Depending on how you feel about it, Sunbather is one of two things – either the hated Year Zero for “hipster black metal”, or a bold new frontier in the genre. Surely, few black metal albums can have generated such strong reactions of either adoration or visceral, blood-spitting hate. So much about Sunbather is seemingly designed to provoke ire from the black metal faithful who had maybe a passing familiarity with Deafheaven from debut Roads To Judah. No stage names. No long hair. No corpsepaint. The album title – what kind of black metal album cares about the sun? What kind of black metal album has a fucking pink cover designed by a guy from an emo band?
The answer is, one that doesn’t care at all if you consider it black metal or not. Musically, it pulls from so many other places – chiefly shoegaze – that it could legitimately be considered “blackgaze” rather than “black metal” – distinct, but related. Despite the heavy use of blastbeats and tremolo-picked leads, not to mention the uniformly shrieked vocals, Sunbather took black metal into new directions. Sure, they had been hinted at – not only on Roads To Judah, but also by Alcest and Bosse-de-Nage, or even the intentional (if hamfisted) challenges to genre posed by Liturgy – but Sunbather is where everything coalesced. The songwriting of Deafheaven has never been stronger than here, their sense of build-and-release, a mastery of dynamics and emotional storytelling, all hitting their absolute peak.
Because, if there’s one thing that really separates blackgaze from black metal, and Sunbather from pretty much all other similar records released this decade, it’s that emotional edge. You can argue for the dreamlands of Alcest, or the more visceral intensity of Bosse-de-Nage, but Sunbather is one prolonged emotional ride. It’s impossible to imagine a “typical” black metal band even considering writing a section as emotionally loaded as the closing moments of opener ‘Dream House’, which delivers so many feather-soft yet crushing blows with an absolute economy of writing.
Of course, black metal has had an emotional undercurrent since the second wave, with depression and misery always lurking just underneath the surface of the genre (if not coming to the fore, as in DSBM). Yet what makes Sunbather so important, so different, is that it is the sound of a band writing black metal and trying to find the good things in life again. Compare it to DSBM, a genre populated by bands who seemingly revel in their misery, often to an extent that becomes a parody. And yet here are Deafheaven, trying to push through their ideations of death (‘Dream House’), their addictions (the field recording sample in ‘Windows’ of guitarist Kerry McCoy buying drugs), and their inherited familial burdens (the closing lines of final track ‘The Pecan Tree’ – “I am my father’s son / I am no one / I cannot love / It’s in my blood”).
And this is why Sunbather met with such love and hate in equal measure. It is a black metal album that inverts many of the thematic tropes of the genre. It is musically harsh in large part but laced with a pop sensibility. It hurts but wants the listener to feel better. Time and a legion of imitators have done nothing to diminish its brilliance, and there is no doubt to this writer that Sunbather is the album of the decade.