Review Summary: From visuals to audio, this album has left me thoroughly confused and nonplussed.
It's been quite a while since I've written a review here, but I feel compelled to give a minority / dissenting opinion on this album without resorting to pigeonholing it as hipster or emo or whatever (which is the main complaint I see). After hearing quite a bit about this album I decided to give it a shot and see how it resonated with me. The result is either I am just too old-fashioned in my preference of metal or this album is being praised by people due to its accessibility and the hype being generated by critics. Which leads me to a question, how on earth did this album become the best reviewed album of 2013 on Metacritic?
This whole shoe-gazing post black metal (whatever genre you want to call it, I'm not going to split hairs on the categorization) style isn't altogether new. Alcest has been doing this style reasonably well, with decent commercial success, but not to a level remarkable for a metal band. Deafheaven on the other hand, takes a similar approach with some twists. The chord progressions are generally major chord dominated and have overall optimistic or at least sentimental sound to them. This contrasts with the vocals, the closest to which I've heard would be to Leftover Crack on "Operation M.O.V.E.". Pretty aggressive, unintelligible and fairly monotonous in pitch. Not detrimental in and of themselves (this is metal after all... I think) but for me there is a fundamental disconnect between the instruments, the vocals, and the lyrical content.
The instruments as mentioned are fairly well produced, and in such a way that guitars are generally using a wall of sound type of approach, tremolo picking riffs that harmonize to outline chords which is a pretty standard approach. However, when taking into account that basically every song is in a major key, it is hard to reconcile the uplifting feeling the guitars provide with the vocals. The vocals just do not work for me with this style of riffing, there's a complete confusion as to what type of tone the songs are trying to set, which only gets more confused by the lyrics, which are sentimental verging on cheese. It's like a painting with a sunny setting where the main object of focus is in complete dissonance with the setting, channeling an angry melancholy. I personally think Alcest does this style of riffing a service by complimenting it with clean vocals of ethereal quality, giving a far more consistent tone to the music. Also, if one insists on harsh vocals in this style I'd say go check out Envy, who pull off harsh vocals with this type of riffing (and post rock interludes) far more effectively in my opinion.
Another gripe I have is the rudimentary melodic lines that all the songs have as far as guitars are concerned. It makes sense to add some variation and distinction to songs and not simply tremolo pick every riff. However melodies like the end of "Dream House" sound woefully uninspired, in fact the end of "Dream House" reminds me of a novice arpeggio exercise, playing a the I chords arpeggio for a while and then moving up to the ii and iii chords arpeggios... I can't say I find this particularly musically impressive or creative. The post rock elements of the guitars also don't particularly wow me. Many of the intricacies and layered melodies and harmonies that clean guitar passages in post rock utilize aren't present here, clean passages are much more basic on Sunbather, which is okay in and of itself. I think was disappointed by their quality as a result of anticipation based on what I had heard about the album before listening to it, perhaps it's not wholly fair to be critical on that point.
My final assessment would be that this album has many interesting aspects and areas for the band to grow and shine in but it is far from a coherent album. Too many conflicting and un-resolvable elements are found here. To the bands credit it is an adventurous combination of styles, but it simply doesn't do it for me. A couple final personal notes that took this album from an objective 2.5 or 3 in my book to a subjective 2 out of 5: The lyrics are god awful. Atrocious. To the point where knowing the subject matter leaves me even more confused as to the mood and tone of the songs and why the instrumentation was paired with the lyrical content on this album. Lastly, the god damn cover looks like a Swedish House Mafia single cover. Dear. Baby. Jesus.
[feel free to disagree but I'd prefer comments that have some reasoning behind their disagreement rather than just ad hominem... (who am I kidding this is the internet)]