Review Summary: Deafheaven sheds light on black metal's old soul, to impressive effect.
My interest in USBM (United States Black Metal for the uninformed) has been relatively high ever since I became a fan of Wolves in the Throne Room and Krallice as a high schooler several years ago. These bands, who showed up during the middle of the last decade, gave my generation its own black metal bands to sacrifice cats to, as well as freed us from being limited to just those scary-looking (or silly-looking depending on how you see it) 1990s Nordic fellows for black metal enjoyment. For me, this is fantastic because of how far-removed black metal seemed to me for such a long time. While I indeed enjoyed the Norwegian bands like Emperor and Immortal, there wasn't a lot to relate to other than a distaste for Christianity. With these new black metal trailblazers within our own borders, I finally feel like I can take black metal music as my own, rather than just looking at it from behind the glass at a museum.
However, these new innovative American faces of black metal have indeed caused some grumbling within the metal community. Black metal was originally an extremely insular culture within the greater heavy metal world and was deeply personal to the Nordic countries who even formed a cult-like group called “The Inner Circle", and the scene was often associated with murder, arson, and all things occult-related. Without going into extensive detail (for that, watch Until the Light Takes Us or read Lords of Chaos) it should be apparent that black metal music carries a lot of baggage with it, and music that is so deeply integrated within one scene in one country with all the drama that transpired therein is definitely not going to be mixed into the grand scheme of things very easily. American non-traditionalist black metal has often been labeled as "hipster" music and even "false metal" by some elitist pricks who seem to care more about the culture and aesthetics surrounding the music and not the music itself. If one looks more closely at what bands like the aforementioned WITTR and Krallice, as well as Nachtmystium and Liturgy are doing, I would hope that you'll see innovation as opposed to stagnation rather than "betrayal" of an insular culture that was never meant to last long anyway.
It's been seven years since WITTR released their seminal debut album Diadem of 12 Stars, and since then American black metal has expanded exponentially and has introduced us to new sonic territories that were only hinted at by the Nordic bands. And now we arrive at the latest offering from newcomers Deafheaven, a San Francisco duo who imbue black metal with post-hardcore. Their debut album, 2011's Roads to Judah, was a slightly above average effort in that it effectively fused black metal and post-hardcore together, but to my ears, they didn't do anything too interesting with it. In short, you had the standard elements from both genres working as a unit, but without any curveballs being thrown at you. This is exactly the opposite on their latest offering. Sunbather, the band's sophomore album, takes what they laid out as a foundation on Roads to Judah and built an opulent temple of gold on top of it. The raw ferocity and speed of black metal and the ethereal buildups and climaxes of post-hardcore are all there, but this time around they add some of the melodious emotion of screamo music. But what makes this album such a big step up from Roads to Judah is what they do with these different styles that they're trying to bring together. The tremolo picked guitar harmonies are fresh, exciting, and unorthodox while the post-hardcore buildups and climaxes are more unexpected, and on top of everything there is the newest ingredient; screamo. One refreshing thing that this album puts on display - and something that more underground metal bands should dabble in - is an unabashed uplifting quality that recalls the music of Jejune and other '90s emo bands, so that could be listed as a fourth ingredient in this extreme music concoction. By listening to this album, you feel like Deafheaven took all of these styles, mastered them, and then went into the recording studio prepared to bring them all together in a wholly convincing fashion as if they've been playing these styles for a decade at least.
The performances on this album render it even more satisfying. Kerry McCoy is strumming his chords so goddamned hard that you can almost feel the strings becoming weaker and ready to snap. The drumming is animated and energetic, and vocalist George Clarke sounds hungry and impassioned as he's furiously shrieking over everything. They're playing with utmost conviction as if they're living for this music, which they probably are at this point. The only real gripe I have about this album is the production. While everything sounds warm and organic, things can get a bit staticy when the blast beats kick in, leaving the vocals buried in the mix and the guitars muddled and undefined. Other than that, I can't complain about music that's this inspired.
After repeated listens, I have to say that this album is probably going to become a classic in USBM, and rightfully so. Never before have I heard a USBM album that is this passionate and exciting, and this makes me eager to hear what this band has in store for the future. The pink cover art and the title “Sunbather” may seem unusual for black metal, and it certainly is, but it makes total sense. This music sounds like black metal that has seen the light of day after decades of existing in a subterranean hole of its own misanthropy. This is black metal that celebrates life, not grimness, death, or darkness, and if more bands take this approach, then the future of this genre looks as bright as bathing in the sun itself.