To connoisseurs of black metal — the harsher, shrieking son of thrash and grandson of heavy metal — “Sunbather,” the second full-length from San Francisco’s Deafheaven — should sound familiar.
At least on the surface.
Further listening, however, reveals a band hellbent on inverting its chosen style’s usual tropes, and the result is one of 2013’s finest albums — in any genre. The quintet plays El Corazon Friday.
Black metal — a trebly, claustrophobic sound pioneered by Scandinavians Bathory in the 1980s and Darkthrone in the ‘90s, among others — is typically regarded as intense music played by extreme personalities, a perception singer-screamer George Clarke rejects.
Calling from a tour stop in Phoenix, Clarke describes himself and his bandmates — guitarists Kerry McCoy and Shiv Mehra, bassist Stephen Clark and drummer Daniel Tracy — as mellow West Coasters who save their aggression for the stage.
“I think that because of the music we play,” he says, “people assume there’s some greater, otherworldly thing going on… but at the end of the day, we aren’t anything other than a couple guys sitting in a living room, writing riffs.”
Like post-rockers Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky, Deafheaven’s compositions are melodic, long, and labyrinthine. Yet where those bands favor the slow burn, “Sunbather” attacks early, and often.
Opener “Dream House” (listen) rains down frantic jangle and heart-wrenching howls for five full minutes before unfurling into a stark guitar solo that builds toward a monumental half-time crescendo. Centerpiece “Vertigo” (listen) melds woozy shoegazing and pinch harmonics to manic blastbeats.
Breaking from traditional black metal production values — vocals mixed so in-the-red one imagines the singer is upstairs while the band is in the basement — the double LP’s ten songs resonate clearly, McCoy’s high-atmosphere single-string leads transcending the din of Tracy’s furious rhythms and Clarke’s pained screams.
Regarding his vocal approach, the frontman says he relishes the challenge “of magnifying the intensity of what’s going on sonically… not having the harshness of the singing take away from the music itself. It’s like another instrument, meant to add tension and emotion… to emphasize things, not detract from them.”
It’s working. Since “Sunbather” came out in June to unanimous acclaim, Deafheaven’s fanbase has expanded to include audiences unconcerned with the semantics of metal sub-genres, content to let the sound consume them. Clarke couldn’t be happier.
“The discussion about what we are — or aren’t — has grown tiresome,” he says. “All it really comes down to is… the people who disapprove, we’ll never hear from again. Those who like it, we’ll see them at the shows.”
Stream the whole album here.Deafheaven, Marriages, Heiress, Nostalgist
7:30 p.m. Friday at El Corazon, 109 Eastlake Ave. E., Seattle; $10-12 (206-838-4333 or elcorazonseattle.com).