The Balkanization of metal into genres, sub-genres, and sub-sub genres, is a bit of an elephant in the room. The taxonomist in me thinks classification is fun and worthwhile. The musician not so much. I like lots of different kinds of music, and it follows that I like lots of different kinds of metal. I’m attracted to some of the weirder more experimental groups, and recently I’ve been way into this guy out of Kentucky, Panopticon, who blends trve kvlt Black Metal with Americana beautifully. It isn’t schtick. It works, and the result is November sunset on the edge of Appalachia. It’s beautiful and haunting, but leaves a bruise. Panopticon doesn’t have an album on this list*, but I mention it because it opened my ears to atmospheric metal**—song structures are long and meandering, the focus tends to be on the music, and not so much the lyrics. Vocals may be present, but are often buried in the mix. I like it. I can work and listen atmospheric metal without being distracted, and I find that I am also genuinely rewarded when I turn my full attention to some of these albums. The next album has been on heavy rotation on my Spotify for about a year now, and is a great introduction to this kind of music for anyone interested.
Deafheaven don’t like to be classified as black metal, and I understand their resistance to the label. Lyrical and emotional themes of this album are a continent away from the grim, forested fjords of Scandinavia; rather, they are set in the grim, uniform disappointment of the American suburb. Where black metal moves in a cold world of impenetrable darkness, Sunbather is an album paralyzed by blinding waves of sunlight, too stroked-out to reach for the ephemeral joys of ownership.
That being said, if you don’t like black metal, you won’t like this album, with its impenetrable walls of sound, shrieksing*** vocals, blast beats, and buzzsaw guitars. The album expands far beyond these tropes. The brooding “Windows” includes none of those elements. The tight discordances of black metal are certainly present, but often dissolve into consonant, pretty melodies, with slower strummy sections and countermelody, like on the title track, “Sunbather” (which is my favorite track). The break in “The Pecan Tree” features a duet of guitars that could have been from an early 1980s Cure album. This is not to say that the black metal segments aren’t excellent or authentic— its really good black metal. It’s just that, like Panopticon, this band manages to blend TKNBM with other musical elements, smoothly and organically. The transitions are lovely. This is a beautiful, powerful album, and it deserves a place on this list
*“Scars of Man on a Once Nameless Wilderness I” should be.
**Commonly called shoe gaze.
***This was a typo, but it has a Smeagol twist, which I think is more appropriate to how the vocals actually sound.
Cover By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39571662