With an artfully arranged title – Sunbather – splayed across a sunkissed gradient ranging from salmon to pink lemonade, you'd be forgiven for Deafheaven had jumped labels to chillwave stronghold Mexican Summer. Track titles like "Dream House", "Irresistible" and "Please Remember" don't exactly scream metal either, so what gives exactly?
One of the big buzz bands two years ago at SXSW was this brand spanking new post-black act from San Francisco called Deafheaven. Their debut album wasn't out yet – I'm sure it had been leaked by that point – but they were getting Profound Lore levels of hype despite being signed to the lesser known Deathwish Inc., a label run by Converge's Jacob Bannon which had released a two song single a couple of months prior. Profound Lore obviously realized they'd been scooped, though, as they recruited the band to play their Brooklyn Vegan-backed gig at Lovejoy's (arguably the most talked about metal gig at the entire festival that year).
Roads to Judah was immediately embraced as a new breakthrough in this micro-genre that had come to be dubbed "blackgaze". They then embarked on a massive touring binge which essentially left the band off the grid except for that brief week when they happened to stroll through your town.
So it's been a quiet couple of years on the Deafheaven front, a period which has found the band on the cusp of an epic reinvention. Those who found the shoegaze analogies overstated in discussion of the first album will have a hard time dismissing their existence this time around; indeed, the band's primary innovation here is not in merely adopting the fuzzy My Bloody Valentine template in the first place – far from anything new, blackgaze is almost becoming a shopworn cliche by now – but in digging the sound out of the swamp-like mire and brightening it up with summery post-rock chords and a more hopeful-sounding emotional template.
The mark of Liturgy's Aesthetica is felt here in abundance… no, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix's singular style of sawtooth guitar playing is nowhere to be found here, but the extroverted outpouring of emotion on both albums is willfully at odds with the introverted, self-punishing ethos of nearly all post-black metal out there.
The tendency, then, would be to dub Sunbather another polarizing masterpiece, but in their rush to break new ground Deafheaven have allowed for a fair amount of bloat: "Windows" is pure ambient filler, replete with hackneyed found sound conversation embedded for texture, and "Please Remember" is a strange yet ultimately ineffective building track that sets up a sense of noise rock menace only to capitulate to a rustic acoustic dirge that goes nowhere… it feels like two unrelated tracks stitched together, the first a kernel of a good idea that the band just didn't bother to finish, the second an uninspired ode to latter period Earth.
When it's on, though, Sunbather is something to behold, and with the average vocal track averaging well over 10 minutes in length, the majority of the album's running time is well spent. As with Aesthetica, not everyone will be on board – it definitely helps if you're into either the non-metallic strand of post-rock and/or shoegaze in it's original guise as narcotic dream pop – but of such divisions are masterpieces forged.