> | | | > Deafheaven - Sunbather

Deafheaven - Sunbather

Posted on Thursday, 6 June 2013 | No Comments

It's easy sometimes to start feeling jaded or burned out about music. For a lot of us music fans, there's always the rush to find the next hit, the next new or unknown artist (or at least, previously unknown to them) that shakes up mundane listening habits and forces you to re-evaluate how you engage with this art form that you love before you start to tire yourself out with an over-familiar and stale record collection. In the current era, there's also the opposite problem whereby technological and cultural changes have results in a constant stream of new music that only proves increasingly hard to navigate, but also ends up in cynical listening - there's only so many bland suburban indie bands or dubstep try-hards you can wade through before wanting to just give up on the whole thing and retreat to Mojo island, moaning about how it just wasn't like this in the good old days.
The reason why we put in this effort - and if you're on a blog like this, then chances are you're a fanatic too - is because occasionally we hear something unexpected and remarkable that tweaks our expectations, and gives us what we needed rather than what we wanted. Although I'd argue that 2013 has been a truly formidable year for albums already, it's not been until now there's been a true left-field musical shock (as wonderful and amazing having new My Bloody Valentine and David Bowie material is, they're still known quantities that ended up delivering what you'd hope) for me. So while there might have been a few ever so slightly better records so far in 2013, and certainly some bound to rack up more listening hours, I can certainly say that there hasn't been a record that's surprised and confounded me in the way Deafheaven's new release Sunbather has.

Of the different shifts and movements that have gone on in the black metal underground, be it the environmental concerns introduced by Wolves in the Throne Room, the emergence of acts like The Botanist that challenge the norms of metal instrumentation or the 'Transcendental Black Metal' of Liturgy, the common ground found between black metal and shoegaze has perhaps been one of the most fertile. While both genres might start from different philosophical and aesthetic origins, they share a fascination with the power of distortion and with the possibilities of using the guitar and the recording process to submerge and twist the music into new shapes. Acts such as Alcest and Dopamine have led the way in the unfortunately-dubbed blackgaze movement, engendering fascination and delights from the more open-ended members of the black metal and shoegaze communities alike (and, perhaps inevitably, scorn and derision from the kult lot).

It's to this blackgaze movement that Deafheaven most neatly fit, mixing up George Clarke's sandblasted wail and furious double-bass drumming with glorious waves of distorted guitar that reach up past the clouds. What becomes evident on Sunbather though isn't just that they've left the rest of their journo-invented scene behind, but that they've used their place between genres to craft an ambitious and deeply human statement whose essence defies easy categorisation or labelling, and pushes for a range of emotional responses that - in this instance - render distinctions between indie rock and metal music largely irrelevant.

In a recent interview on the Steel for Brains blog, George Clarke explained the lyrical themes of the record, noting the interest in isolation, relationships, wealth and phsyical and mental decay that powers through the album. The ebb and flow of Clarke's words - the need  for human connection versus the fear of the reality, the desire for peace and luxury juxtaposed with a harder reality - matches the pacing of the record, the four main lengthy tracks interspersed with shorter, quieter moments of reflection like the uneasy spoken monologue in Please Remember or the blissful instrumental Irresistible, the perfect outro to the swarming sound of album opener Dream.House. The four main tracks of the album repeat this within themselves, fading in and out of lucidity as they go - the clear-eyed post-rock intro of Vertigo plunges down into a queasy shoegaze drone, before finally erupting into metal harmonics and kick drumming at the point where consciousness lets go and the subconscious takes over.

It's in the blurring between the pummelling (and often major-key) chord and note runs and the moments of respite then that the real power of Sunbather lies. Shoegaze and black metal have both relied on notions of dream and fantasy visions and on existential poses to create their own separate worlds so as to allow themselves to see the real world more clearly, and it's this that Sunbather does to excellence. The title track, as well as boasting ten minutes of utterly exhilarating riffs that deliver an almighty hammer of an endorphin rush, jumps from the image of sunbathing in a well-off suburb to the aftermath of a sordid one-night stand, but in doing so recognises them both as equally significant aspects of life. Between the pull of want and the drag of the real is the stuff that life is made of: only by recognising and reconciling ourselves to both of these can any self-progress be made.

The only other great comment to be made about the record then is, simply, the exceptional beauty of what lays inside. Black metal can be many things - violent, nihilistic, fantastical, grand, and yes transcendental also - but there's rarely the kind of genuine compositional beauty as that which lies inside Sunbather. Shoegaze too, for all of its luscious swells and imaginings, rarely boasts the solidity and might of the pieces here. For some readers, the fast drums and screamed vocals may be a barrier too far for their enjoyment of the record, and likewise, some may find the significant departure from black metal norms distracting and unfulfilling. But as I can only write for myself, I will say this: putting aside any notions of genre and categorisation aside, this is an unusually affecting and beautiful album to me. It's savage, it's soothing, it's epic in scope and human and real in detail. It's the kind of record you don't expect or predict, but find after a few listens that you can't imagine your collection before it. Whatever your usual tastes or predilections, I ask only that you listen to this without prejudice. Forget your preconceptions, close your eyes, and let the music take you on a journey inside yourself.

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