Deafheaven have won. It's been three criticism-filled years since they first emerged - back then, certain people were shocked that they dared to call themselves a black metal band. You can at least see where they were coming from; by the time the five-piece arrived at debut album Roads to Judah, their material bore as much of a post-rock influence as it held true to their black metal origins. The album dealt with George Clarke's earlier substance abuse and debauchery, conceived as a lo-fi document of his struggles. Fast forward little more than two years, and things have changed once again in camp Deafheaven. The band is now a quartet, consisting of Clarke, Kerry McCoy, Derek Prine and Daniel Tracy. Sunbather is bright, bold and daring - and that's just its artwork, designed by Touché Amoré guitarist Nick Steinhardt, its eye-catching pink and striking lettering signalling a shift away from the more elaborate art style of old. As for the music, the atmospheric metal of old as been replaced by an aesthetic that is a bridge between the worlds of shoegaze and post-rock. It also makes use of the contrast between the states of euphoria and despair. As musically uplifting as it can be, its concept once again comes from a deeply personal place.
The album title is meant to represent "a wealthy, beautiful, perfect existence that is naturally unattainable and the struggles of having to deal with that reality." This quest for perfection has yielded the most emotive and powerful music Deafheaven have yet written. Their sound is much more expansive than before, and even more varied. From the opening notes of 'Dream House'. everything sounds bigger. New drummer Daniel Tracy adds a whole lot of depth to their sound with his drumming style; rather than provide more of the near-constant, aggressive blast beats that characterised former drummer Trevor Deschryver's work with the band, his style is a lot more experimental, and his performance on Sunbather's near-15-minute centrepiece 'Vertigo' - an ambitious song even by this album's standards - is nothing short of magnificent. Clarke's screams are used as another element in the full-on sound of the new material; he sounds like he's poured everything he has to give into every syllable, abandoning himself to the music in the process. If it sounds intense, it's because it is, but Sunbather is saved from becoming too overpowering by a well-structured flow, with its four main songs broken up by instrumental pieces.
'Irresistible' is the most easy-going track on the album, crystalline guitar melodies allowed to take centre stage without being swathed in noise and highlighting how melodically rich the new material is. 'Please Remember', meanwhile, sounds like a Godspeed You! Black Emperor vignette stretched out for 6-and-a-half captivating minutes, its pitch-warped guitar line eventually being overcome by fuzz and static before transitioning into an acoustic guiat coda in a way that seems completely natural. The longer songs on Sunbather are multi-part epics - with the title track, in particular, ending up in a completely different place from which it begins - and even the so-called interlude tracks are taut and focused. Penultimate track 'Windows' samples a crazed, fire-and-brimstone street preacher, setting him against the most downbeat musical offering on the record, and offering a clear glimpse into the darkness which lies at the album's core. Despite this, however, Sunbather is still responsible for some seriously life-affirming moments, with the outro riff on closing track 'The Pecan Tree' ensuring that the album fades away on a high. Its celebratory feel makes certain that, as well as being an ecstatic 'fuck you' to their detractors, it's also one of the most thrilling records you'll hear from any genre this year.