Since Deafheaven's untitled demo first caught the attention of listeners and bloggers back in 2010, controversy has increasingly swirled up wherever their name appears. While they are almost ubiquitously regarded as the poster-boys of the new wave of American not-so-black metal that has swept through the scene in the last few years, their music itself has been divisive. Purists largely reject the band's screamo-tinged and shoegazing approach to black metal for a perceived lack of authenticity, out of resentment for their supposed hipster fanbase, or simply because they are unimpressed with the results of the band's liberal songwriting style.
Mostly though, reactions to Deafheaven's music have been positive. Deathwish Inc. released the band's monstrous, blast-beaten 2011 debut album Roads to Judah
to warm reception from many critics and listeners despite backlash from some black metal traditionalists. Judah
's four songs were sprawled out over 40 brooding minutes of atmospheric metal, fusing hints of a depressive screamo aesthetic with head-in-the-clouds shoegaze and shimmering post-rock, all with one foot planted firmly in black metal. The marathon slabs of tremolo-picked melodies and blast-beats that made up the songs were overwhelming and unrelenting, and Judah
was unmistakably downcast in tone and bleak in outlook.
sees Deafheaven returning to the brighter colors and buoyant hardcore rhythms of their 2010 debut, this time employed with sure-footed compositional choices and a level of focus that reveals the band's deepening maturity as a unit. Those familiar with the band's previous outings will know what to expect aesthetically, and Sunbather
delivers on the promise of the rest of Deafheaven's music. The album is aggressive, pounding black metal liberally smeared with sounds from the screamo and shoegaze canon, not wandering far from what listeners have come to expect. Not exactly, anyway.
is an altogether different experience, still pounding, fast and aggressive stylistically, but with a mood and worldview that is completely singular. At times the music is reminiscent of the darkness that pervades Judah
, but the majority of the album, its overarching statement, is remarkably, overwhelmingly uplifting
. It is with something like ecstasy that Sunbather
explodes from the shimmer of guitar that opens "Dream House," and it is a revelation. The exuberance with which the band tear through the opener's nine minutes is infectious, and "Dream House" feels like it rushes by in half that time.
This is true of the album as well, a blur of blast-beats, screamed vocals and pulsating guitars, propelled at balls-out speed into mid-paced emotional climaxes ("Sunbather") and quieter interludes, sometimes brooding (the Godspeed-like "Windows"), and sometimes peaceful ("Irresistible"). It is fitting that Sunbather
is seeing release this time of year, because its strikingly warm tone is the stuff fantastic summer albums are made from, nostalgic and absolutely euphoric. When the band finish their slow climb in the second half of closer "The Pecan Tree," the jangly melodic hook that ends the album is a wonderful example of the band's approach in general, enthusiastically disregarding expectations and shining all the brighter for it.
While the sound of their older material is squarely rooted in the tradition of earlier bands like Wolves in the Throne Room and Weakling, Deafheaven's screamo-esque vocals, hardcore immediacy, and general prettiness made them a highlight and an object of debate in the burgeoning black metal/shoegaze revival scene. With Sunbather
, Deafheaven fly in the faces of their naysayers, releasing an album even more ambitiously dissident than past works and rendering petty debates over micro-genres meaningless. All we have is the music, and the music is fantastic.