Deafheaven – Sunbather

The highest-rated album of 2013 so far, for a reason...

Album two from this 2010-formed San Fran crew, inked to Jacob Bannon’s Deathwish imprint, has already set itself ahead of the 2013 competition.

At the time of writing, ‘Sunbather’ has a Metacritic average score of 97 out of 100. If the year ended, now, it’d be the review-aggregator’s very best album of 2013, regardless of genre, several places ahead of celebrated records from The National, Daft Punk and Boards Of Canada.

So why is it that, until very recently, many in the Clash office had never heard of Deafheaven, let alone actually listened to the five-piece?

The Deathwish association is a clue: this is metal, and of a radar-bypassing variety too, the kind unlikely to ever connect with a mainstream chasing whatever’s hot or not in the Right Now to bump up web traffic.

Except, the reviews – those to have come before this one, and those that will inevitably follow it, as more are switched onto ‘Sunbather’ – have made these seven tracks a mainstream-piquing collection. At least in the sense that this extraordinary record’s makers find themselves in the position of now connecting to an audience that stretches beyond any singular, genre-specific listenership.

Wikipedia will tell you that Deafheaven operate in post-metal circles, exploring shoegaze and black metal styles, too. But the beauty – the ugly, violent, caressing, tumultuous wonder – of this set is that it simply doesn’t conform to any existing pigeonhole.

It’s loud. It can be extremely loud. Its vocals are screamed, almost wordless of delivery; yet they convey an undeniable emotion. The drums sound as if a thousand steeds are racing across the fiery planes of Hell, while above the crust splits to reveal an endless blue-blackness punctured by flaming stars. 

This is an album defined by abstracts. Its constituents, broken down, do not add up to anything revolutionary. Vocalist George Clarke is resolutely of metal pedigree, his performances comparable with those of the aforementioned Converge frontman Bannon. (Naturally, these are the LP’s most-divisive element.) The music fluctuates between warm passages of post-rock-y introspection and all-out power dynamics, like Isis with the intensity ramped up past 11. Yet the assembly proves so electrifying that stepping away from a full play leaves one with the shakes.

‘Dream House’ sets an impressive precedent: nine minutes of roaring disharmony, somehow underpinned by a melodic consistency that keeps the piece from collapsing into itself. The title-cut is even more impressive: such does it turn and churn that it spits the listener out sick-giddy at the end of a no-punches-pulled 10 minutes.

‘Sunbather’ is arranged in a long song, short piece, long song order – the briefer pieces operating as bridges between the main attractions, the lengthiest of which is the opus-within-itself ‘Vertigo’, a full 14 minutes of rising to the highest heights before suicide-diving into a mountaintop.

But the relatively compact arrangements aren’t to be overlooked for the more overt drama surrounding them: ‘Windows’ is a beautiful drone accompanied by Bible readings, which feel right at home with the pervading post-apocalyptic vibes; and ‘Irresistible’ is just that, a chiming, Mogwai-like aside that sees its beauty rendered thrice over by juxtaposition with the raging fury foreshadowing it.

‘Sunbather’ has been cited as this year’s take on Swans’ masterful ‘The Seer’ (Clash review) – a heavy record for those who don’t usually get into heavy records. But it’s more than that. It’s a new blueprint, an album that takes metal into previously unexplored regions where raw heart and broken knuckles collide; where carnage plays out under heavenly vistas the mind’s eye paints in collaboration with the evolving epics contained herein.

It’s a bit bloody brilliant. A record everyone with half an experimental ear should experience, even if they run from it, screaming. So add another positive critique to the Metascore and let’s all slow-motion slam-dance in tears of togetherness.


Words: Mike Diver

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