Sunbather, the second LP from San Francisco black-metal modifiers Deafheaven, sculpts the anxiety, torment, and potential release endemic to their genre into a crafty package that lasts about as long as an episode of Homeland or Mad Men. But despite its spans of roiling drums, serrated vocals, and brushfire guitars, this shouldn’t be mistaken as some wintry Scandinavian scree: It’s much softer and brighter than that, a notion broadcast well in advance by its summery title and salmon-colored cover.
In fact, Deafheaven even push past the glut of grandiose United States black-metal acts who’ve risen to relative prominence in recent years. Instead, Sunbather comes laced with post-rock grace and a pop-like accessibility. Nor are those elements sequestered from the black-metal bombardment: They are part of it, or, depending upon your perspective, it is part of them. The guitars on opener “Dream House,” for instance, etch instantly hummable lines into and behind the blitz, telegraphing the screams-of-glory coda. The beginning of “Vertigo” radiates with its cymbal splashes and twinkling guitars, hanging a veritable “Now Open” sign over the browbeating that lies a few minutes ahead; when the song later downshifts from the tumult, singer George Clarke sticks around, his rasp a daring whisper suspended above the drift, the darkness cutting back into dusk.
The duo’s peers often inspire tags like “cinematic” and “epic,” adjectives that seem to describe the size of the songs and the sudden feelings they evoke more than the structure of the music itself — see Wolves in the Throne Room, a purportedly “cinematic” black-metal band whose records have never warranted such narrative-driven reductions. But with its majestic and scene-setting beginning (wait for the guitars to double on “Dream House,” then for the drums to break) — and its tension-ratcheting antiphony between brutal and blissful — Sunbatheris practically filmic. With each new transition, you’re only waiting for the next one, a steady string of cliffhangers ferrying attention ever toward the end.
Metal bands are often guilty of splicing fragments of movies and found-sound conversations into or between songs, often because they don’t have much to say or because they don’t have the skills to connect their thoughts in a more compelling way. But the two prominent samples here don’t seem shoehorned into the record at all. They’re part of a larger story about love and desperation, predestination and the hope to break beyond it — the fight for, as Clarke puts it at one point, “the forging of change.” At their core, Deafheaven are an aspirational act, with musical and lyrical enthusiasms ceaselessly dovetailing into something bigger than themselves. If this were a movie, you’d pay the extra money to see it in IMAX.
They achieve this effect, in part, by not trying to invent anything here. Instead, Sunbather’s reference points are obvious and uncloaked, from the Emperor-sized branches of closer “The Pecan Tree” to the Temporary Residence Ltd. comedown that sits as a tonic interlude between “Dream House” and “Sunbather.” The windswept guitars and vocals toward the end of “Vertigo” fundamentally link Deafheaven to their stateside black-metal peers, while the anxious sounds and samples from a drug deal potentially gone awry during “Windows” should assure converts from the indie-rock realm that, no, you actually aren’t a long way from home. If, toward the end of a similar middle passage in the instrumental “Please Remember,” you get lost and expect it to emerge into Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine,” you’ll have company.
These guys are big-eared metal magpies, gathering familiar elements into something that’s recognizable from multiple angles. Again, they do no single thing that’s new: They simply unite many distinct things with unwavering focus and unfaltering vision, a prospect often more daunting than reinventing some old wheel. Sunbather is ripe for some degree of crossover success, thanks not only to its theatrical charms and romantic perspective, but also because of the general groundswell of grim music in recent years. If you want a “black metal album” that serves dually as make-out music and a loneliness weapon, this is as emo and earnest as it gets.
In many ways, Deafheaven hearkens back a decade, when Conor Oberst made the music of the moment that used old but honest means to connect with the raw emotions of a very unsettled moment in history. His particular form of expression proved to be something of a popular fad, of course, and Deafheaven’s might, too. Will black metal GIFs and Photoshops always be Tumblr favorites? Probably not, but we all want to connect, to see our collective or individual anxieties massaged into something we can stream from the comfort of our homes. Maybe that’s a primetime murder mystery, or maybe it’s Sunbather, an album that bravely confesses in its dying moment, “I am no one / It’s in my blood.”