I wasn’t one for jumping on the so-called Deafheaven “bandwagon” when it first began taking off in 2013. I took my time and had my hesitations, and for good reason.
Any band with the “black metal” label is going to deter me. It isn’t that I’m not a fan of what’s often associated with the genre: white face paint, satanic overtones, and a sound quality so bad it may as well have been recorded in a Norwegian cave. But still, many heavy bands in general preach and live out things I’m not willing to get behind, and it’s easy for me to feel like I don’t have much in common with metal apart from a few niche markets such as melodic hardcore and Christian metalcore. I can take something away from most heavy music, but with black metal there has never been anything there for me to feel a connection.
That’s why it’s weird when I first played through Sunbather. It was absolutely beautiful, so much for its overarching style that it stunned me. A band that combines black metal with elements of post-metal, post-rock and shoegaze into one thunderous sound, Deafheaven makes a soft-heavy contrast with those musical branches in ways I never thought could be done. Of course, I hadn’t heard much black metal at the time, so I couldn’t really make any comparisons. In that regard, I thought I was having a mind-changing experience, as if this was the starting point of an entire genre for me. I was right about the first point, wrong about the second.
One thing I’ve recently learned about marketing — and really, about being social — is that if you’re struggling to get people to come to you, try going to them instead. Many metal bands are stuck in a bubble that often turns the whole genre into a rut, and Deafheaven takes their musical knowledge and artistic endeavors to the next level by reversing this. So much metal nowadays comes off as angry, or whiny, or strange, or outsider-like that it’s sometimes hard to feel like an insider who’s feeling the same range of emotions as the musicians. I hear all the time the whole “I’m making these songs for myself and nobody else,” and that’s great. That’s what being “punk” is all about: being yourself and not caring what people think. But, if you’re just writing music to make yourself happy, how do you expect to reach anybody else? What’s the point of sharing your creations with the world if there’s nothing that speaks to others?
The beautiful thing about music to me — and the beauty that also came across when I first heard Sunbather — is that there’s so much of it, and there are so many different ways of expressing yourself through it. It’s easy to be stuck in the above mantra, the same way I see people with the “haters gonna hate” shirts and think, “You know, maybe those people aren’t haters, maybe they have valuable insights if you just listened to them.” Deafheaven has listened. And they’ve done so by listening to great music over the past few decades, incorporating what has inspired them into an ultra-heavy sound that’s defined the core of who they are.
“We have our own take on the genre and I think we always have,” vocalist George Clarke said in a recent interview with VH1. That’s right, VH1 — a traditionally pop, rock, and hip-hop publication that you wouldn’t expect to cover something even close to heavy metal. But that’s why Deafheaven sticks out. It was surprising when Sunbather showed up on Grantland multiple times over the course of 2013, but it shouldn’t have come as any surprise to the wide range of listeners it attracted. The album’s take on black metal was extremely upfront and personal, making sure it left a lasting impact on anyone fortunate enough to stumble upon it, whether it was through the weaving guitar movements in “Dream House” or the gorgeous speed-ups and slow-downs in the title track. No matter the track, it was easy to feel like you were experiencing every emotion at once, with impact felt from the sheer force of each note and high-pitched scream.
The progressions made on New Bermuda show why Deafheaven’s approach to heavy music continues to make them so attractive to both black metal and non-black metal fans. That’s because their pressing artistry is a feat in itself. They again rumble at their innermost core, but breathe out pieces of other genres that add to their brilliant atmosphere: from alternative rock and indie rock to hardcore punk and Britpop. While it’s a daring pursuit by the band, it’s also one of the reasons I’m still so engaged. When Deafheaven made me think more about their core than their expansion, their imaginative atmosphere than simply the fact that they make killer black metal, it didn’t make me a bigger fan of black metal. It’s why I’m also wrong, because I still haven’t listening to another black metal record since I first heard Sunbather.
