Deafheaven | Sunbather | | 2013
“The abundance of things, even if they are great, makes it so that they are not appreciated; scarcity, albeit of bad things, in some way invites appreciation.”
– Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, 1605/1615.
An apology by Degtyarov
Over the past few months, train stations and other public places in my country have been adorned with advertising posters for the Remonstrant church. The Remonstrants split off from the larger movement of Calvinism many centuries ago, and today they preach the kind of Protestantism that focuses primarily on evangelicising peace, love and tolerance: not wholly coincidentally the same three pillars of faith that define 21st-century secularism. The slogans the Remonstrants hope will motivate more souls to subscribe to their fringe faith testify of this ’60s-flavoured path to salvation, especially when juxtaposed against the chronically stuck-up Calvinists, who observe a strict ‘no mosh, no fun, no hope’ policy when it comes to serving Our Dear Lord. “My God also accepts gays”, exclaims one Remonstrant poster; “My God wants me to think for myself”, boldly poses the next; “My God does not have dogmas”, we are assured by yet another placard. Satisfactory as these confessional proclamations may be to the more liberal-minded reader on a political level… why exactly would their worldview be in need of divine authentication?
Although I am not a man of faith myself, I resent the ‘religion is the source of all wars’ twaddle spewed by historically and culturally oblivious atheist know-it-alls. I am well aware that Christianity has its allure, and based on that, I am able to provide feedback as to how well different conversion attempts succeed in causing me to feel more ardour for the teachings of Christ. Christianity trumps a purely secular worldview with its notion of an orderly, inherently just universe contra the chaotic, arbitrary cosmic soup that is served to us cold by atheism. Another appealing aspect of Christianity is the prerequisite of unconditional dedication. While the ‘instant access’ generation will be hard-pressed to wrap its head around the notion of giving up on certain hedonistic habits and investing time in something that may not necessarily wield a large amount of worldly rewards, I find it corresponds well with the endearing concept of perpetual self-improvement for the greater good. Such dedication is worth nothing, however, when there are no rules to abide to, no standard to uphold and no temptations to resist. The cliché dictates that there can be no good without evil, and it is the eternal struggle between the two that makes Biblical narrations so fascinating. So the last thing I need is some square-chinned 7th Heaven reject who overdosed on tooth bleach telling me that there is only good in this world because Jesus lives in his tummy and it tingles. When some peripherical Protestant schism hollows out its own belief system and tries to be all ‘down with the crowd, yo’ by luring me in with – oh the irony – variations of the Mephistophelean motto of “do what thou wilt”, it has quite the opposite effect.
“My Black Metal is inoffensive”
It is peculiar how watering down a great but maybe not too popular idea to cater to our zany Zeitgeist is usually accompanied by such a misplaced air of youth and freshness. Although it should come as no surprise to those who keenly spotted the glaring ‘allegory ends here’ sign at the start of this paragraph, this is the exact thought that dawned on me when I listened to what appears to be the biggest sensation in the so-called post-black metal, Deafheaven. Their 2013 album Sunbather was met with roaring laudations by the much-esteemed metal press. In spite of these accolades, Deafheaven‘s second full-length proved immediately controversial. It is easy to see why. In my end-of-year round-up, I summarised the achievements of the post-BM movement, of which this band is a textbook example, as having removed all potentially antagonistic parts from black metal until only the fluffy bits remain. The paradox here resides in the fact that Sunbather sparked outrage exactly because it is so nauseatingly inoffensive.
Of course, the ‘it’s not black metal’ angle of criticism is a minefield because trying to properly define what the genre is about is difficult enough, not to mention that the quality of music naturally does not depend on whether or not it falls into a specific genre. Even so, comprehending what Deafheaven‘s music encompasses and simply seeing it for what it is helps understand that media who embraced Sunbather as a taboo-shattering leap forward for the supposedly obstinate black metal genre bit off more than they could chew. The reader should understand that the long-winded epistle that constitutes the first few paragraphs of this article was not included to increase the word count, an understandable assessment though it may be. Where Remonstrants strip down their ideology to a point where you can only wonder why they still include God in the equation, Deafheaven waters down black metal to an extent where it is unclear why it still attempts to invoke said genre. The band’s overbearing major scale riffing towards no climatic end rather lands Sunbather in the territory of screamo stretched out with some of post-rock’s less charming characteristics. Look past the pretensions of poetic profundity and what remains is a sugar-coated aesthetic that is woefully one-dimensional on an emotional level. Particularly this last fact spells danger for the appeal of its black metal traits, for that genre, too, is an entity whose attraction relies on conflicting emotions; the constant clash between ugliest dirt and purest beauty. It is this endless contest that forms the anchor of the genre’s charisma.
