Review Summary: Art house black metal done right
Post-black metal is all the rage these days. It's the proverbial "what are the kids listening to now?" music for metal, destined to drive off dedicated listeners of more traditional, "true" black metal by incorporating major keys and a decidedly brighter element to the style, both musically and in terms of outlook on life and existence (well, most of the time; see Altar of Plagues for when the genre gets gritty). The thing to remember about black metal is that of all the different styles and subgenres of metal that have developed over the last 40 years, black metal may be the most open to experimentation. It's been fused with old school speed metal (Midnight), power metal (Satan's Host), rock 'n' roll (later Satyricon and the first Kvelertak album), sludge (Coffinworm and Churchburn), hardcore punk (Darkthrone and Okkultokrati), and even some jazz at times (Swedish Shining, particularly on Halmstad). Mixing it with post-rock/metal and shoegaze is just the next step in the genre's history of experimentation and fusion. Deafheaven, America's beefed up response to the sudden and striking popularity of French shoegazers Alcest, has taken that fusion to the next level with Sunbather
, almost perfectly blending the two into an hour long mass of beautiful chaos.
Beautiful chaos. I used that term originally when describing Liturgy's failed attempt at cultivating such an atmosphere with their 2011 release Aesthethica
. It definitely had moments where it was going right, but those moments ended nearly as quickly as they began, preferring to rest comfortably in a meandering daze from which the album just could not recover. Sunbather is kind of like what that album would be like if the band were good at taking the great ideas that came their way and running with them. From the moment opener "Dream House" shifts into a pummeling onslaught of blasting and shrieking, you realize you've got something special on your hands, as the tremolo picking here creates an atmosphere unlike anything I've heard before in black metal. It's both beautiful and punishing at the same time, battering the listener with extended bursts of blackened mania before settling down into post-rock worthy of making one gaze at their shoe. It helps greatly that the production values here are as good as they are, with natural drums, rich guitars, and a ripe authentic feeling pulsating throughout the entire record. The instrumentation is astounding as well, with drummer Daniel Tracy stealing the show through his nonstop barrage of blasting and manic fills with the power and force to match any "real" extreme metal music. He also knows just when to dial it back enough for the spacier sections, an approach giving the tunes the air they need to make a real lasting impression.
The songs tend to exist in two halves: crazy black metal madness, and moving, emotional post-rock, and while the black metal sections have that post-rock undertone peppering the tremolo picking and blast beats, the styles usually stay a bit further apart than you'd think here. Still, the sections flow from one to another seamlessly, with special mention going to the switch in the middle of "Dream House" and when "Vertigo" really picks up about 5 minutes in (although those 5 minutes do feel very long and could disinterest those with shorter attention spans). The entire back half of "The Pecan Tree" may be the band's absolute crowning achievement, with the lush post-rock melodies glimmering out over a pulsating drum beat sure to make one feel as though you're in a vast open meadow or field just staring at the sky. Even the interlude tracks flow well here, although they more often than not work way better in the context of the album as a whole rather than as standalone tracks. If "Irresistible" were a couple minutes longer it would be a great easy listening piece on its own, but at only 3 minutes it absolutely is better as a transition from "Dream House" to the title track than it is on its own. As for which style tends to dominate over the other, black metal and post-rock coexist peacefully here, although I tend to view the album as half being more black metal based ("Dream House" and the title track) and half being more post-rock based ("Vertigo" and "The Pecan Tree").
On the subject of the album's lyrics, I've seen many people take issue with the fact that the lyrics are as inane and ultimately meaningless as they are, and...yeah, they're kind of right. Even when you don't compare them to the infinitely superior lyrics of the band's debut Roads to Judah
, the lyrics on Sunbather
are inane, poorly thought out, and just plain stupid. They are the one fault with this album, and the only reason I can't give it a 100-out-of-100 perfect score if I were using the points scale I normally use. It's kind of ironic to me that the debut album had really good lyrics but not that interesting music has flip flopped to having excellent music but lame, shallow, intensely idiotic lyrics. It's not like you can understand them anyway, what with vocalist George Clarke's Neige-inspired shriek rendering all attempts at legibility fruitless. The way they're written means that rather than there being any real "lines" lyrically, they're vocalized in a more flowing manner, like if you just wrote a paragraph of nonsensical blabber and screamed it out over the music. It does work well enough for the music here, but I've never preferred lyrics written that way. The one time they work really well is in the back half of "Dream House", with Clarke's pained howls of "I want to dream" punctuating the music in such a manner that I was overwhelmed by just how massive it all was. The reason the bad lyrics don't ding the overall score to a significant degree (again, using the 100 point scale I mentioned before) is because, as dumb as they are, you really can just forget all about them and still get full satisfaction out of the music, as if they didn't exist at all. All in all the lyrics are a failed attempt at introspection that are best left to the wayside as you allow the music itself to overtake you, kind of like watching a really good silent movie but in musical form.
In the end, Sunbather
is an achievement previously unseen in the realm of post-black metal. While bands before it tended to either sway too far to the black metal side or the post-rock side, or were just post-rock/shoegaze records with metal elements sprinkled throughout, Deafheaven have taken the two styles and blended them together in a way that seems only fitting. Take one part atmospheric black metal, one part shimmering post-rock, mix them together so that both styles are represented fairly equally, and they ended up creating the best album of 2013. Their very hipster-y image I know has and will put off a lot of prospective listeners who have yet to experience Sunbather
, but I encourage you to not let that dissuade you from the band and this album and jump right in. At the end of the day, Sunbather
is just that: an experience, and it's unlike anything ever seen or heard in extreme metal music.