Premature Evaluation: Deafheaven Sunbather
Any time a metal-curious friend asks me to explain the distinctions separating different metal subgenres — most often re: death metal vs. black metal — I tell them to start by focusing on the vocals. This is by no means the only fundamental difference, and it’s by no means an absolute, but it’s a pretty handy rule of thumb: To my ear, death metal vocals are warm; black metal vocals are cold. Death metal vocals tend to take the form of a loud bark or a low rumble; they’re roiling, thunderous, guttural — intestinal, really. Black metal vocals, on the other hand, tend to be higher-pitched, whispered or hissed; it’s a chafing sound that takes shape on the soft palate. The first time I heard it, and understood what I was hearing, it reminded me of the wind.
I mention this now because Deafheaven frontman George Clarke deals exclusively in what I’d consider to be a pretty traditional black-metal vocal style. As such, I’m inclined to discuss Deafheaven primarily in the context of black metal, even though that might be a tenuous appellation in other respects. If you were to remove all Clarke’s vocals from Deafheaven’s new LP, Sunbather, and replace them with anodyne, ethereal cooing courtesy of, say, Bilinda Butcher or Rachel Goswell, you would be unlikely to hear Sunbather as anything except a shoegazer album. Or you could axe the vocals entirely and just call it a post-rock record and you wouldn’t be wrong. Clarke doesn’t even look like what a guy in a black metal band is supposed to look like: He’s dapper, smartly dressed, cleanly cropped. You’d be more likely to mistake him for a member of Morrissey’s backing band than a member of Inquisition or Immortal. But as soon as he opens his mouth …
Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy formed Deafheaven in February 2010, and for the better part of the last three years, their band has been tied to, and frequently reviled by, the American black metal (USBM) scene. Deafheaven first appeared on many radars when fellow San Franciscan Jef Whitehead, aka Wrest, dropped their name in a very rare 2011 interview. (Wrest is one of the architects of USBM; he has released several essential albums of hallucinatory and nightmarish beauty under the aliases Leviathan and Lurker Of Chalice. He almost never does interviews.) When asked what he thought about the state of the scene, Wrest had only one recommendation:
Just heard an impressive band from my neck of the woods, Deafheaven …
Naturally he followed that up with a put-down, saying that Deafheaven — along with nearly everyone else in the USBM scene circa 2011 — were imitating the work of yet another SF act, John Gossard’s Weakling , more than they were innovating or expanding upon it. As slights go, it’s a mild one: Wrest is a spiteful curmudgeon, and Weakling are unambiguously considered ground zero for American black metal. More often, though, when “real” metalheads dismiss or deride Deafheaven, they do so by tagging them “hipster metal,” a hollow insult that has nonetheless persisted for years now, even as roughly 85 percent of its usage appears to be in some way directed at NYC provocateurs Liturgy. (Hilariously, in that same interview, immediately before big-upping Deafheaven, Wrest takes a barely veiled shot at Liturgy: “Black metal will always be a feeling for me — ‘transcendental’????? No …”)
Deafheaven have been fucking with that paradox since the beginning. They’re on Deathwish, Inc., a hardcore label, rather than a metal stronghold like Century Media or Relapse (or even an avant-leaning metal shop like Profound Lore). When asked what they’re listening to, they namecheck the non-metal likes of the Microphones and Chelsea Wolfe (much to the consternation of some Stereogum readers). They’ve toured with artsy metal-adjacent acts like Alcest, Russian Circles, and Boris, and they’ve released a split with fellow Bay Area iconoclasts Bosse-de-Nage, on which they covered Mogwai. And they spend solid portions of interviews examining or explaining their relationship to black metal. Speaking to Brandon Stosuy for Show No Mercy last year, Clarke said:
Sometimes, the metal scene’s sense of unity can give way to close[d] mindedness and prejudice. We don’t subscribe to a cookie-cutter mold of what extreme music should look like, so we’re ridiculed for it. It’s unfortunate that there’s safety in anonymity in the metal scene. When Deafheaven first began, we didn’t release any photos of ourselves for fear of an inevitable backlash. So, I’m not surprised when we get called “hipsters” or are thrown the Liturgy comparison. In addition to our music having about a ten percent similarity, their outlook and agenda seems to differ from ours. Ultimately, Deafheaven will continue to do our own thing musically and visually regardless of controversy or alienation.
