Like pornography, black metal is hard to define – you just know it when you see it. The divisive genre is a double-edged sword, cornering bands into an unforgiving niche but opening them up to a strong and loyal audience. California Bay Area-based Deafheaven are one of the many modern acts to take black metal’s old-school tropes and meld them into a post-rock cocktail. While not a new concept by any means, Deafheaven is keen to hold the balance in its favor, purposefully pushing itself further and garnering an even stronger and more fruitful payoff with each new release. Sunbather is the second proper album from Deafheaven – mainly comprising lead vocalist George Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy – and it spirals further outward from the standard post-rock/black metal fare than even Roads to Judah did only two years ago.
“Dreamhouse” is Sunbather’s quintessential opener: loud, fast and kinetic, yet upbeat, victorious and triumphant. Consistently ascending rather than descending, this album is not your typical Dark Funeral or Darkthrone disparity, but the cathartic, sun-washed blast you’d expect from a group eager to expand and inspire instead of withdraw and regurgitate.
Deafheaven’s favored musical progression of slow to fast is a fairly reliable construction on this album, such as on the title track, which begins with a pop-punk mentality and then lurches into a traditional black-metal montage for the second half. “Vertigo” uses this formula for exemplary results with a despondent post-rock plucking in the forefront (think 2011’s “Unrequited”), followed by a powerful metal crunch and some of the most prominent guitar work to come from the group yet. In proper Godspeed You! Black Emperor fashion, “Windows” takes a five-minute drone and sets it to spoken-word recordings, while closing track “The Pecan Tree” intermingles post-rock lulls, black-metal prowess and punk riffs beautifully and tragically, leading to a payoff that is wholly purgative and euphoric.
With Jack Shirley at Deafheaven’s production helm once again, this album exudes precision. Clean, unadulterated guitars, methodical drumming and tightly controlled, yowling vocals make for one of the best un-black black metal albums in recent memory. From the Pacific Northwest’s Wolves in the Throne Room to France’s Alcest and beyond, you’d think Deafheaven isn’t necessarily doing anything new here on the surface. But as one dives into the sun-streaked depths of Sunbather, there’s more to this group than meets the eye. Rather than submit to the rites and rituals of black metal’s finest, Deafheaven has molded it into their own cleansing enterprise – certainly furious, yet good for the soul.
Deafheaven plays their only Florida date at Will’s Pub 9 p.m. Tuesday, June 25, with Marriages and Dzoavits.
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