Deafheaven – Sunbather

In the 20+ years since acts like Mayhem and Emperor began donning corpsepaint, taking Satanism and Heathenism much too seriously, burning churches, murdering one another, waxing poetic about the superiority of the Nordic race and – oh yeah – recording some crazy-ass music, black metal has seen a lot of changes. These days the American bands seem to have wrested control of black metal from their Norse counterparts, jettisoning some of the laughable, questionable or downright wrong trappings of the genre to produce a highly evolved strain of music that is transcendentally ugly (after all, through catharsis comes rapture) and not exactly rock ’n’ roll. Still, black metal is interesting stuff if you’re so inclined.

Enter Deafheaven, a California duo that mixes elements of shoegaze and post-rock into their black metal stew. The title of their second opus, Sunbather, pretty much says it all. You won’t be getting the usual black metal odes to the darkness of the frozen North here. After all, darkness is merely a void, a portal to nothingness – whereas Deafheaven’s sonic Armageddon comes in the form of light and fire.

The album seems an either/or affair, bouncing between the polarities of pretty or ugly. This is to say that the “songs” are either contemplative guitar noodlings similar to Slint, Tortoise or even Tom Verlaine, or they are so-fast-they’re-slow blendercore tracks with screamed vocals. The X factor is the album’s intangible pop sensibility where melodies and harmonies are somehow embedded in the layers of noise, if that makes any sense. Sunbather is a disturbingly compelling sonic artifact that takes black metal to new territories, provided you’re tenacious and/or masochistic enough to experience its austere beauty in full. Not for the faint of heart.