Sunbather, the 2013 album by the then Bay Area (now Los Angeles) “metalgaze” outfit Deafheaven, was, and arguably still is, dangerously close to merchandising itself into self-parody. The record’s sleeve art (designed by Nick Steinhardt) is indeed a beautiful thing. Its unmistakable color scheme is meant to mimic the color of a person’s eyelids when she looks at the sun with her eyes closed; here Sunbather is a rare instance of the total unity of album art, lyrical matter, and musical composition. Black-gloved frontman George Clarke screams the angst that underlies the seemingly sunny environs of the wealth-encrusted California Bay Area. Guitarist Kerry McCoy alternates between black metal tremolo picking and echoey open chords that evoke ’90s shoegaze far more than anything from the metal corpus. Although much of Sunbather‘s surface evokes light-drenched images, its dramatic crescendos and Clarke’s harsh vocals constantly bring that light and brooding darkness into battle.
Though it may be easy to get drunk on the critical Kool-Aid surrounding Sunbather (see Metacritic’s gathering of the LP’s accolades), it’s impossible to deny that its omnipresence in 2013 got out of hand. By the time the Sunbather‘s cover became manifest in an $85 USD woven blanket (not long after getting featured in an Apple keynote), one had to wonder how much of the album’s acclaim had to do with the music itself rather than a savvy promotional campaign. As good as the music is, the #brand of it all is a bit overwhelming, even now.
Moreover, while Sunbather is a brilliant piece of work, it’s far from the genre-shattering feat that many critics made it out to be. The true masterwork of metal/shoegaze fusion happened well before Deafheaven made it big: Alcest’s 2007 outing Souvenirs d’un autre monde. (Both groups have toured with each other in the past.) Unlike Deafheaven, Alcest employ the use of clean vocals, and the metallic moments are far less pronounced than they are on Sunbather and on its predecessor, Roads to Judah (2011). It can be said that the music Deafheaven makes is the alternate path on the fork in the road that Alcest dealt with prior to 2014’s Shelter, in which they abandon any metal stylistics in their music, opting for shoegaze that ought make them 4AD signees. Rather than heading toward the sun-kissed sounds of textured guitars and ethereal vocals like their French forebears, Deafheaven hold on to metal technique with Sunbather, even as they keep most tunes in major keys.
With New Bermuda, their followup to Sunbather, Deafheaven push even further into the metal’s malevolent landscape. Dissonant chords (“Brought to the Water”) prove a robust counterpoint to the more indie rock-driven numbers (“Baby Blue,” “Gifts for the Earth”). Galloping palm-muted chord progressions, especially the one that opens “Luna,” recall the technique of classic heavy metal bands like Slayer, and even New Wave of British Heavy Metal-influenced contemporaries of Deafheaven like Dawnbringer. Whereas Clarke poetically describes the bleak reality of middle-class wealth on Sunbather, here he describes it in more potent language, as on “Luna”: “Sitting quietly in scorching reimagined suburbia.” Even when New Bermuda is at its lightest musically speaking, such as the Britpop-influenced “Gifts for the Earth,” darkness is still at the fore, with Clarke bellowing, “Her glowing hands cradled at my head and knees submerging me into waves of icy seas / I imagine the end.” No longer bathing in the sun, Deafheaven give their dramatic style a new direction on New Bermuda, elevating the inherent darkness that has always been a key feature of their music, particularly in the melancholy hues of Roads to Judah (which get a nice shout-out on the lonely opening notes of the Godspeed You! Black Emperor-esque “Come Back”).
This simple yet smart move is what makes New Bermuda anything but a slump after a masterpiece. Expectations for Deafheaven were no doubt comically exaggerated following Sunbather, but New Bermuda doesn’t sound like the work of a band bent on repeating its past, nor does it show evidence that these guys are struggling under the weight of their still-young yet surprisingly established legacy. Even in places where moves from the past are repeated — the wistful piano coda to “Brought to the Water” instantly brings to mind the instrumental “Irresistible” from Sunbather — the group never comes off as complacent or insecure. New Bermuda is a natural progression that still retains the most successful aspects of Sunbather.
This sonic progression isn’t without its wrinkles, however. “Brought to the Water”‘s piano outro is lovely, but the decision to segue into it through the usage of a fade-out is regrettable, a point previously made evident by the outro to Sunbather‘s “The Pecan Tree.” Clarke’s harsh vocals normally fare well against McCoy’s layered guitar tracks, even when the music is in a bright key signature, but on “Gifts for the Earth” the soft/rough contrast hits a bump in the road. Drawing both from Oasis (per McCoy’s own description) and ’00s indie rock, “Gifts for the Earth” is a case where the intensity of the vocals creates an awkward rather than a moving aesthetic juxtaposition. On Sunbather Clarke and McCoy’s interplay works because the guitars are charged with enough energy to meet the piercing vocals; on “Gifts for the Earth,” the comparatively relaxed guitars prove an ineffective foil for the screeches.
As a whole, New Bermuda is compelling, certainly enough to stand alone as a distinct work in Deafheaven’s discography. Any band would be lucky to follow up a major public appreciation in this way. Nonetheless, for all its steps forward, New Bermuda does show that the Deafheaven sound, whatever it might be at its core, is still a work in progress — albeit a damn promising one.