Opinion | Metal for non-metalheads
Deafheaven meshes the dark sounds of extreme metal with the euphoric brightness of shoe-gaze
Would a black metal band pick a quote from a Graham Greene novel for the title of their album? Well, if that band happens to be Deafheaven, they might. And they have. The San Francisco quintet calls their new album Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, a phrase from a quote in Greene’s The End Of The Affair, a novel where the protagonist, Maurice Bendrix, narrates retrospectively about an ill-fated affair with a married woman, Sarah Miles. In Greene’s novel there are many themes, including the conflict between human love and the love of god but also tender sentimentality and romanticism, which you would ordinarily not expect to sit easily with a band that plays black metal. Unless it’s Deafheaven that we are talking about.
Black metal, an extreme subgenre of heavy metal, is characterized by super-fast beats and tempo; screaming vocals; and guitar riffs that frequently use the tremolo to repeatedly change the pitch. But that definition has to be altered for Deafheaven. The band takes black metal and adds to it two or three (or four!) other unexpected styles. In Deafheaven’s music, metal’s dark hues are unusually complemented with the brightness of shoegaze (the alternative post-punk rock genre characterized by dreamy, ethereal music) along with indie rock’s uncompromising, guitar-led sound. Occasionally, the band uses post-rock experimentation and also forays into the territory of psychedelic music. Such is their constant penchant for creating new sounds that none of Deafheaven’s four albums is similar to the other, and they always manage to surprise listeners with new twists that their music takes.
Deafheaven originated in 2010 as a two-man band—George Clarke on vocals and keyboards, and Kerry McCoy on guitar—before expanding to their present size. Although their first full-length, Roads To Judah, came out in 2011, it was with their second album, Sunbather, in 2013, that Deafheaven found mainstream recognition and appreciation outside the fandom of metalheads. I discovered Sunbather from a blog sometime after it was released. The album cover had the title written in giant font against a background that was salmon pink—not a colour you would associate easily with a metal band. But the music—it was surprising. Refreshing, even. Sunbather’s seven tracks, a few of them quite long, blended metal’s deep, dark and ominous urgency with the reflective, retrospective and, sometimes even the sunny ambience of shoegaze. It was with Sunbather that Deafheaven was quickly pigeonholed into a new category: blackgaze.
Black metal’s lyrics and themes are commonly gloomy and are screaming rants against institutions such as the church. Some bands focus on Satanism and the apocalypse; others on wild forests and the unbridled fury of nature. In contrast, on Sunbather, the perfectly structured songs offer hope and brightness; the tempo changes often but always aesthetically; and if you’re a black metal fan (with an open mind), the shoegaze-y interludes may actually be welcome. If you’re not a huge fan of metal, black or otherwise, Sunbather is probably one of the most accessible albums to taste the genre with.
Expectedly, Sunbather got as many brickbats as it did bouquets. Unnerved by its brightness, cultish metal heads who are favourable to the cold, dark, dungeon-like ambience of “pure" black metal were quick to respond with thumbs-downs. But the album opened new doors through which fans from other musical genres stepped in. Critical acclaim poured in and soon Deafheaven found itself on the best album lists of many music publications, including Spin, Rolling Stone, and Pitchfork. Deafheaven followed up Sunbather with New Bermuda (2015), the first of their albums to feature a quintet, including a second guitarist, Shiv Mehra, besides co-founder McCoy.
But it is with the fourth and newest Deafheaven album that the band has stepped up its game, refining further the ability to mesh genres whose fusion on paper could seem oxymoronic. The most delightful thing about Ordinary Corrupt Human Love is the way songs veer from peaceful, slow-paced reflections to wild, heavily pummelled crescendos; and then change the tempo back again. Singer Clark still shrieks the vocals, in pristine black metal style, but there are added spoken words, including prose and poetry readings, which are carefully crafted into some of the songs.
It works. The opening song, You Without End, begins with actor and singer Nadia Kury reading a prose passage: “He pained, shifting his attention toward the mirror across the road. Back into his daydream. The spliff burned his fingers the second he drank, and he tossed it toward the gutter…" Her reading against the background of drum beats segues into screaming guitar licks and Clark’s trademark screams.
The black metal dimension of Deafheaven’s music can be punishingly hard but also soothingly melodic. To be sure, however, they aren’t the real progenitors of the style that they’ve become known for. Ten years before Deafheaven was formed, the French black metal band, Alcest, pioneered the blackgaze sound. Alcest has at least five studio albums and Deafheaven acknowledges that the French band has indeed inspired them. On Sunbather, Alcest’s founder, Stepháne “Neige" Paut has a spoken-word cameo on one of the songs.
Music preferences are usually deeply personal; understandably so. Sometimes they are coloured by preconceptions. For years I used to tiptoe around black, death, and doom metal’s brigade of bands—sometimes taking a quick peek in but often not enjoying the experience. Up until I heard Deafheaven. Now I know what I was missing.
The Lounge List
Five tracks to bookend this week
1. ‘You Without End’ by Deafheaven from ‘Ordinary Corrupt Human Love’
2. ‘Honeycomb’ by Deafheaven from ‘Ordinary Corrupt Human Love’
3. ‘Vertigo’ by Deafheaven from ‘Sunbather’
4. ‘Please Remember’ by Deafheaven from ‘Sunbather’
5. ‘Violet’ by Deafheaven from ‘Roads To Judah’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
He tweets at @sanjoynarayan