Deafheaven – Sunbather

Always and Forever
The Making of Deafheaven’s Sunbather

In an interview with PopMatters published a few days before Sunbather’s release, vocalist George Clarke remarked, “I think it’s all-encompassing; it’s both our darkest and our lightest work.” Subsequent Deafheaven albums have pushed into even further extremes of gloominess and ebullience, but Sunbather is where the band’s vision for tension and release truly began to coalesce. The impact of Deafheaven’s landmark second full-length continues to reverberate in the band’s newer compositions, as well as the group’s own approach to composing set lists, where songs like “Dream House” have been entrenched as live staples for a decade.

Sunbather also remains the defining moment for the genre of “blackgaze,” so-called for its 50/50 split between atmospheric black metal and 1990s shoegaze. Clarke, guitarist Kerry McCoy and drummer Daniel Tracy all point to Alcest’s earlier albums as a kind of blueprint for Sunbather, a connection that is reinforced by Stéphane “Neige” Paut’s appearance on the interlude “Please Remember,” reading a passage from Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The album is much more than a fusion of already-mutated third-wave black metal and Slowdive, though. You don’t have to squint hard to discern the influence of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, screamo bands like Envy, Surfer Rosa-era Pixies or even “Zombie” by the Cranberries, which McCoy pays homage to in the back half of the album’s epic closer “The Pecan Tree.”

If it weren’t for Clarke’s lacerating vocals, you probably wouldn’t get a sense that you were listening to a black metal-influenced album until about halfway through Sunbather’s title track, when Tracy’s blast beats reach a fever pitch and then break. The whole album is designed to support the listener’s journey with shorter interludes between songs and plenty of space within the songs themselves. The album’s pink album art is also meant as a gesture of inclusion, not only for the LGBTQIA+ community, but for anyone who has ever felt like an outsider. Sunbather’s design is so iconic that the band even had it printed on blankets, so some lucky fans could feel the album’s warm embrace on the chilliest of nights.

Part of the reason Sunbather is the definitive Deafheaven release—and why it felt so important at the time—is because it speaks volumes about being young and inexperienced, awash in potential, but also prone to acts of self-sabotage. It’s no coincidence that Clarke’s lyrics for three of the four longer songs on Sunbather specifically call out “dreams,” while the third—the title track—unfolds like an out-of-body experience. Just a few years into their career, Deafheaven were already grappling with big questions on a metaphysical level. Sunbather is both a personal and artistic triumph, transforming fear, shame and guilt into a lesson in vulnerability worthy of the Decibel Hall of Fame. Is it blissful? It’s like a dream.

Need more classic Deafheaven? To read the entire seven-page story, featuring interviews with the members who performed on Sunbather, purchase the print issue from our store, or digitally via our app for iPhone/iPad or Android.