2 out of 5
Produced by: Jack Shirley
Sometimes, music just rubs us the wrong way.
I understand why Deafheaven’s Sunbather was acclaimed – which it was, pretty much universally – just as I understand how and why people go gaga over certain bands and releases with which I just cannot vibe. To be fair, I wasn’t aware of the glowing reception of this album when I put it on, but I suspected: kids love their epic genre mashups, and the group’s floating between shoegaze and death metal, stitched together with field recordings and ethereal instrumentals is the kind of attention grabbing work that’s, like, the Oscar bait of the music scene.
Which sounds dismissive, and it is, and I guess that’s the problem I had with it: that individual elements work really well, but not so much when put together. So the dismissiveness is in reaction to what feels like a group adoring several genres and wanting them all, goddammit, song-ness be damned; Sunbather’s floats between epic seeming sections, but none of them are served their due, really, just co-opting the excessive song length of post-rockers and the reverbed production of death metal.
When the songs with singing kick off, I feel differently: the group operates in a hardcore post-metal mode, and producer Jack Shirley’s flat style washes it all into that shoegaze wall-of-sound the group is clearly aiming for, and I’m down. George Clarke’s poetic lyrics are quite affecting, with some brutal imagery. (This does remain true throughout.) And then they start to bring in the pretty bits, watering down the heft with Red Sparowes-glitter; it’s fine, but feels unnecessary – again, like the group just likes that sound and wants to add it in – and the momentum hiccups. And then it’s the death metal thrash. And then the song pauses for a quiet bit, and then they do it all again, over the course of ten minutes or so. I find I’ve never quite recovered from the momentum loss of that initial hiccup – although I can appreciate each “section” – and that aforementioned aural flatness prevents any given song from actually building up to anything, despite it’s “epic” presentation and pauses and whatnot. The instrumental interludes further drive the mish-mash sensibilities home: affectations, not adding anything except for more runtime to the disc; epilogues to tracks that are long by design, but don’t feel justified in being so.
The 2010s of metal are maybe just not for me. A lot of renowned acts have taken this route, of blending their heft with more “mature” sounds, and in almost every case, I end up feeling the same: like it’s a cool idea, but it’s just two pieces jammed together. Sometimes that lends itself to disappointment, but acknowledgement of “what could be;” with Sunbather, the bloat of the album actually frustrated me – as any given track ticked past 6 minutes of doing the same few things, I couldn’t grasp what was gained by the album’s construction as such.