That’s a thoughtful, noble statement, exactly the sort of thing trolls eat for lunch. A couple weeks back, I searched Twitter for “Deafheaven,” and the very first Tweet returned to me read:
Just listened to Deafheaven. Can I have that 10 minutes back please. Not even slightly necro.  Take your soundscapes away hippies.
. . .
In a studio diary published earlier this year on Invisible Oranges, Clarke wrote: “I named the record Sunbather because that’s the feeling it gives me. It is the sadness and the frustration and the anger that comes with striving for perfection. Dreaming of warmth and love despite the pain of idealism.”
I don’t (entirely) mean to question Clarke’s sincerity, but that seems like an enormous stretch to me. He couldn’t find a better metaphor to capture Sisyphean angst than Sunbather? Nah, I’m not buying it — as I said in my review of Sunbather’s lead single, “Dream House,” I think he’s trolling the trolls: Black metal bands don’t have pink album covers, and they don’t have album titles that refer to vapid summertime outdoor leisure. That is the exact fucking opposite of what black metal bands do. I think it’s deliberately intended to inflame. And it will. To Deafheaven’s credit, however — and as they must have realized pretty early on — those jabs are backed up by an album full of fire, enough to leave everything in its radius blackened and burned. Embers. Dust.
Sunbather opens with the aforementioned “Dream House,” and I don’t even know what more to say about that track at this point: It’s the best song of the year, period. It runs for nine-plus minutes, but it took me less than one to realize I was in the presence of greatness. It uses its time efficiently and expertly, not relying on droning repetition to induce hypnosis, but cresting through valleys and scaling ever-higher peaks, emphasizing a bounty of details as it increases tension and explodes, repeatedly, like a Roman Candle. It’s tremendous and elegant and precise and fucking glorious.
“Dream House” is followed by “Irresistible,” one of several … I guess you’d call them interludes? That term makes these moments on the album feel insubstantial or inessential, which they’re not, but they’re also plainly intended to be experienced and understood as connective tissue rather than organs or bone. But “Irresistible” showcases another side of Deafheaven, too; it’s not metal at all, and not even atmospheric, exactly. It’s gentle and melancholy, a small section of of finger-picked guitars and chiming piano building elegantly to a minor apex. It reminds me a lot of yet another San Francisco band, actually: Mark Kozelek’s pre-Sun Kil Moon project (and slow-core pioneers) Red House Painters.
Sunbather is heavy on slow-core and dream-pop influences, really — they appear in nearly every song, at some point or another: the breakdowns at 5:05 in “Dream House,” at 2:45 in the title track, and at 4:20 in “The Pecan Tree”; the opening strains of “Vertigo.” But they’re not always so blatant: Look around, everywhere — guitars streak like sunbursts across otherwise gray skies; melody and melodrama abound.
After “Irresistible” comes Sunbather’s title track. I wrote about the song when it was first released, and rather than rephrase what I said then, I’ll simply say it again:
From a distance, the title track from Deafheaven’s sophomore LP, Sunbather, sounds like a particularly harrowing and intense display of might. But in the lovingly crafted details, the song is all about dynamics: George Clarke’s raw shriek is pure urgency and desperation; percussionist Daniel Tracy’s rhythms vary from hailstorm to sunshower as the movements progress and demand; and Kerry McCoy’s guitars ring out from a din of reverb and noise, bringing melody and muscle, guiding the song through clouds to Olympian heights, and then dipping gracefully, suddenly, into shadows. The final quarter of the 10-minute-plus “Sunbather” is a study in contrast and momentum: A dizzying post-black metal barrage relents, and suddenly the guitars and bass are gentle ripples in an otherwise placid dream-pop pool; then, everything ascends at once, and all the elements combine to reach higher peaks still — climax upon climax, until it is hushed.
That description — or some slight variation thereof — could be applied to nearly every one of Sunbather’s four major moments (“Dream House,” “Sunbather,” “Vertigo,” and “The Pecan Tree”). It is an album of and about dynamics, especially the interplay between Clarke and McCoy, whose combined work here can neither be quantified nor overstated. Special credit is due, though, to percussionist Tracy, who brings to these songs a disarming and unusual deftness. And extra-special credit is due to producer Jack Shirley, whose direction has helped to deliver a record of remarkable clarity and power, a record rich in detail and scope, a record that is obviously the product of careful scrutiny and revision, yet sounds organic and alive.
