Experience and Exploration - By Volume

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Experience and Exploration

Sometimes there are never enough words. Author: on January 20, 2014
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As music lovers, our endless intake of new music is really the front of a deep-seated desire for new experience, for uncharted feelings to explore in both outlook and introspection. We find thrill in the fulfillment of untapped emotion, in vivid depictions of new ways to exist in this world. That’s what Sunbather provided to us this year, a striking portrayal of life tormented by idealism, gleaming illustrations of human desires – the dream house, the perfect partner – from the eyes of the spectator, hysterical with lust and envy, bound in a mind cage of noxious self-doubt. Deafheaven presented context for black metal that differed from the typical nihilism, instead using its elements to explore the significance of love, yearning, and personal achievement. This approach was matched with remarkable songwriting, music that is both visceral and cinematic, that established Sunbather as one of the most essential releases of the year. It has also been one of the most argued about, with seemingly every listener bringing their genre perspectives and biases to the dispute. Guilty as charged; for that reason, my discussion of Sunbather takes a personal route towards understanding, considering the circumstances in which the record has struck me so immensely.

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Sunbather is the deepest I’ve ever sunk into an album. The life perspective obscured in this music has driven me to months of rumination, yearning to get closer and closer to the torment behind these screams, attempting to understand the incommunicable. Sunbather taps into the essence of private experience, how the workings of our minds can never be fully communicated to others. This truth turns harrowing when the mental space becomes akin to a private hell, one so encasing that existence seems to lie solely within the head’s boundaries. Life is thus experienced from the inside looking out, the eyes a screen from which the world is viewed, a barrier dividing the attractions of society – the social spaces, the beautiful people, the success stories – from the manic, despairing loneliness festering within.

This fearful solipsism is realized through a distinct understanding of how post-rock and black metal can interact. Deafheaven are hardly the first band to combine these two genres – the past decade has seen multiple black metal acts exploring the crescendos of post-rock and injecting light into rooms of pitch-black darkness. The prevailing trend has been to incorporate elements of post-rock as beacons of hope, soaring sweeps and melodies suggesting possible escape from the suffering. This is where Deafheaven deviate in their vision. Their approach is to pit black metal in direct opposition to post-rock, reacting to the fantasies of that genre with searing anguish (“I cried against an ocean of light”). Nowhere is this more forcefully realized than on the opening track of Sunbather. “Dream House” is a revelation.  The fundamental idea here is quite simple: run two opposing streams of feeling – elation through soaring guitar riffs; despair through shrieks and blastbeats – in overlap, aiming for the visceral in the superposition. The result is awe-inspiring, a track that offers a new experience with each playthrough, the ambiguity sending the ego to dizzying realms. Take the climactic finale, where “I’m dying” and “I want to dream” exist as mutual realizations: the latter appears to be hopeful desire, yet living in dreams is the torment of Sunbather – this can be read as a longing to disconnect, to sink into an imaginary world. Iridescent music provides for the most fascinating interpretation.

My reaction to Deafheaven’s sound is so passionate because of the unfulfilled desires I’ve held on to with these genres. Like many music lovers of my generation, I fell in love with post-rock in the 2000s; the indescribable high that a Mogwai or Yndi Halda climax could transfer had me scouring blogs all night, hoping to find any act that could offer the same release. During this phase with post-rock, the one band I could never stand was Explosions in the Sky. Their brand of weeping guitars and overt sentimentalism made me nauseous, and I would have rejected them outright if not for a certain track, the astonishing “Your Hand in Mine.” I was instantly gripped by its tenderness, and it wasn’t long before I viewed it as quintessential post-rock. But as I listened further, strange emotions started welling up inside me. I realized that the perfect serenity of “Your Hand in Mine” wasn’t depicting real life, but an idealized fantasy of it. Where was the fear of losing that hand? Of seeing that hand in his? This feeling of complete peace troubled me, lingered at an impossible distance. I listened to the perfection of the track in reverent awe, but also with a sense of resentment.

Black metal is where I found release for pent-up rage. The hysterical shrieks and the percussive attrition seemed to test the limits of how much agony could be conveyed through music, and I connected with it intensely. Still again, I found myself unsatisfied. The emotions were resonant, but their origin was a realm I could never identify with. Black metal in the traditional sense stems from a cold, hateful outlook on the world. Misanthropy lurks at the core of this perspective, the music created to be reviled and outcast by society. This ideology always kept me at a distance, and that’s likely the case for many listeners that have ventured into black metal. It clashes with the reasons I turned to black metal for catharsis: I wasn’t reacting to the music from a place of cold inhumanity but rather deep sensitivity, yearning for connection with people while rife with self-loathing. I couldn’t find the music that matched the black metal playing through my head.

I can’t say if Sunbather is the music I’ve been searching for; it has become all I hear. The harrowing realization concluding the record, “I cannot love!” is the undisclosed thought festering behind the shrieks that have passed. This is black metal of human situations, the private hells we conceal to maintain our social masks, wishing only to be saved from ourselves. Sunbather offers two interfaces from which to react to this life experience, with the boundary at the person unleashing the screams. The intuitive route is to respond from the outside looking in, interpreting the music at face value and considering the vocals as emotive texture in the sonic portrait. From this vantage, it is unsurprising that many have deemed the record “optimistic” – Deafheaven have created some of the most blissful post-rock of the past few years, and it’s instinctive to be enraptured. The more consuming perspective, however, is to engage with solipsism and experience the aural space as a depiction of the mind. Now the happiness isn’t experienced; it is imagined. The vocals become the silent screams of living in one’s head, the dread of disengaging from the external world. This approach to Sunbather is revealing, as it brings the aesthetic vision and themes to sharp clarity. Yet it doesn’t spell out the full story; that necessitates looking closer at George Clarke’s vocals and the narrative he ingrains into his performance.

The lyrics that accompany Sunbather are hardly necessary for the experience, save for the passages concluding the bookending tracks; they hold the same significance as the words on Jane Doe in that they function as supplemental prose. The true narrative is in Clarke’s self-expression, how his illegible shrieks shift in meaning in response to key passages. Three minutes into “Dream House” sees a guitar rise to soaring flight, the vocals blurring into rapturous ecstasy, chasing the beacon before it slips out of view; mid-way through “Sunbather,” an elated, winding riff breaks out of the chaos, leaving the witness to bask in the fleeting happiness. Then there’s two minutes into “The Pecan Tree,” perhaps the most visceral moment on the record, where a massive sweep opens the floodgates to heaven and Clarke crumbles under the blinding light, his screams an ineffable swirl of despair and veneration. The grandeur of these moments heightens the intensity of what are essentially mental imaginings of life situations. Introspection is a cinematic experience on Sunbather, and the dynamics of Clarke’s performance thread a compelling narrative to tease out in the abstract.

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The rabbit holes that Sunbather suggests are some of the most absorbing I’ve ever encountered. Resurfacing to the surrounding world always hits with a tinge of sadness; the disassociation is never permanent. I’ve ruminated deeply about Sunbather this year, escaping into daydreams out of fear and self-doubt, finding a story in the process that mirrored my own. Yet this story ends with bleakness, wallowing in anguish and resigning with self-defeat. It took an album of warm tones and a message of hope to guide me out of my head, away from the fantasies I couldn’t break away from. How to escape one’s escape is a question that Sunbather never answers, but rather probes in vivid, terrifying detail. Finding that answer is for other daydreams, ones that don’t allow this music to shape the outlook on life.

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