Deafheaven is an American atmospheric metal band from the Bay Area of California, which means their contemporaries are bands like Ludicra, Grayceon, and possibly Stolen Babies/Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. The West Coast metal bands seem to be focused on the use of black metal to provide a crushing, raging element within a song before pulling you back out with shoegaze rock qualities to balance, making Deafheaven no exception here. I came across Deafheaven on their EP Roads to Judah; a release I found amazing and a band that I began waiting for their next release. This greeted me by offering a bright pastel pink album cover with relief writing, with the light source bathing the album cover from the top right corner of the piece.
The album sounds better over headphones than when played through loudspeakers. The colors and the drive of its work is much more easy to hear in this solitary space than in sharing the sounds with others. Now, this may often be the case with metal bands, if only because others simply do not wish to listen to it; however, the production angle taken with this album really seems to emphasize the singular experience of one listener. Your own personal sun as it were.
“The Dream House” rips in, a writhing mass of tremolo and blast beats greeting the singer’s strained cries (it does not so much sound a growl or a shriek as it does a wail). It directly assaults the listener with waves of aggression, before growing past this into a bombastic, nearly ambient, style that draws back into a gentle melody of guitars that lead into “Irresistable.” Using this guitar and key driven instrumental to link the first two songs, the band returns to its focus on “Sunbather.”
This sweeping set of emotional pull provides sheer intensity, nailed its epically composed themes, driving the music to explain what the raw voice cannot be understood to have said. It is not apprehension or tension created by the metal here; it is full out wanting: a desire for more. That is why, when I listened at first lacking in criticism to this album, I did not fully understand the solemn emptiness of sound and the tuned down voice that meets right in the mix. The transitions at times brings the band to familiar places for the listener with the Cure, the Smiths, and other shoegazers known for their turbulent, yet melancholic, epic sounds (a transition in the middle of “Sunbather” comes very close to the Smiths’ opening riff to “How Soon is Now:).
“Sunbather” fades into a sample spoken passage (by Alcest’s Neige) over ambient electronics in “Please Remember,” breaking away from the sweeping melodies and scorched guitars through which drone becomes key. The sounds fade to clear terse moments; the sound of a drill (to my ear) against roiling percussion before returning to acoustic melody. This melody fades into sterling and cold guitar at the start of “Vertigo,” inspiring apprehension (if but for a fleeting moment using shoegaze elements instead of metal) and an uncompromising curiosity to not look away from the macabre. The sonically warped transition from this moment to its metal core is stunningly fresh before ambling down a full guitar solo whose intensity matches that of the vocalist. If you had any doubt by this point that Deafheaven was a metal band, then you would do well to listen to this song and discover they are.
There is something uniquely American about this experience on this album. It is equal parts self-absorbed and selfless. Its subtlety is found in its screaming, thrashing moments, rather than its quiet. Its assault, being the moments, where the music is at its most vulnerable, provide an insight deeper than just one person’s pain. It is the inhabitation of space among those of material and emotional wealth in a beautiful place where one makes up member of the hinterlands of society. Like Alcest brings the listener emotional warmth and landscape’s beauty in their music, Deafheaven brings the quintessentially American landscape of judgment (see “Windows”), emotional stuntedness, and loneliness of this place while packing it in a pretty pastel pink.
“Windows” brings religion to the table in the album, focusing on judgment, hell, and the irony of salvation through death, but combining that with sounds from a street corner and store cashier. “The Pecan Tree” ends the album filled with its greatest intensity. It is where the singer questions, like his absent father, if he will be able to love and be able to feel connected. Its transition from metal is into a tempered percussion driven focus.
Sunbather’s accomplishment here is that they are to me the first American Black Metal band to fully incorporate shoegaze elements into their sounds to produce a sweeping, epically composed and beautiful place. It feels entirely American in its theme and its moods, standing directly next to Alcest as the world’s best at this style. Originally, I did not care for this album, having listened to it over speaker instead of headphones. The headphones brought their goals out and demonstrated that I was wrong. It is inherently a solitary space this band inhabits.