There’s always something of a complication in reviewing an album like this, because while you might want to simply argue its value as a work of art, it also feels completely necessary to appraise it contextually. In other words, before you decide whether or not it’s actually any good, you have to address that age-old is it/isn’t it (black) metal conundrum.
Why? Because people are already claiming this to be this year’s best black metal album (no really, have a look online). And it’s not. Because it’s not black metal, and that’s not some reactionary comment on Deafheaven’s lack of spikes and corpsepaint, or the pinkish cover design, or the band’s hipster credentials, it’s simply a rational observation based on the music.
Because even the blackest passages – the Burzum-esque screams and occasional walls of blasting percussion and distorted guitar – are painting from a very different emotional palette than that of black metal – and that’s fine. It doesn’t have to be black metal in order to be relevant. Indeed, to label it as such might even be doing Sunbather a disservice, because the album is in fact a pretty unique proposition: a clear evolution from the band’s earlier – and not unsuccessful – attempts to weld together black metal and post-rock, it represents a more harmonious blend of influences, the end result being a moving opus that doesn’t need to be crowbarred into an already-established genre to make anyone feel more edgy about what they’re listening to.
Instead it recalls the likes of France’s Amesoeurs and Alcest, and perhaps Altar Of Plagues in its skilled use of traditional extreme metal traits (amongst other things) and its redirecting of these into a new emotional direction, the overwhelmingly cinematic swells recalling everything from The Cure to Mogwai to Russian Circles. Lyrically too, Sunbather is a deeply personal work, drawing upon some remarkably raw self assessments and memories, a brave approach that only accentuates the moving qualities of this musical rollercoaster. A superb and moving collection of tracks, pure and simple.