Hop in the Delorean, everybody, because it’s time to venture back to the ancient past. Today, we’re setting the dials to 2011: the days of “Party Rock Anthem,” of the LCD Soundsystem farewell shows, of the best metal released in recent memory—or perhaps, the most divisive. I’m talking about the great “hipster black metal” explosion of ’11. Between the blackened post-rock, the blackened shoegaze, the post-black metal, and the other sub-genres reminiscent of seafood preparation techniques, metalheads were presented with a dizzying, dazzling array of options, ranging from the sinister ambience of Wolves In The Throne Room to the death-rattles of Krallice to the “transcendence” of Liturgy. Ultimately (and unfortunately), 2011 marked a schism: on one side, the acolytes of “true” black metal à la Darkthrone, and on the other, fans of the newer, more post-rock tinged stuff. Enter Deafheaven, a San Francisco outfit that, like so many others, first rose to prominence back in 2011.
When the band released their debut LP, Roads To Judah, nobody knew quite what to make of their sound. The black metal framework was all there: the lacerating screams, the blast beats, the gradual descent into sonic oblivion. But while their peers assembled their songs in stark greyscale, Deafheaven chose to paint with more colorful brushstrokes. By carefully inserting off-kilter touches like warm shoegaze guitars and spacey instrumentals, Deafheaven managed to thaw out the icy soundscapes commonly associated with the genre, and breathe new life into it in the process. A gambit, no doubt, but even the purists had to admit that it was ballsy.
Jump back to the present. Deafheaven has just released Sunbather, their highly-anticipated sophomore LP. On a superficial level, the record looks to be as un-metal as it gets. Just glance at the cover—the pink/orange gradient, the handsome white font, the title. Screams “hipster metal”, doesn’t it? Check out the song titles: “Dream House,” “Irresistible,” “The Pecan Tree.” But as it turns out, Sunbather is every bit as explosive and engaging as any metal album you’re likely to hear all year.
Make no mistake about it—if you want heavy, you’ve got heavy. Album opener “Dream House” wastes no time sinking its teeth into your eardrums, waiting all of ten seconds before launching a 360 degree blast-beat assault. And yet, it sounds downright pleasant, and almost unsettlingly so. The guitar textures are warm, melodic, and even verge on the poppier side of the spectrum; churned out with an irresistible, syncopated gallop, they provide the perfect entry point for listeners who might find Burzum a little too bleak. Halfway through the 9-minute track, the din gives way to a brief acoustic interlude, picking up speed just in time for a post-hardcore-inspired victory lap.
Such is the pattern for not just the songs themselves, but the album as a whole. As the band’s biggest cathartic force, vocalist George Clarke knows to wait patiently until just the right moment to unleash his searing shrieks. The general pattern is this: quiet intro, extended aural blitzkrieg, post-rock halftime (“Irresistible, “Windows”), pulverizing conclusion. Some may find it formulaic, but the band’s tight control of dynamics allows them to sidestep the ear-numbing monotony that often occurs as a side effect of a full-metal injection. Plus, it makes the big moments that much more epic. Who knew that a song titled “The Pecan Tree” could pack enough stadium-sized punch to recall Bathory, the Foo Fighters and Mayhem all in one? Or that you might find yourself humming along to a 10-minute monster like “Sunbather”?
Some purists will undoubtedly insist that Sunbather is not a black metal album—worse, they might even throw in the “h” word. And maybe they’ve got a point—Emperor Deafheaven ain’t. But with songwriting this tight, pacing this meticulous, and a color scheme this vibrant, who needs a label?