Band: Deafheaven
Album: Sunbather
Best song: The title track
Worst song: “The Pecan Tree” is the weakest song on a fine album. In fact, it’s still a very strong song.

A man screaming is not necessarily music, right? You you saw a man on a corner in your town yelling about rich people in the sun, you’d think he was nuts, right? Like, that guy is crazy. I’m not sure it matters how nice his button-up shirt looks or if he’s wearing gloves, for some reason. If you can’t identify the words he is saying, but he’s screaming over a wonderful soundtrack… Does that make it music?

If the answer to the final question is “no,” then I have to ask: What the fuck am I to make of Deafheaven’s Sunbather?

Sunbather was the best-reviewed album of 2013 and count me among its admirers. There are sounds that are nonmusical on the record — George Clarke’s violent vocals dominates that conversation — but the album is breathtaking. Despite and because of the screamo/black metal vocals, the record has a sense of import that a similar-sounding record would lack. In short: Passion matters and Clarke exudes passion more than anything.

The record starts in the most conventional way for a black metal album in that it doesn’t claim the highest fidelity or an artful entrance. Rather, Kerry McCoy’s guitar opens the record like the summer season of the album’s titular person (more on that in a bit) with a free move up the fretboard. It doubles for a few bars and the band comes in. Building a pop melody into the guitar line brings the record out into something… different. And then Clark starts singing.

And therein lies the beauty of Sunbather. At every move toward math-rock or prog or another non-black-metal trope, Clarke dances back in with his fetish gloves and his gargoyle screams about materialism or superficiality (give him a break, he’s in his mid-20s). “‘Dream House” is this. It has the double-bass-drummed beat of a Norwegian metal group from 1992 and the screams of Circle Takes the Square, but the guitar lines and changes of more melodic stuff.

That’s forgetting that the band also transitions “Irresistible,” a “St. Vitus’ Dance”-style song between these masterpiece genre smashings. The song simply plays guitar off itself in three minutes of bliss. Or “Please Remember,” in which the band asked Alcest’s Stéphane “Neige” Paut to read from The Unbearable Lightness of Being (again, they’re in their 20s, cut them some slack) over music by the band. And finally, “Windows” has audio of a drug deal involving one of the band members and a screaming downtown San Francisco (the band is from the Bay area) preacher to play juxtaposition (again, in their 20s). While it may see dumb, the interludes link the other, more aggressive tracks and tie the album together so beautifully.

Indeed, “Please Remember” is dissonance for half a song, with guitar noodling and an almost atmospheric (and decidedly non-black metal) acoustic guitar rhythm. It’s movie soundtrack stuff, sans lyrics and moving and powerful. Like the best post-rock, it fulfills an emotion without needing some idiot telling you about love.

The tracking of the album then leads into “Vertigo,” which starts on a similar note that Please Remember,” but is marked by tremendous drumwork by Daniel Tracy. The song dances between genres once it builds and builds out of the “Please Remember” hangover — in the absolute best way — of the song’s beginning into a classic scorcher at the 3:30 mark.

Think of the most soaring song you know. Some Of Monsters and Men or Arcade Fire nonsense. Think about how it should be in some bullshit movie ad and how it made you feel triumphant.

Here’s the fucked up thing: Deafheaven does this, but layers in a Clarke vocal and a drum rhythm that is out of a Mastodon song in its melodic intensity. As Clarke’s lyrics (I guess? His screams, really) compliment the sky-high guitar. It’s the best song the band has produced and, were it more easy to sing along to, I imagine it would be a very big hit.

The lyrics are ridiculous(“The hardest part for the weak was stroking your fingers with rings full of teeth.”), most certainly. Does it matter, though? The sound is what matters and Clarke’s vocals are a revelation to a sound that seems out of place, but so perfectly fits.

We live in a pretty incredible age that Sunbather exists. It’s the kind of niche music that certainly wouldn’t garner the type of coverage it’s received. Like so many things, the ingredients shouldn’t add up to a wonderful record, but it does. It’s magnificent.

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  • About Me

    I'm Ross Jordan Gianfortune. I am not a writer, but I sometimes write here about music and my life. I live in Washington, DC.

    I used to review each of Rolling Stone Magazine's top 500 albums of all time. Now I'm writing about albums I own.

    My work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Gazette, The Atlantic, Sno-Cone and a bunch of defunct zines.

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