Deafheaven – ‘Sunbather’: Round 64 – Rob’s choice

Deafheaven - SunbatherWe’ve talked about black metal before, haven’t we? Let’s recap. I’m attracted to the sound like a moth to a cold flame. I’m repelled by the cod-Lovecraft imagery and look-at-me-being-icky-and-dicky lyrics and artwork. Not, let us be clear, because they strike a chilling blow to the very heart of what it is to be human in an inhospitable universe, but because they are very silly.

But there’s another way. There are a number of bands out there making interesting, creative black metal as open and exploratory as the best post-rock, as bracing as a hydrofluoric acid power shower and, crucially, laying off the schoolboy horror flick schtick. We say ‘hello’ to An Autumn For Crippled Children, Alcest, Botanist, Locrian and Have A Nice Life. Most prominently over the last 12 months, we have San Francisco’s Deafheaven.

This is a band who sound exactly like what they say they are: a black metal outfit who grew up loving Slowdive. Half their songs could be mistaken for a severely beefed up Cocteau Twins, albeit one where Liz Fraser has a really, really bad case of tonsillitis. In a hurricane.

‘Sunbather’ is their second album, and easily the most prominent cross-over metal record of last year. I’ll be honest, I don’t know a great deal about the ins and outs of the BM scene, but it does seem to have a totally schizophrenic relationship with its artists, one which touches on subcultural xenophobia whenever any of them threaten to escape from the crypt and out into the sunlight or, even worse, to bring outsiders back into the darkness with them. Deafheaven did both last year and, like Liturgy before them, have had to put up with constant examination of their ‘metal’ status as a result. Black Metal: the scene which loves to scream about total physical and spiritual annihilation, but won’t countenance you if you have a pink album cover.

’Sunbather’ is a great rock record. Essentially four long tracks with three, often beautiful, counterpoint  interludes, it has searing guitars, pummelling double-kick drums and yes, a guy screaming his lungs sore, although in this mix the vocals are essentially just another caustic sound to throw into the mix. But within the noise there is light and shade, colour and contrast, motion and intense emotion. Deafheaven aren’t afraid to pause, to gaze at their shoes and take their effects pedals for a couple of laps around the stratosphere. It’s a thrilling and, after a while, an apparently entirely natural combination of influences and they pull it off to epic effect. The album is mesmerising and convulsive whilst remaining reverential and even warm in tone for long stretches. The longer you live with it, the more it starts to become a soaring chamber-noise record, a la Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It’s dynamics are pure Slowdive, its details full of warmth and touch rather than dread.

If Deafheaven are sneered at by the corpsepaint gloom brigade as being ‘hipster metal’ then fine. If that means people will find them and their ilk via Pitchfork and The Quietus then great, because I read those websites and I want to find new, bold music which takes accepted forms and twists them into new shapes. And which rocks. So, I guess I’d nail my flag to the hipster metal mast. That’s because I like a lot of the music that idiots choose to nail that label to and also largely because a fair proportion of the DNA of the rest of black metal is completely stupid.

Nick listened: I strongly suspect that I am absolutely the kind of bearded, glasses-wearing, cycling, real-ale-drinking, boardgame-playing hipster douchebag that fans of ‘real’ ‘metal’ get upset about for liking this record. But I’ve kind of avoided it, partly for that reason, and partly because, despite the embrace of it by said hipster douchebags, there are still a couple of key sonic ingredients to this record (from the tiny snippets I’d heard before last night) that I absolutely cannot stand – firstly, the screaming vocals, and secondly, the ridiculous, relentless, contourless drumming, both of which seem to be absolutely essential to whatever-it-is that defines ‘metal’ (of the modern variety?) from ‘rock’, or whatever. So I’d picked up Sunbather and thought about buying it on numerous occasions, but never gone the whole way to the counter with it, despite the fact that I adore the graphic design (that font; that colouring – it’s meant to be the colour you see when you face the sun with your eyes closed, Rob tells us) and love the look of the physical object that is this album (obviously the CD is better looking than the LP). But I know it’s going to be full of screaming and ridiculous drumming. The question is ‘how much’?

