Admittedly, it took far too long for me to give Deafheaven a proper listen. The band has been on my radar since they dropped Roads to Judah in 2011, but it wasn’t until Sunbather, and the press that surrounded it, that they became impossible to ignore. Universally celebrated by critics and unprecedentedly polarizing among metal fans, the album received almost too much attention. I didn’t want to go near it. In its first few months, Sunbather was like a cup of excruciatingly hot tea. It could be the best tasting tea in the world, but it’s still going to burn the fuck out of your mouth if you don’t first let it cool. I wanted nothing less than to be swept up in the buzz surrounding the band for fear of the influence it might have on my opinion of the music. So, I decided to let it steep.
Eventually, time passed and I never did set aside that afternoon I wanted with the record. In 2014 the band released the single “From the Kettle onto the Coil” as part of the Adult Swim Singles Program, followed by last year’s New Bermuda. Somewhere in between I found myself reading up on the band. I was lost in their story, amazed at how far they’d progressed in a little over a year. With determination and a hefty dose of luck, band members George Clarke and Kerry McCoy catapulted their way from living in squaller in San Fran—struggling to even pay for instruments—to landing a record deal and riding a tour bus in support of New Bermuda. The cards certainly fell their way, but it’s never just about luck.
Take any press shot of Deafheaven and it’s easy to see why metal purists are all up in arms, and why they’ve been misconstrued as rich, suburban-raised posers. Nothing about the band’s image screams metal. They look edgy, sure, but their conservative garb and pretty faces deviate from what we’ve come to expect as METAL. Beyond what they look like and where they are from, part of that community will always have qualms with the band’s music. On the surface, Deafheaven’s sound is aggressive, inaccessible and wholly in debt to Norwegian black metal pioneers. At it’s core, however, the music is sensitive, an ever-evolving myriad of styles taking queues from not just black metal but doom, post-rock, shoegaze and slowcore. Deafheaven can sound like Mayhem or Mogwai on the same song, and that song will kick ass.
Deafheaven’s early shows saw them slated next to hardcore and screamo acts, which, ultimately wasn’t the greatest fit for a band whose frontman feels more indebted to the Red House Painters than he does Rites of Spring. At the end of the day, Deafheaven simply identify as metal, rather than getting behind “blackgaze”, “post-metal” or any other number of tags meant to label their sound. Though they would never be quick to admit it, Deafheaven’s sound continues to break ground, where over the span of three albums that sound has been subjected to fine-tuning rather than overhauling.
Roads to Judah
(Deathwish Inc, 2011)
(Deathwish Inc, 2013)
If the hour long Sunbather laid everything out, then New Bermuda was a conscious attempt to hone in on the tone and position the sound more firmly in the spectrum of black metal. The mood here is darker—even down to the cover—but not insufferable. Take the latter half of “Baby Blue,” whose sludge-heavy guitar would satisfy any Sabbath devotee. Deafheaven’s balancing act of loud / quiet dynamics is central to the band’s modus operandi. The listener is often guided to the brink of fatigue a moment before being seamlessly led into an instrumental interlude, soon to be hurled once again into the tumult of the band’s cacophony and Clark’s satanic wailing.
Perhaps the most obvious progression in Deafheaven’s three-album span is their increased confidence in moving through the peaks and valleys. Roads to Judah tried hard to reveal everything at once, Sunbather and New Bermuda are more deliberate in their transitions between styles, to the extent that Sunbather‘s near-five minute “Windows”— featuring a wavering drone over ominous piano and field recordings of a drug deal going down—doesn’t feel out of place.
Though nothing on Sunbather feels out of place, the songs feel almost expendable. Contrary to how it sounds, expendable in this sense is a good thing. It means the band could have cut any one of the album’s 7 songs and still have something well worth releasing. Do the same to New Bermuda and it would feel like something was missing, as though the final product fell short of the vision that birthed it. It speaks to Deafheaven’s evolution from record to record, and how much more refined their music has become.