What Deafheaven and its disciples do is bereaving black metal of its filth until only beauty remains. Beauty is good, so why not have lots of it? Well, because it becomes boring. Holidays are fun because you have to work your ass off all year to earn them. The pride you feel as a kid when you get an A on your test fades as soon as you realise all of your classmates got exactly the same score. When you give a dog treats even if it does something wrong it will become spoiled, lazy and disinterested. In the same way, my teenage enthusiasm for bands such as Alcest waned to a point where I am just utterly tired of hearing this type of music for even a second. Contrast is as vital to the pacing of black metal as it is to life itself. Therefore, one of the most apt descriptions of post-black metal I have seen (its source eludes me) is that of survey-based black metal. Ask listeners which parts of black metal they love most and form a band based on that information. It may appear a statistical, rational way of going about things, but music simply has too much je-ne-sais-quoi to rely on stats-based calculations of its appeal. I’d much rather have my diamonds in the rough, thank you very much.
Sunbather, too, may appear to harbour profound emotions beneath its sticky crust, but in reality it has the depth of an Acme Instant Tunnel, which looks great in the few seconds before you realise it’s just a painting on a rock. There are many influences at play, leading many reviewers to proclaim that Deafheaven are the proponents of this new, enlightened ‘freestyle’ movement in extreme music that staunchly refuses to abide to the antiquated standards of any particular genre. Unfortunately, these influences are thrown into a blander (sorry) and come out completely nerfed, lacking the impact of their original state. Sure, this idea of transcending genres to liberate yourself from their respective conventions is attractive, but it does not quite work when the listener is better off listening to bands who properly execute one of the genres you are invoking. For instance, the old Slavic black metal that was largely responsible for infusing the genre with its meandering, atmosphere-oriented tendencies is considerably more enticing than the lukewarm leftovers that their more mellowed-out American inheritors bring to the table. Where work by acts such as Veles or Nokturnal Mortum takes many sessions to unravel, Sunbather can be fully understood after a single playthrough. Due to Deafheaven‘s removal of the inherent paradoxes that make this impossible genre possible, the music ceases to pose a challenge and becomes the aural equivalent of a video game played on easy setting. There is no internal struggle that allows us to increase our understanding of the composition.  In this sense, most post-black metal or ‘blackgaze’ or whatever fancy term was dreamt up for it this week still fails to hold a candle to the work that inspired the entire movement, Alcest‘s Le secret, which painted its sound with a broad palette of emotions instead of relying exclusively on the inexpensive one-size-fits-all sentiment of angsty trustfund melancholia that threads throughout all too many post-black metal releases and subsequently betrays the movement’s firm 1990s screamo roots. As far as black metal is concerned, Marinetti’s proclamation in the Futurist Manifesto rings true: “No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece.” 
“I’ll show that damn black metal purist”
There are legitimate reasons why those who hold black metal dear should look at Deafheaven with a sense of suspicion. Albums like Sunbather embody an artistic dead end for the genre. Much like the secularisation-appeasing Christians who are one step away from denouncing God, everything about Sunbather tells you the band is on the brink of putting the last nail in the coffin as it ‘moves on’ and drops the black metal façade so it can entangle itself further in speerheading its own loosely defined mish-mash; scene instigators Alcest already did that a long time ago in their own flowery way. This should not be taken as an attack on the band for refusing to play old-school, Darkclone black metal. Rather, it is a counterpoint to the implication that this music is revolutionary or in any way capable of pushing forward any of the genres it is inspired by. Save for a few exceptions, such as the brilliant Sivyj Yar, post-black metal is an ourobouros of artistic poverty; it is unable to break out of the circle of its evolution, so instead it starts munching on its own tail with the only possible outcome being that of eventually consuming itself.