By the end I was quite enjoying Sunbather, despite, rather than regardless or because of, my misgivings. The screaming and drumming still faintly nauseates me, but the vocals are mixed so that they’re not all that prominent, and the drumming isn’t quite constant. The lighter, airier passages that follow the cacophonies felt like beautiful contrasts – somewhere between shoegaze, postrock, and miserable acousticana – because that’s what they were, and the juxtaposition made them shine. I also suspect it made them seem far more phenomenologically beautiful than they actually are; so ugly are some of the other parts that by comparison almost anything else would feel warm and beatific, even if they’re actually just bog-standard postrock reveries and shoegaze plateaus. But that’s the politics of intimate genre familiarity.

I’d definitely like to listen to this a couple more times and ascertain further what I think and feel about it, because I’m totally not sure thus far. But I’m delighted that Rob blasted it at us.

Tom listened: Hmmm…once again Rob has opened the floodgates of debate, both in the real, and virtual, world…simply by bringing an album that straddles some of those genre boundaries we are so keen to erect. I suppose the boundary surrounding metal is a pretty robust one and it has, to my (admittedly scant) knowledge, rarely been breached. So Sunbather got us all talking and, I for one, find the conversation fascinating.

And it got me thinking more about my relationship to the genre than about the music itself. Why can’t I stand metal? And what binds ‘metal’ as a genre. What does this have in common with Def Leppard and what does that have in common with Anthrax and what does that have in common with Sunn o)))? Because they all have something that produces the same response from me and that’s to run away. In his lengthy response to Rob’s post, Chris states that metal has a strict sonic template…well, can you describe it because, whilst I am sure it exists, I can’t put my finger on what it is? That’s why Deafheaven is so interesting – remove the vocals and (to a lesser extent) the drumming and what’s left would be something that I would enjoy hugely. Listening again since Record Club, even the noisier bits remind me of Red House Painters and I could listen to them until the cows come home. So is it really just a screaming vocal that is putting me off or is there something more subtle at work that I haven’t managed to identify? For now I’ll ponder the answer and wait for that nice Mr Kozalek to do his Deafheaven covers album.

Graham listened: Doubt a numpty like me can add anything to the debate that this has inspired. I’m tempted to explore some more ‘metal’ crossover points, just to see where Tom’s fear and loathing begins and ends though. Back to this for a moment. I began enjoying it, then the drumming got on my nerve endings. I didn’t mind the vocals and started enjoying until yet again until the bloody drumming got my back up. I’ve streamed it a few times since DRC and still feel much the same way. I probably want them to explore the guitar sound further and leave the percussion and vocals behind. They surely won’t, so it will remain troubling. ps I’m no ‘hipster’!

Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden: Round 38, Nick’s choice


Tom’s “draw a pair of random years” theme has become a favourite; there’s no squeezing something to fit a theme, no talking your way around it – something was either released in the year you picked, or it wasn’t. I drew 1988 and 1996 this time, and had to choose an album from one and a track from another, and see if I could somehow connect them.

My first instincts for albums from 1996 all proved to be too long – Orbital, DJ Shadow, Underworld, Maxwell – due to the mid-90s fetish for squeezing as much music onto a compact disc as possible, or else had already been played at Devon Record Club – Aphex Twin, Screaming Trees. My first instincts from 1988 suffered the same two fates – Public Enemy too long, My Bloody Valentine played by Tom some months ago. What’s a guy to do?

Choose the dismayingly obvious pick that he’d forgotten about, clearly, that follows on from something played at our last meeting. But it took me asking for recommendations via Twitter for me to be reminded that Spirit of Eden came out in 1988, which seems like an incredible oversight given that, at a push, I’d probably pick it as my favourite record (though I kind of dislike the idea of ‘favourite’ records, in an unequivocal, all-time-number-one way). I have, after all, written reams and reams of fawning, hyperbolic guff about this record, this strange dive headlong into the avant-garde that got Talk Talk dropped and sued by their record label for delivering a willfully uncommercial album (the lawsuit was thrown out, but inspired a clause that became common in major label record deals binding artists to the promise of producing sellable music).

