On the cusp of releasing Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, 2018 finds Deafheaven continuing to advance and develop their aesthetic. In doing so, they’ve strayed from the template laid out on their landmark 2013 record Sunbather, though they’ve managed to re-visit some of their summery shimmer on latest single “Honeycomb” – a far cry from the angular, harsh New Bermuda. Deafheaven’s defining moment, Sunbather was no stranger to controversy upon its release but struck a chord with black metal experimentalists across the globe. A full five years later, how does it fare?
Sunbather was a watermark moment for the band and for the genre. Blackgaze dabbled in dense textures and leftfield influences but few records captured the mood of Sunbather. 2013 saw the band strongly influenced by the leading lights of black metal but repurposed for a summery American audience, in denial of the frosty, unyielding Scandanavian model.
This left a bit of a raw taste in the metal public’s mouths and their branding elevated them to meme status pretty quickly, leading to “Dream House”‘s closing refrain, “I’m dying / is it blissful? / It’s like a dream / I want to dream,” becoming a fully-fledged meme by the end of 2013. The record’s distinctive pastel sleeve and font suggest an indie graphic design project rather than road-worn black metal, and the tilt towards the pretentious garnered them a lot of backlash – this was released at the height of the hipster movement, after all. It suited their aesthetic, and in any case black metal’s fans can embody the most tiresome of gatekeeping; a record that flew so wildly in the face of convention was a welcome departure, and set the genre up for rapid expansion and experimentation.
The controversy of them not being hard enough doesn’t really ring true; five years down the line, this is still an intense record, albeit one that approaches heavy music from a bit of a weird angle. The black metal onslaught balances relentlessly harsh vocals with warm guitar layers and frequent moments of relief. The first major break comes shortly into “Dream House,” where the guitar parts recall Johnny Marr as much as they do Darkthrone. Here, the heavily layered guitars burst into a brief interlude as scrappy as it is strangely upbeat, a flourish that suits both their indie/shoegaze roots as much as recorded-in-a-shed black metal.
The first moment where Sunbather really shows its indie credentials is on Irresistible, a three-minute lullaby comedown to the formidable “Dream House.” The hypnotic quality owes a lot to the repetitive minimalism of black metal, and though it’s a wild divergence from the style it is in keeping with the record’s emerging aesthetic. Following track “Sunbather” merges all these elements, showcasing distinctive guitar leads for a fiercer take on their freshly-established aesthetic.
The approach in the first half develops into some stranger moments later on, featuring some Neurosis-esque samples on “Please Remember,” which crop up again in the brooding penultimate track “Windows.” These shorter tracks are paired with longer, more savage offerings, a stand-out being the caustic “Vertigo.” Closer “The Pecan Tree” is typically feral, the layers geared for momentum rather than warmth. This time, when the song breaks the sections are detuned and bleak rather than sprightly, concluding the record on dark note.
The band themselves have come some way since Sunbather, releasing a frostier follow-up in New Bermuda and From The Kettle Onto The Coil for Adult Swim. It’s a little difficult to gauge their trajectory – they remain a relatively young band. But it is interesting to note that their sound is fairly mercurial, despite the successes Sunbather brought them.
In part their appeal is their experimental spirit, which very much endures, but even in as diverse a genre as blackgaze they stand out, eschewing an esoteric quality for a display of shimmering guitar theatrics. Given that Blackgaze was already rising through bands like Alcest and Altar of Plagues it’s likely that the genre would have continued on its trajectory regardless of whether this record had been made, though their rise has certainly proved there to be a willing audience for the burgeoning genre.
Sunbather is a rewarding record. A casual listen will throw up a whole host of wild guitar nuances, tiny dopamine rushes that maintain engagement through the record’s hour-long runtime. A closer listen allows for a deeper examination of the thick layers, allowing further engagement with the emotional ebb and flow. And for black metal fans a little bored with stale output, this is an effervescent, imperious take that still holds up today. It’s like a dream, and you want to dream.