Deafheaven – New Bermuda
So why has Deafheaven’s rise to semi-popularity been such a source of contention for the metal community? Is it because vocalist George Clarke looks like he stepped out of an Express Men’s catalog? Is it because the band’s seamless melding of postrock, shoegaze and (yes) emo styles with black metal is taken by black metal’s “true kvlt” aesthetes as an affront to the blasphemous subgenre they hold so sacred? Or is it because Deafheaven has committed the ultimate transgression against metal’s Holy Church of Dudes by creating music that at least a handful of women like too?
Such critical/generic hair-splitting is, of course, only that. The real burning question is, is Deafheaven any good?
New Bermuda is the band’s third album, but for all intents and purposes it counts as their second because the debut, 2010’s Roads to Judah, was all but ignored. 2013’s Sunbather changed everything for the band, reaping reams of critical praise and yielding a cadre of indie/hipster fans whose dalliance with metal was for the most part slumming. For hardcore black metal devotees, Sunbather’s stylish, pink (yes pink) album cover was a portent that their creepy little neighborhood had been infiltrated by dilettantes and that gentrification had begun.
So, with a new label (Anti-/Epitaph) and heightened expectations, New Bermuda finds Deafheaven battling the proverbial sophomore slump. And the band is winning.
Deafheaven certainly isn’t delivering the “true” sound of hyperborean black metal bands like Mayhem, Emperor and early Darkthrone, but that was probably never their intent. Still, black metal is the primary ingredient in the band’s musical stew. And the influence of USBM acts like Wolves in the Throne Room and (especially) Nachtmystium is prominent. Clarke’s vocals are the headache-inducing shrieks of quintessential black metal, whereas the band’s music is all over the place. And therein lies Deafheaven’s strength.
Basically, Deafheaven’s formula is another variant of the tried and true, tension-and-release thing. Elongated, “pretty” instrumental passages are offset by punctum-shattering blastbeats, tremolo picking power chords and Clarke’s guttural howls.
This tension-and-release thing works perfectly with the band’s lyrics, which are basically existential interrogations of the all-surface, no-substance nothingness of American narcissism/consumerism. Like on the sunny shores of California from whence the band hails, a patina of prettiness belies an underworld of turmoil, hostility and self-loathing.
I can’t believe I’m writing this, but it’s the emo factor that makes Deafheaven’s sonic strategy work. Yes, the emo factor.
This probably isn’t a very cool thing to say, but I’ll say it anyway. I like the idea of black metal a lot better than I like the music. Sorry, but black metal offers me nothing to latch onto. There are no riffs per se, only white noise. There’s no sex. And certainly there’s no melody. Black metal just doesn’t rock.
Emo doesn’t rock exactly, either – or at least it doesn’t rock me. But I must begrudgingly admit that emo oozes with melody and, yes, sex. The members of Deafheaven likely grew up listening to My Chemical Romance, Jimmy Eat World and the like. And from this tutelage, they know how to craft a catchy hook and a memorable chorus or three.
Deafheaven’s long, meandering songs offer ample contrast between pretty and ugly to make the black metal passages seem powerful and revelatory. And beneath Clarke’s howls, there is melody and even a pop (emo?) sensibility. Sure, this is a dilution of black metal, but who cares? It’s also a new way of configuring the pop/rock song – merging melodicism with noise – that is going somewhere different for once. And it works for a lot of people, including myself – and maybe you. Where Deafheaven is going might just be where pop(ular) rock music, or what’s left of it, is going.