Nearly ten years on from writing the above hagiography, I’m much more pragmatic about Spirit of Eden – yes, I love it, and I like to play it sans distraction, loud, in a dimly lit room, so as to get the full experience, but I’m pragmatic enough to admit that I rarely ever get around to actually engineering that kind of listening experience (once or twice a year if that). I’d also probably hold up Laughing Stock as a stranger, more rewarding, more cathartic record these days, and, conversely, The Colour of Spring as a more frequently-turned-to, easily-consumed album that gets part way at least towards delivering some of the same emotional and aesthetic payoff.

A lot of people talk about how beautiful and sparse Spirit of Eden is, but for me its about the grooves and the noise – the crazy, over-driven harmonica, the heavy blues-y guitar riffs, the thick, liquid pulse of bass and drums. Certainly, some passages are extremely beautiful (the hushed choirs that close I Believe In You), but others – the crazed, thunder and lightning drums of Desire – are incredibly powerful and visceral. I find the whole thing incredibly moving: when Hollis sings “I just can’t bring myself to see it starting” in I Believe In You, I feel like my heart’s going to explode.

Spirit of Eden, as well as being the first “holy grail” of Devon Record Club that we’ve played thus far (that is, a record that we all own), is a fantastic (almost) singular experience, and I love it to bits. But I’m not sure I’m quite as passionate about it as I was a decade ago.

(Oh yeah, for reference, I chose A Survey by Tortoise as my track from 1996. The connection? Both albums have 6 tracks, take liberally from jazz, ambient, and experimental music as well as rock, and, well, Tortoise follow on pretty linearly from Talk Talk’s influence in many ways.)

Rob listened: Well I never. Just a fortnight after hearing the Mark Hollis album for the first time, and finding in it an agreeable contrast with earlier Talk Talk, and mere days after describing ‘Spirit of Eden’ as “the most consistently disappointing record I own” lucky me to get yet another chance to approach its sweeping foothills once again. Lucky, lucky me.

As amusing as I would find it to really stick the boot into ‘Spirit of Eden’ (much as its adherents fawn and weep over it, I bet they use it more to test their hi-fi set-ups), if I’m honest, I can’t. I don’t dislike it. Bits of it are nice. Some bits of it sound lovely. On the whole though, it bores me every time I hear it. And every time I hear it, cold, hollow, I get more irritated by it, moving farther away from its supposed majesty when I’m expected to grow closer. One more listen down, one more step in the opposite direction.

Graham Listened: Like buses, you wait until rounds 37 and 38, then 2 come at once. Nick has already described much of how I feel about this record and done it much better than I ever could. One thing that I’ll never get back though, was the first (virginal?) listen to this record. I came to Talk Talk late in the day, so there was never that rush to get the new album and listen to it until you convinced yourself it was good.  In my little flat in Exeter with my newly purchased “high-end” Goodmans CD player, I played this for the first time and was truly astonished. I went through a period when I would play it only when I could dedicate 100% attention, but following counselling, I am now able to play it as background music on the rare occasion.

Tom Listened: I have always been disappointed by the way I am so easily influenced by the opinions of others. Until Nick brought Spirit of Eden to record club, I have always considered it a near perfect album. However, having heard Rob’s enthusiastic dismissal of Talk Talk’s finest moment at record club made me begin to doubt myself…and I began to hear the record in a different way. Rather than submit to its glorious soundscapes and meticulously constructed songs I caught glimpses of what Rob was hearing. And, for a moment or two, it bothered me. Until the breathtaking Desire confirmed what I had always suspected – in this case he’s just plain wrong!

Spirit – how could I have ever doubted you?