Some of my favorite records are the ones where a band leaps outside the bounds of their past and tries something their fans might not dig. I’m thinking of post-Until Your Heart Stops Cave In (Jupiter polarized their existing fans, while Antenna proved they were onto something new), Corrosion of Conformity’s definitively metal years (starting with Blind, but culminating in the Pepper Keenan-led Deliverance and Wiseblood), and even Kill Holiday’s swan song (Somewhere Between the Wrong is Right, on which they abandoned aggressive hardcore for an energized gothic-pop sound, by turns reminiscent of The Smiths, The Cure, and Ride). Sunbather doesn’t stray from the Deafheaven signature sound but strengthens it instead, and it reminds me of the things I love about the ill-fated albums above. Whether it was growing pains or genre strains, those bands all sacrificed something to pave the path for odd weldings and meldings of metal like this.
If Mayhem and Mogwai collaborated on a record in some other universe and someone brought it back to ours, it might sound like Sunbather. If Immortal and My Bloody Valentine melted into one smooth mound of blast beats and gauzy guitar, it might sound like Sunbather. If Emporer and Explosions in the Sky had naughty, noisy sex, it might sound like Sunbather. If Taake and Flying Saucer Attack collided head-on in midair at a thousand miles an hour in slow motion, it might sound like Sunbather.
Of course, Sunbather doesn’t and wouldn’t really sound like any of that nonsense, but the marriage of shoegazing and black metal makes a lot of sense. A match made made somewhere south of heaven, both subgenres are about meditation, contemplation, and introspection, in sharp contrast to the pomp and posturing of their rock forebears. While Deafheaven is easily among the best, they’re not the only outfit doing this misfit sound: Wolves in the Throne Room, Altar of Plagues, Light Bearer, Falls of Rauros, Panopticon, Liturgy, Krallice, and Seidr, among many others, are all bashing and bastardizing black metal into something else entirely.
When genre-specific adjectives fail, we grasp at significant exemplars from the past to describe new sounds. Following Straw (1991), Josh Gunn (1999) calls this “canonization” (p. 42): The synecdochical use of a band’s name for a genre is analogous to our using metaphors, similes, and other figurative language when literal terms fall short. Where bands sometimes emerge that do not immediately fit into a genre (e.g., Radiohead, dälek, Godflesh, et al.) or adhere too specifically to the sound of one band (e.g., the early 21st-century spate of bands that sound like Joy Division), we run into this brand of genre trouble. Even with a space seemingly cut out for them by a family of description-defying groups, Deafheaven is likely to work loose from any label applied to their sound.
Neither the bands nor the fans come up with these categories anyway. If it moves us, we don’t care what you call it. With renewed focus and fury, Deafheaven moves. George Clarke’s vocals have never sounded more shredded or sincere, and Kerry McCoy’s guitar work is driving, diving, and daring. The addition of Daniel Tracy on drums tightened the trio into an ensemble capable of new leaps, depths, textures, and sophistication. In spite of their often caustic heaviness, there’s a pop sensibility in there that can’t help but shine through.
“You might come across American black metal and see a greater tendency to humanize the terms, which may seem somewhat contradictory,” says He Who Crushes Teeth from California’s Bone Awl, “But I think an unknown goal in American black metal is to level the vocabulary and draw attention to the fact that nothing is outside of humanity” (quoted in Masciandro, 2010, p. 152). Kenneth Burke (1966) defined the human as “the symbol using, making, and mis-using animal, inventor of the negative, separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy, and rotten with perfection” (p. 16). The very Burkean phrase “rotten with perfection” is an apt description of Sunbather, not only in its intent but also in its execution. “The ‘Sunbather’ is essentially the idea of perfection,” Clarke tells National Underground. “A wealthy, beautiful, perfect existence that is naturally unattainable and the struggles of having to deal with that reality because of your own faults, relationship troubles, family troubles, death, etc.” (quoted in Glaser, 2013). Balancing ambitions for more with appreciating what we have is a definitively human struggle.
“If you let go of the idea of perfection,” Anna Chlumsky once said, “a lot of beauty can happen.” Thankfully with Sunbather, Deafheaven endeavor to bring us both.
Here’s a brief peek into the making of Sunbather, which comes out June 11th on Deathwish, Inc. [runtime: 7:53]:
Burke, Kenneth. (1966). Language as Symbolic Action. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Glaser, Anthony (2013, March 11). Interview: Deafheaven. National Underground.
Gunn, Josh. (1999, Spring) Gothic Music and the Inevitability of Genre. Popular Music & Society, 23, 31-50.
Masciandro, Nicola. (ed.) (2010). Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Symposium 1. New York: CreateSpace.
Straw, Will. (1991). Systems of Articulation, Logics of Change: Communities and Scenes in Popular Music. Cultural Studies, 5(3), 361-75.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.