Sunbather closes with its heaviest track, “The Pecan Tree,” a deluge of frantic screaming, blast beats, and tremelo-picked guitars — black metal’s essential ingredients — which collides with tidal waves of My Bloody Valentine-esque reverb and noise, eventually dwindling and slowly swelling. It is an intoxicating and pulse-raising song. And just before it hits the 7:55 mark, everything solidifies into a single, knee-buckling riff, as viscerally thrilling a moment as music can produce. The song rides that climax for its final three and a half minutes. And then, it’s over.
. . .
Starting in 2006 or so — but really hitting its stride in 2008 — American black metal seemed to be growing at an impossible rate: Bands like Nachtmystium, Leviathan, Krallice, Cobalt, Wolves In The Throne Room, Ludicra, and others were releasing new albums that continually raised the genre’s parameters; to call it a boom time is an understatement. Then, in November 2010, Portland, OR’s Agalloch released Marrow Of The Spirit, an instant classic that momentarily dwarfed everything around it. Marrow, in my opinion, represents the creative peak of USBM; it’s certainly the best album produced by that scene — and maybe the best metal album, period — since Weakling’s lone release, 2000’s Dead As Dreams. After Marrow, USBM bands seemed to tunnel downward, reverse course. Many of the best American black metal bands broke up or scaled back, went retro or necro. The best new bands — such as Ash Borer, Vattnet Viskar, and A Pregnant Light, among others — have thus far couched their grander ambitions in webs of cassette hiss and the protective embrace of increasingly insular sub-sects.
When Deafheaven released their debut album, Roads To Judah, in 2011, they were merely one of many promising new acts to emerge that year. I saw them that fall, though, at Bowery Ballroom, sandwiched on a bill between the Men and Russian Circles. I was more or less indifferent about Roads To Judah, but seeing Deafheaven live — Clarke, confrontational and possessed, jackbooted and bug-eyed; McCoy leading a symphony of blinding, bending deep-indigo noise — it was obvious the band had something more. As I drunk-tweeted that evening:
Deafheaven is exactly what I want in a band. In the next 4-5 years they’ll release a masterpiece. Killing it now at Bowery.
— Michael Nelson (@nelsonicboom) November 15, 2011
It’s been less than two years. Sunbather is not a better album than Marrow Of The Spirit, but it is the most successfully ambitious album to emerge from the wreckage left behind by Marrow. Sunbather is also not (necessarily) Deafheaven’s true masterpiece: The band can do even more with melody, more with economy and structure, more with less; Clarke’s vocals can do more to match the nuance of McCoy’s instrumentation. But that’s me dreaming on LP3, not me criticizing the work at hand. Sunbather is very much a masterpiece. If 2013 produces a better album in any genre, I will be blown away. Heck, listen to me go on. It doesn’t matter what happens next. I’m already blown away.
 I wrote a bunch about the legacy of John Gossard and Weakling in last month’s Black Market, while discussing Gossard’s new band, Dispirit. You can check that out (and hear Gossard’s newest music) by scrolling down to No. 4 on this list.
 “Necro” is the name given to the extremely, intentionally rudimentary and raw production style employed by Norwegian bands Darkthrone and Burzum on their now-classic early-’90s albums. You can read much, much more about it here.
Deafheaven tour dates:
06/19 – Tempe, AZ @ The Yucca Tap Room
06/21 – Dallas, TX @ Club Dada
06/22 – Austin, TX @ Red 7
06/23 – Houston, TX @ Mango’s
06/25 – Orlando, FL @ Will’s Pub
06/26 – Atlanta, GA @ The Earl
06/26 – North Birmingham, AL @ The Forge
06/27 – Charlotte, NC @ The Milestone Club
06/29 – Raleigh, NC @ Kings Barcade
06/30 – Washington, DC @ Rock N Roll Hotel
07/01 – Philadelphia, PA @ The Barbary
07/02 – Brooklyn, NY @ Saint Vitus Bar
07/03 – Cambridge, MA @ T.T. The Bear’s Place
07/05 – Cleveland Heights, OH @ Grog Shop
07/06 – Chicago, IL @ Subterranean
07/07 – Detroit, MI @ Magic Stick Lounge
07/08 – Kansas City, MO @ The Record Bar
07/09 – Denver, CO @ The Marquis Theater
07/10 – Salt Lake City, UT @ Kilby Court
07/11 – Seattle, WA @ El Corazon
07/13 – Portland, OR @ Bunker Bar
07/15 – San Francisco, CA @ The Bottom of the Hill
Sunbather is out 6/11 via Deathwish, Inc.