Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Album Review: Deafheaven - Sunbather

Rating: Woof Daddy

San Francisco based band Deafheaven are the buzz band of the moment in indie rock circles, as well as a highly contentious part of the black metal scene, getting dissed by their peers as being part of "hipster metal," for their combination of elements such as post-punk, shoegaze, post-rock, and alt-rock into their sound. I can't claim to be an expert on black metal or any metal for that matter (my friend Tradd, on the other hand, is my spiritual guide into such matters and gives me good recommendations and advice), but I generally know what I like and what I don't like. Traditionalist or not, Deafheaven's second record Sunbather is an exciting record that focuses on the band's almost innate ability to flawlessly juggle loud/soft, beautiful/harsh moments and create a record that straps you for a journey that lingers long in the memory. And truly is a journey through alt-rock/metal from the past 3 decades, taking metal and cloaking it with influences like The Cure, The Smiths, Joy Division (in fact, singer George Clarke bears a resemblance to Ian Curtis), My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive (their band name is a homage to them), Explosions In The Sky, Sigur Ros, and Godspeed!You Black Emperor, Mogwai, and even current buzz acts like Fuck Buttons. All these influences make for a more varied and interesting experience than the usual "pure" black metal record which tends to get caught up in the same dynamics over the course of a record, deadening the impact.

On Sunbather, Deafheaven masterfully control where their sound is going, but never doing anything predictable. Where you think a song is going to explode, it descends into ambient washes, when you think it is going to fade out into gorgeous bliss, it erupts into pure noise and scrape. There are moments of acoustic metal folk, spoken word interludes, pure alt-rock sweep, surreal samples, and electronic experimentation. That all of these elements mesh into something so intricate and well thought out is a miracle. The production and pacing of Sunbather is practically perfect, its hour run time almost sliding by unnoticed.

The album starts out with the clarion call of "Dream House," a nine minute force of nature featuring some powerful drumming and intense washes of shoegaze bliss that would make Kevin Shields envious, moving effortlessly from pure washes of noise to melodic turns of guitars hitting the midpoint with a gorgeous guitar interlude, before concluding with an eruption of guitars and Clarke's guttural howls punctuating the mix.

Which leads into the delicate piano and guitar interlude "Irresistible" which initially feels out of place but is the perfect segue into the frontal guitar assault of title track "Sunbather," as intense washes of guitar float over pummeling drums and Clarke's furious vocals. It is the encapsulation of the entire record, gathering all the above listed influences into one intense yet beautiful track.

In between these amazing full throttle tracks are moments of transcendent introspection and experimentation. "Please Remember" features a lengthy reading by Alcest's Neige of lines from Milan Kundera's novel from The Unbearable Lightness of Being that touched singer Clarke. The track erupts at the middle with an almost unlistenable flash of white noise before breaking apart into acoustic loveliness. While "Windows" is an almost found-sound sonic collage of spoken word, backwards masked guitars, drones, and piano stabs, creating a spooky tableau between two of the most assured tracks on the record. "Vertigo" is an amazing 14 minute exploration of Deafheaven's sound. Beginning from a bed of gorgeous intertwining guitars, the song ebbs and flows with amazing waves of processed guitars and metal interludes, Clarke's maniacal voice joining the fray. It's an awe-inspiring track that shows how fluid and aggressive the band can be.

I didn't think the band would be able to outshine "Vertigo" until the blistering opening of closing track "The Pecan Tree" blew up my speakers. Breaking from the maelstrom into a midsection calm of gorgeous post-rock guitars that intricately play among each other as a bold piano melody takes its turn in the mix. The song turns it up several notches as it builds from this oasis back into the furious storm of guitars.

As I mentioned previously, I am not a metal purist by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I am not a music purist for any genre at all. To me, if the songs are good, what does it matter how it was created or what influenced it. I happen to like metal, post-punk, and post-rock, so I have no issue with all of these genres getting together and doing their thing. Sunbather is just a fantastic metal record that kept my attention from the beginning and has grasped hold of me with every subsequent listen. It is simply one of the best metal records of the year, and one of the best records of the year, period.

Rating Scale:

Chilfos: masterpiece; coolest thing I've heard in ages.

Woof Daddy: excellent; just a hair away from being a masterpiece.

Grrrr: very good; will definitely be considered for my top releases of the year.

Yeah Daddy Make Me Want It: good; definitely invites further listens and piques one's interest for more material.

Meh: not horrible, but certainly not great; could have either been polished, trimmed, or re-thought.

Jeez Lady: what the hell happened? Just plain bad. They should hang their heads in shame and be forced to listen to Lady Gaga ad nauseam as penance.

Tragicistani: so bad, armed villagers with pitchforks and torches should run the artist out of the country for inflicting this abomination on the human race.

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