Los Angeles – There’s really no point in rehashing Deafheaven’s controversial status among the pantheon of “black metal” bands; that conversation has been had a million times over, a ubiquitous addition to every review, interview, or feature on the San Francisco-based band. Listening to metal fans talk about Deafheaven is a perfect lesson in confirmation bias – if the reviewer wants to find the music equal parts exhilarating and contemplative, they will; if the reviewer wants to find the band’s songs derivative and too “emo,” well, they sure will. The vast majority of critics felt the first way about the group’s last release, Sunbather, and likely will with their latest LP, New Bermuda.
While both Sunbather and New Bermuda began with blast-beat verses, there is something much darker and ominous about the riffing on the newer releases’ intro (and the entirety of the record). “Brought to the Water” pulls no punches, with vocalist George Clarke distantly screeching over a trad-metal guitar riff, showcasing Deafheaven’s ability to occasionally sound like a straight-up black metal band. Despite opening their third album in such a manner, this is not a case of Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy giving in to the die-hard black metal fan critics who harangued them as “hipster metal.”
Three and a half minutes into “Brought to the Water”, the band erupts into a spacey, melodic guitar riff that wouldn’t sound out of place in any indie-rock track from the late 90’s. While McCoy plays the guitar as if he completely forgot what band he is in, Clarke continues to howl away as if the backing band had not changed gears. By the time the song approaches the six minute mark, McCoy and Clarke are back on the same page, melting faces like a traditional extreme metal band should. And therein lies the appeal of Deafheaven; the songwriters’ ability to blend dissonance and melodicism, aggression and ambiance.
Few bands have been able to so gracefully oscillate between genres as disparate as grinding black metal and shoegaze-y space rock, though many have tried and failed. Just like on Sunbather, the five tracks heard here have smooth and unexpected atmospheric transitions, the songs avoid formulaic laziness, and every member of the band feels like he means it. Despite the fact that Deafheaven’s lyrics are crucial in setting the moods and themes of their records, they are completely indecipherable; the only way to follow along with Clarke’s words is to read a lyric sheet.
After “Luna” essentially follows in the footsteps of the opener, “Baby Blue” sees the band entering with a shuffling, spacey arpeggiated riff reminiscent of the work producer Matt Talbott orchestrated on Hopesfall’s Hum-indebted metalcore highlight, The Satellite Years. Twin guitars rotate around clean riffs that slowly build momentum in unison, eventually erupting into hardcore-influenced guitar riffing and Clarke’s trademark black metal scream. What is incredible with these 10+ minute tracks is the way they can hold listeners’ interests. Acting more like suites than traditional songs, many of Deafheaven’s best songs rarely repeat themselves, instead following a linear structure of motifs and patterns. Utilizing the same technique as Sunbather’s spoken-word sampling introductory song, “Baby Blue” closes with the sample of a traffic announcement and high pitched, oscillating drones, achieving a chilling effect that leads into one of the album’s stand-out cuts.
“Come Back” is the perfect example of Deafheaven’s ability to add dissonance and atmosphere to their songwriting, at times even simultaneously. Returning to blast-beat territory, the opening few moments of the song are an exercise in purist extreme metal, replete with a chugging, sinister breakdown. Hitting its melodic stride around five minutes in, it is incredible the amount of hookiness the band is able to squeeze out of a nearly unadulterated black metal song. Minutes later “Come Back” breaks into a loping, hazy, wide-open-spaces-craving clean guitar riff that straddles the line between indie rock and alt-country. Any group with lesser chops would completely botch this genre mélange, but for Deafheaven it seems to come as second nature.
One day, the three-album debut of Roads to Judah, Sunbather, and New Bermuda could be regarded with the same kind of reverence that today is bestowed upon Converge’s legendary run of Petitioning the Empty Sky, When Forever Comes Crashing, and (their magnum opus) Jane Doe. The difference being Converge was doing something nobody had ever really done before, while Deafheaven is perfecting a sound that’s been attempted (mostly unsuccessfully) several times before. The scary thing is, it sort of feels like they haven’t even made their Jane Doe yet.
Deafheaven tours North America throughout October and November, hitting every corner of the United States as well as Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal. Check the band’s Facebook page for more information on tickets and dates.
Deafheaven photo by Kristen Coffer