The very reason I decided to write an article that I would not think of publishing under normal circumstances (lest these words spark yet another tired debate about elitism and purism) is that, especially across the Atlantic, rejection of post-BM as black metal’s next frontier will immediately trigger responses that frame criticism associated with said stance as conservatism, closed-mindedness or zealous rigidness about the supposedly out-dated notion of authenticity in (black) metal. The problem with this pedant-driven polemic is that authenticity is commonly treated as a synonym for dead seriousness. The mere pronunciation of the word often incites mockery and sideways insults containing tired ironic mechanisms such as the words ‘trve’ and ‘kvlt’, of course delivered with the same ill-deserved air of novelty that permeates descriptions of the music at hand. It must be understood that talk of authenticity is not necessarily connected to a priori fear & loathing of anything that may diversify or otherwise alter the familiar. Everyone has a certain motivation for being into a particular kind of music; something that keeps drawing us to artists of similar ilk. So when a band stumbles along and delivers music that may well be similar in form to black metal, but lacks this spark of life that makes the genre so attractive in the first place, it is only logical that aficionados will reject such a half-hearted attempt to get their support. The criticism that lies underneath said rejection holds no relation to conservatism because, contrary to the persistent implication that the music is too progressive for us boneheads to grasp, the resentment is a mere reaction against the misapprehension that selectively shopping for black metal tropes makes for a novel approach. Similarly, Sunbather‘s employment of a lyrical theme that is not commonly identified with the genre (lost love) does not somehow make the excruciatingly bad poetry featured on this album any more bearable.  So yes, it contradicts what we are used to and in that sense it is novel, perhaps even ‘radical’, but ultimately its originality is of a similar category as serving fries and steak without the steak.
Something can be gimmicky, goofy or cheesy and still be authentic as long as it does not pretend to be more than it really is. Contrary to popular belief, being authentic equals not taking yourself too seriously; it is about remaining true to yourself and keeping in memory that, at the end of the day, you go to the shitter like all the other human beings. Urfaust is the most authentic black metal band of Holland, yet beside the fact that their approach to the genre is anything but conservative, they would also be the worst target imaginable for accusations of humorless pretence. It is only when bands themselves, or worse, their fans start claiming the wheel has just been reinvented that credibility is lost and messianic pretence firmly drives the music in question into the realm of the unauthentic.
While Deafheaven is not quite into the whole manifesto-writing scene, unlike for example the insufferable blowhards of Liturgy, there is a logic to their work being shunned by such a large part of the black metal audience; one that reaches beyond the usual claim that some of us just cannot cope with the genre evolving. Even if there will always be people who conform to the stereotype and reject this band because they are exactly the kind of arms-crossed, no-fun puritans that we all love taking potshots at, allegations that criticism of the band is entirely rooted in this virulent aversion to change fall flat once you realise there are so many more innovative, divisive, taboo-breaking black metal artists out there who miraculously avoid having to deal with the strong backlash that the whole post-black metal movement has been suffering over the past years. The moral of the story is that half-assing a few things at the same time does not constitute a creative breakthrough. Deafheaven and its consorts produce black-of-all-trades, but emerge as masters of precisely none. They merely adjust black metal so that it may become more streamlined and clean, but in doing so they sacrifice the spirit of filth that provides the genre with its rotten appeal. They are the Remonstrants of black metal, and any attempt to convert me will prove futile.
But hey, it’s just my opinion bro.
1. Dream House (9:14)
2. (Ir)resistible (3:13)
3. Sunbather (9:16)
4. Please Remember (6:26)
5. Vertigo (14:27)
6. Windows (4:42)
7. The Pecan Tree (11:26)
 A good example of a black metal band doing this successfully is Nokturnal Mortum on its album Voice of Steel. Read Maximus’s review on it for a better explanation.
 Source: http://www.italianfuturism.org/manifestos/foundingmanifesto/
 It honestly surprised me to see supposedly reputable music websites praising the lyrics. As the author of this excellent review of Sunbather put it, “if I was to ever have written that I “cried against an ocean of light” in one of [my poems], I would burn the page then track down and formally apologize to the girl I wrote it for.” q.e.d.
Credit where it’s due: the ‘Jesus is in my tummy and it tingles’ comment is a reference to comedian Hans Sibbel’s show Het kwaad (Evil) from 2004.
The primordial critic – On the nature of our criticism
Steel voice, white tower – A review of Nokturnal Mortum‘s Voice of steel
Taigafolk – A review of the Russian folk split Spletenye, which looks deeper into the appeal of black metal and folk