However, that shouldn’t take away from the beauty this new effort contains. Throughout, the quintet makes connections with listeners through the ties they all make with decades worth of influential music. It’s similar to how I’ve spent this fall listening to Oasis’ (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? basically on repeat for weeks, then stumbled across the similarities in “Gifts For The Earth”. The final track on the follow-up to Sunbather doesn’t exactly burn listeners the way its predecessor’s gleaming cover and sprightly instrumentation so majestically does. Instead, it clouds up and rains on them like English weather and Britpop aesthetic. The reverberating guitar leads and acoustic strums bring to mind another famed closer in “Champagne Supernova”. The near-perfect transitions aid in contrasting the previous five minutes of pummeling metal crunch. Its gloomy dynamics prove just how dark Deafheaven can go, and in the most epic way possible.
That’s why seeing the group play through the entire composition live is such an experience. It’s almost like going to a Broadway musical, seeing Clarke — gloves on his hands and dark clothes coating him in mysteriousness — move around stage to the sound as if it’s a current running through every bone in his body. A friend of mine also brought up the Misfits’ Glenn Danzig, a man that was 100% punk and 100% performer, and I recognized another bridge in time that’s keeping great music alive in modern ways.
Most attendees at the night of this show were doing one of two things: either going absolutely bonkers every second the band was playing, or standing in admiration of the largeness of it all. Yet, this was another aspect in the theme of disparity. Contrasts pushed meaning into both the heavy and soft sides of the band in this setting. The intro to “Brought To The Water” saw a dramatic descent into guitar chugs and marathon-like drum slaps, all set off by harrowing church bells. But it’s the chilling melodies in the second half of the song that made the drop back into metal comfortable, since it was easy to recognize the twists and turns as vintage Deafheaven at this point.
“Baby Blue” is where the full force of this band’s new craft was felt. Flange effects helped the first few minutes of this song resonate, then stand still, then blast into a rare guitar solo, then blast into Deafheaven’s prototypical metal sound. It’s layers upon layers that built off one another’s overlap and differences. Clarke then let his hand motions take center stage as the track rumbled forward with demonic riffage, though guitar wails came in to create a heavenly uprising as it propelled to its end. Every aspect of New Bermuda live was given a physical texture and visual sense to it, enough to send shivers up attendees’ spines and make them whisper to one another between tracks, “Holy crap.”
After coming back to play two songs from Sunbather to massive audience roars, fans were slow to leave. It’s obvious the aura created in the venue that night was enough to keep them content where they were, the same way I never want to leave a Christopher Nolan movie once the credits roll. While my two friends that came with me that night were ready to leave, I of course got stuck in the merch line for a good while, and it gave me a few extra minutes to fully close out this night. The line just grew and grew, with short-haired, art school-looking 20 year olds and teen girls with colorful shirts being just a few types of the range of fans in sight. If you threw every person in attendance and their musical tastes together, I’m sure you’d get something just as diverse and eclectic as the band members themselves. The many layers of this band speak to all sorts of people, and that’s why they’ve made such waves, not just in the metal scene, but also in the general alternative music scene over the past few years — apart from the fact that they’re just so darn good.
“They could be that gateway band for so many people,” one of my friends said on the car ride home.
But as I drove up the street away from the venue, my ears a bit muffled from the sheer sonic intensity of the show, I couldn’t help but wonder to what exactly they would be a gateway. Sure, unlike me, they could lead mainstream metal listeners and the Pitchfork alt/indie crowd into the genres of black metal and death metal. I’m not so sure, though, that after listening to New Bermuda and hearing it live in full-force, I would lump them in with either end of the spectrum. The effortless transitions between thick riffs and pounding double bass drums into ambient post-rock instrumentation make Deafheaven something incredibly dynamic — and, in a day and age when combining styles and vibes is the “hip” thing to do, so incredibly different.
At this moment, I realized that my patience in taking in this band’s works over the past three years was worth it, and I’d like to think anyone getting into metal music would feel the same when recognizing how beautiful both light and dark can be — no matter the elements forging their creation.