other way around. Finally, a place where those “Windows” look out on “The Pecan Tree” with a sense of lost longing. In other words, this is the album you get before you even press play.
When you finally do play that first song, it’s all strong coffee and highway miles. Deafheaven still drive home blast beats, fast guitars and shrieking vocals, but here the drive is euphoric, not dangerous. The windows are open, the ocean breeze is loud in your ears as you rush past everyone else. The guitars are romantic and blurry. The drums are blindingly fast. Together, they rumble and shudder. The screams are distorted past the edge of comprehension, washing into the cacophony of pink noise. The waves are crashing, the violence of the sea becomes soothing, hypnotic, when viewed from a distance. At over nine minutes, “Dream House” should wear you out but it never does. The song rises and falls. It opens and closes. At one point, it even employs total silence. Incredibly, the song never loses momentum or the sense of awe that makes its beauty useful. The song ends with a conversation: “I’m dying.” “Is it blissful?” “It’s like a dream.” “I want to dream.”
The tracks “Irresistible.” “Please Remember” and “Windows” function as tender interludes separating the massive, sometimes monolithic heaviness of the longer songs and manages to keep them from blending together too much. This allows “Vertigo” and “The Pecan Tree” to both somehow match the intensity of the opener while replicating its general composition. On the former, chaotic beauty is perfectly augmented by a rare and welcome moment of dissonance when the guitars melt like a My Bloody Valentine song on uppers. On “The Pecan Tree” they repeat this trick over an unstoppable drum assault that results in a truly disorienting euphoria before dropping into a bridge that assimilates all of the previous interludes into a compositionally and thematically sound structure. The piano, lo-fi field recordings and slide guitars reach an unlikely climax as the song repeats a giant mid-tempo rock riff that falls somewhere between triumph and resignation before slowly fading out. At the conclusion of Sunbather, Deafheaven actually let you hear the past slipping away behind you. It would almost feel sappy if it weren’t such a bold thing for a heavy band to try to pull off.
Frontman George Clarke repeatedly touches on the unattainable in his lyrics. On the title track, he summons up an image of driving through an affluent neighborhood, where he spots someone sunbathing. It becomes the record’s center, functioning like the famous green light in The Great Gatsby or the dying word “rosebud” in Citizen Kane. Clarke’s sunbather shows him wealth, ease, lust, and the promise of love, all just out of reach. He battles with these longings — and his disgust at himself for having them — throughout the album’s seven songs, as Kerry McCoy, the band’s founding guitarist and Clarke’s co-songwriter, mirrors this struggle by pushing the band from extremely harsh noise to extremely delicate beauty. At its best moments, Sunbather combines those two elements as Deafheaven drifts far past the edge of the radio dial, past the end of static and ads, past the beauty of perfect pop songs, searching for that unattainable sound that dissolves everything— something beyond this world. “Is it blissful?” “I want to dream.”
If Deafheaven can continue to write songs of such sustained strength, power and feeling while refining their playing and letting go of some of their stylistic crutches, they will be not only be a leader in heavy music but a force in music at large. Still, Sunbather is not without its flaws. The more delicate sections of the record could benefit from the finesse that Explosions in the Sky are so expertly versed in. The field recordings and voices in “Windows” don’t stand up well in comparison with early Godspeed You! Black Emperor records. There are obvious debts to the Japanese post-rock/post-hardcore band Envy (one of the most underrated and influential bands in all of modern music), that Deafheaven will have to settle before fully becoming one of the true greats. The lyrics are hit-and-miss. Still, all things considered, this is an incredibly accomplished and realized album. It’s a whole, it’s a statement, and it’s probably my favorite record of the year so far (slugging it out with the So So Glos).
Black metal fans will likely hate it. Yet it’s only as an inverted black metal record that Sunbather succeeds fully. By transgressing so heavily against a genre that has such iconoclastic roots, Deafheaven strangely honor it. By showing you a sun-bleached cover, you can’t help but picture the dark. By breaking the rules of a fairly conservative musical movement, Sunbather shines brightly in the long shadow of the history hanging over it. It’s a trick they can only pull once though. Deafheaven made a record no one asked for because no one had the imagination to. Now we all know it’s possible. So, what’s next? Let’s hope they keep staring into the sunlight to find their way forward.