This decade’s Loveless? Perhaps not quite, but the comparison is apt. It’s hard to imagine that San Francisco black metal band Deafheaven didn’t have Loveless in mind when they were composing and recording Sunbather. It may even be that Sunbather’s pink cover is a deliberate allusion to My Bloody Valentine’s shoegaze masterpiece. For a band who have set out to apply the shoegaze aesthetic to metal, there can be few more fitting touchstones. And with Sunbather, Deafheaven have accomplished something like what My Bloody Valentine accomplished with Loveless: a rock album loud and harsh and dense beyond measure, which nonetheless achieves a kind of fragile beauty. They cannot replicate the mysterious alchemy of an MBV record – no band can – but they can take something approximating the same screechy-yet-tranquil aesthetic, and pour it lovingly over a set of epic metal songs. The results are very striking indeed.
Shoegaze, for those not in the know, was a short-lived subgenre of alternative rock that flourished in Britain in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The style consists mainly of taking simple rock tunes, often long and repetitive, and drenching them in fuzzy electric distortion. Layers upon layers of hissing, droning feedback wash over every twist and screech of guitar, while sweet and gentle vocals drift incomprehensibly through the prickly haze.
Black metal, for those not in the know, is one of the most extreme of metal subgenres. In the same way that when colour upon colour of thick paint is applied to canvas, the result eventually goes close to black, so too is this music called “black” because it sounds so dense and so thick and so heavy that no single colour can get through it. Faster than the fastest of thrash and propelled by blast beat drumming (that is, drumming so fast it sounds machine-tooled), black metal assaults the listener with a wall of guitars while the vocals are shrieked through it all like they’re being shredded through a grater.
Acquired tastes, then. And any album that blends the two styles is likely to be even more of an acquired taste. Certainly, the dominant sound on Sunbather will be off-putting to many: shrieking, pummelling waves of harsh guitar-drenched metal that drones with static. Deafheaven deliver four massive slabs of black metal, churning and raging and seething with noise and fury, and hissing around the edges with that classic shoegaze crackle. This is about as visceral as rock music gets. What it most definitely is not, however, is an unmodulated, unvarying exercise in extremity. Unlike the vast majority of their black metal peers, Deafheaven ornament and subvert their epics with distinctively melodic excursions, making the noise serve the tunes rather than forcing the tunes to submit to the noise. Massive, dignified guitar lines rise above the chaos and lead the listener suddenly and deftly into new emotional terrain. Sunbather does not just sound angry: it sounds mournful, yearning, desperate, and deeply sad.
The lyrics are more thoughtful and more memorable than most of us expect from any metal band, but I shan’t dwell on them, because the truth is that I would have no idea what they were if I hadn’t looked them up. Tortured, unfathomable screaming is the vocal order of the day. Suffice to say that death, doubt, and loss are addressed sparely and poetically in this album’s words just as they are addressed at brutal length in its music. “Memories fly through the mask of your life shielding you from time,” is one exemplary declaration from the fifteen-minute track “Vertigo”. Life is bad, and there is little hope.
Perhaps the record’s most gratifying hidden treasures, however, are the three interlude tracks that separate the four epics. On these, Deafheaven abandon metal entirely, and instead demonstrate a remarkable capacity to evoke sadness and beauty in simple solo exercises on acoustic guitar. One of them, the central “Please Remember,” features a passage from Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, read out by Stéphane Paut (of French black metal band Alcest). The recitation vanishes into a droning distorted-computer-fan fog, which then lifts to allow a lovely little acoustic tune to sooth us into restfulness. These passages of quiet comfort are the perfect frame and foil for the tragic awfulness of the long metal pieces.
Sunbather is art-metal at its boldest, and it does sound like nothing else before it. It’s a severe, punishing experience, for all its grace and fleeting tenderness. Though it completely transcends its metal-meets-shoegaze premise, it still reaches many of the same ends that this premise implies: enveloping, indiscriminate noise cloaking a heavy core of despair, and relieving its darkness with softness and light. It’s not for everyone, but for those of us inclined to the sonically extreme, Sunbather will remain a rare and special album.