Deafheaven, ‘Sunbather’ – Album Review
Deafheaven’s second full-length LP, ‘Sunbather,’ is not for everyone. But what is? There are piercing screams that are often unintelligible, blast-beats that are driven from an unimaginable energetic core that non-drummers can’t fathom and pedal-to-the-floor tremolo picking that’s as jagged as it is sharp. If you’ve read an interview with frontman George Clark, you’ve probably seen him describe Deafheaven as “extreme music,” and he’s not lying.
But the elements that instantly alienate some potential listeners are just a small piece of ‘Sunbather.’ (And anyone scared off by a genre name wouldn’t be into Deafheaven anyway.) With this new album, the San Francisco group has managed to take the abrasive and make it beautiful, pair aggression with its complimentary peace and synthesizing the musical interests from two young men with great taste.
‘Dream House,’ the album’s opening emotional trek, doesn’t immediately show its hand, but it lets the dramatic chord changes and escalating momentum occur naturally, never giving the audience reason to suspect that Deafheaven has an agenda. About six minutes in, the music quiets and returns in half-time. A breakdown of sorts, the passage finds Clarke screaming his face off, while his writing partner, guitarist Kerry McCoy, goes from dramatic, enveloping strums to single notes that sound — unintentionally, surely — similar to the ‘Top Gun’ instrumental theme. And while the comparison may seem silly, that kind of grande, uninhibited, sky-is-the-limit movie-music making is partly what ‘Sunbather’ achieves.
The thing is, Deafheaven are more than flashy chops and huge peaks. Lyrically, Clarke is a poet. His words, though difficult to make out when he’s shrieking like an angel being dragged to hell, are the thoughts of an introspective, intelligent writer, using his family history, his life in San Francisco and an overarching theme of escapism to come to terms with life’s unsettling truths. On ‘Dream House,’ he ends with “I want to dream,” and by the time the album concludes with ‘The Pecan Tree,’ on which he describes his father “laid drunk on the concrete on the day of your birth in celebration of all you were worth,” the “you” escaping to an alternate reality is valid and relatable.
‘Sunbather’ is paced brilliantly, with four primary movements and three separating tracks. Every sound feels deliberate, right down the the percussion, where Daniel Tracy shows not only the ability for speed and power, but an understanding in how to make the slower parts stand out, most notably in the beautiful and sprawling opening to ‘Vertigo.’ Even the songs that might be written off as filler work to a purpose, from the unsettling lead-in to closer ‘Windows’ to the acoustic peace found at the end of ‘Please Remember.’
Deafheaven are just two albums into their career and now already have a masterpiece. It’s not a masterpiece in terms of whatever genre you assign them, but ‘Sunbather’ is a masterpiece of music period, one that deserves investigation into what Clarke and McCoy are attempting, and one that displays colossal achievements in terms of creativity, chops and depth.