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Deafheaven: the ‘mellow’ sound of black metal

The forthcoming album from the band, which fuses melodic rock with extreme metal, promises to be their most evolved effort yet

George Clarke of Deafheaven at The Fillmore in North Carolina, US, in June 2019.
George Clarke of Deafheaven at The Fillmore in North Carolina, US, in June 2019. (Getty Images)

You would never imagine that the adjective “mellow” and the phrase “black metal” could be combined in any description of music. Black metal, after all, is an extreme form of heavy metal music that originated in the 1980s. Characterised by high-speed tempos, noisy, often high-pitched guitar riffs and shrieking, snarling vocals, it is anything but mellow. Yet, if I were to describe the San Francisco-based proto-black metal band Deafheaven, I could easily use that word.

Formed in 2010, Deafheaven began as a duo—of founders George Clarke (vocals) and Kerry McCoy (guitar)—and later recruited other musicians. Today, the band comprises Clarke, McCoy, another guitarist, Shiv Mehra (a Kenyan-born Indian immigrant to the US), Daniel Tracy (drums) and Chris Johnson (bass). Since their formation, Deafheaven have released four full-length albums—and a fifth will be released in August.

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But back to the “mellow” aspect of Deafheaven. If you watch videos of some of the band’s live shows, they might seem like a typical metal band at first glance. Clarke’s sneering, often blood-curdling, shrieks; the two guitarists’ high-speed riffs; the deep and dark basslines; and machine-gun paced drums. But things can turn unexpectedly. Deafheaven’s music can become exquisitely melodious. Unafraid of experimenting, the quintet draws upon a wide range of genres—lo-fi shoegaze, post-rock, psychedelia, even hints of alternative country—to create a soundscape that is pretty much their own.

It was their second album, Sunbather (2013), which catapulted them into the spotlight. Considered by some as one of the best rock albums of that year, Sunbather was difficult to pigeonhole into a pre-existing genre. Where black metal is nearly always dark and layered with foreboding, Sunbather was a hopeful, positive-spirited album. There were, of course, Clarke’s shrieks and the rest of metal’s sonic trappings, but it was also mellow (yes, that word!). The laid-back shoegaze style of melodies and experimental, unconventional song structures made the album a hit—even among music lovers who didn’t much care for metal.

The seven tracks on Sunbather last about an hour but are seamless from the get-go. From the rumbling opening of the first track Dream House, over nine minutes long, you notice how different Deafheaven are from the garden variety black metal band. Halfway through the track, a slow guitar solo creates an unexpected interlude and when the metal frenzy returns, it is tuneful, even soothing. The tracks segue effortlessly from one to another and by the time you reach the fifth, Vertigo, you are hooked on Deafheaven’s pretty undefinable tapestry of sound.

Besides their characteristically loud and dark sound, black metal bands also have a lot to do with atmosphere. Their members are often sartorially influenced by satanic imagery; painted faces are common, dark-hooded costumes and robes de rigueur. In contrast, Deafheaven could be a band of indie rockers, clad in casual T-shirts and jeans. Lead singer Clarke is clean-shaven and sports button-down dark shirts and well-cut slacks. And although his singing style has metal’s menace, it also feels strangely genial.

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As is often the case with extreme metal, it is not easy to decipher Deafheaven’s lyrics. But if you listen closely and research some of it, there could be a treasure to find. In the title track of Sunbather, Clarke ruminates about the inequality in the affluent part of a town where his mother lives: Held my breath and drove through a maze of wealthy homes/ I watched how green the trees were/ I watched the steep walkways and the white fences/ I gripped the wheel/ I sweated against the leather/ I watched the dogs twist through the wealthy garden/ I watched you lay on a towel in grass that exceeded the height of your legs/ I gazed into reflective eyes/ I cried against an ocean of light. Not quite the kind of lyrics you would expect from a metal band.

The other thing about Deafheaven is that they keep evolving. Their last full-length, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love (2018), takes the concept of fusing melodic rock with the anarchism of black metal to an altogether different level. The compositions are grand, full of unconventional movements. The songs are darker than, say, the ones on Sunbather but they aren’t without hope. In Night People, with the addition of a keyboard and a female vocalist, the band can sound as if it is an indie singer-songwriter’s project. It opens with the lyrics Biblical sky speckled with flame/ Do you hold your mother’s eyes/ From wetting the earth?/ From weeping for those/ Who reward fame to absolutes of war? Clarke changes his vocal style from shrieking to singing clearly.

The biggest inflection point in Deafheaven’s career will likely happen with their soon-to-be-released album, Infinite Granite. It could be a further shift away from what purists think of as black metal. Two singles from that album are out—The Gnashing and Great Mass Of Color—and if they are any indication of how the album will sound, it will be very, very different. The two singles are easily Deafheaven’s least metal-like compositions. Bright, with clean vocals, harmonies and radiant notes, it’s almost as if a metal band has assumed a new avatar. Deafheaven have evolved again.

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