Deafheaven Dream House Deathwish Inc
Let’s get right in to this by stating up front that Sunbather, Deafheaven’s new full length and follow up to 2011’s excellent (and now, portentous) Roads to Judah, is a near masterpiece. We can say that. It is an incredible piece of work. Brandon Stosuy recently posited that the record stands confidently as a second pinnacle achievement in the pantheon of US Black Metal, though this and the other document cited – Weakling’s Dead As Dreams – work perhaps better as loose bookends within the genre.
That record is often seen as a transitional gateway and artistic sea change away from the grimy, lo-fi exhortations of the groups that typified the nascent American tradition in the genre and were active during and subsequent to the hugely influential European second wave of black metal (comprising Mayhem, Darkthrone, Graveland, the Legions Noire groups etc), to something original and more sonically enthralling. Sunbather, though, feels, perhaps, like the point where USBM becomes a recognisable entity. It feels different.
Take Dream House, the record’s first track. The standard BM tropes are quickly laid in place – heavily distorted tremolo picking; pummelling blastbeats; George Clarke’s impassioned, indecipherably shrieked vocals. It’s cacophonous, sure, but densely melodic. Then, at just over a minute in, Kerry McCoy’s guitar lines burst into refulgence, the drums momentarily drop the blasting onslaught for a subtler, fluid rhythm, the song’s sonic trajectory lurches skywards and the track erupts. Deafheaven, it quickly becomes apparent, are more than capable of exceeding the potential shown on their previous record, tracks like Violet and Unrequited only hinting at this level of emotive blitzkrieg.
From here, the band briefly employ a tactic not so much of build-and-release as a perpetual swelling, pausing only occasionally for breath between chiming arpeggiated guitar figures, and a momentary solo passage before the inevitable heaving crescendo, replete with shimmering melodic flourishes and nods to the best of screamo and post rock instrumentation. It’s all witheringly gorgeous, though still clearly recognisable as black metal, sitting at the most elative reaches of the cascadian tradition and miles away even from the lushest passages in Wolves In The Throne Room’s 2012 opus Celestial Lineage.
Sunbather’s six subsequent tracks alternate between sprawling, sonically dynamic epics and more measured exercises in texture and sampled speech – not least a passage of Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, supplied by Alcest’s Neige in Please Remember. Rung out guitar notes act as an atmospheric motif repeated throughout the course of the album, as well as harking back to the climactic breaks on Unrequited. In the record’s four nine-minute-plus ‘proper’ tracks – Dream House, Sunbather, Vertigo and The Pecan Tree – intensity builds methodically, step-by-step before snapping into subdued passages of ambient murmur, the bluster more affecting for the band’s tempered sense of restraint. Over nearly 15 minutes, album centrepiece Vertigo glides through warm, rolling drum patterns tumbling under an EBowed guitar and an eerie riff reminiscent of the quieter moments of early Cave In, factoring in an actual bona-fide solo, only after a good five minutes cracking into the kind of technical, blistering relentlessness worthy of Krallice, via Liturgy’s earlier avant-compositional drone aspirations. Though mentioning these other two notable (and, in Liturgy’s case, derided) modern USBM units could appear short sighted, it’s in Clarke and McCoy’s faultless execution that the constituent styles of each, as well as the shoegaze and post rock tags so frequently levelled at Deafheaven, can amalgamate to make something so genuinely fresh sounding.
Clarke has spoken about Sunbather as being a further push for Deafheaven away from a conventional black metal aesthetic, a notion reflected in the collection’s thematic scope and general visual aesthetic. It’s got a peach-hued cover. It’s called Sunbather, for Christ’s sake. We’re a long way from Pure Fucking Armageddon or Xasthur here. The singer’s lyrics embrace western capitalist materialism, personal selfishness, familial strife, love (and lust), and romantic detachment, reading like soliloquies or personal letters (aptly so in the closing passages of Dream House, which are literally adapted from text messages between Clarke and an old flame). It’s Hunt Hendrix’s theorising on transcendentalism, but driven around the California suburbs. It sounds a little premature to state, but Sunbather feels like a modern classic in the making, and the piece of work that finally sees modern black metal wholly dragged from darkness into the light.