Deconstructing: Deafheaven, Disclosure, And Crossing Over
It was damn near impossible to breeze through the music internet last month without tripping over Deafheaven and Disclosure. The two acts, both duos, just released landmark albums that are catching on outside the genre niches from whence they came, though not without some consternation from certain genre purists.
Deafheaven hails from the Scandinavian-born school of extreme sonic terrorism known as black metal (kind of). Per Michael — who co-writes Stereogum’s metal column, the Black Market — the band’s sophomore LP, Sunbather, “absolutely, passionately embraces black metal, and explores possibilities of the genre that have been opened up by such visionary masters as Agalloch and Amesoeurs: It’s expansive, melodic, blinding, textured, dynamic, and moving.” It’s also being embraced by people like me who’ve never listened to Agalloch and never heard of Amesoeurs, people who (gasp!) might not even know the difference between black metal and death metal.
Disclosure revives the turn-of-the-millennium UK dance genre 2-step garage (kind of), although, as Tom Breihan pointed out, debut full-length Settle “has a bit of a pan-genre sweep to it. A handful of tracks are straight-up four-on-the-floor house, and a few others are the sort of diffuse, bottom-heavy bass music that the Lawrence brothers were making when they first showed up a couple of years ago. And this isn’t an album of DJ-bin tracks; most of these are full-on songs, with guest vocalists of some repute, structured with verses and choruses and memorable riffs.” Settle is catching on with people who had never heard of UK garage kingpin MJ Cole until he started getting name-dropped in Disclosure reviews — again, people like me.
Why are these records reaching so far outside their genre ghettos? Partially due to quality, but also due to accessibility. Indie rockers can identify with the shoegaze and post-rock aspects of Deafheaven’s album — again, not a Burzum stan, but I’m guessing most black metal LPs don’t have interludes straight out of a Trail Of Dead record or fadeouts that could be mistaken for U2. Meanwhile, R&B fans can get a grip on Disclosure’s stellar songwriting and knack for hooks; few dance acts have one single as melodically charged as “Latch” or “White Noise” or “You & Me” in their careers, let alone three of them on their first album. By blurring genre lines, each of these crossover stars give outsiders something to connect with.
Of course, the outsiders have to hear this music in order to appreciate it, which is where the deafening din of critical-hive-mind hype comes in. Certain records accumulate so much buzz that anyone interested in keeping up with the critical conversation feels the need to have an opinion. That opinion tends to positive; once a few key tastemakers rave about a record, the rest of the internet usually falls in line. A self-fulfilling feedback loop of conventional wisdom develops, a central core of acclaimed albums that may or may not reflect most listeners’ genuine tastes. That’s certainly been the case with Sunbather and Settle; it seems fair to assume that come year’s end they’ll be the token metal and dance records on Pazz & Jop and other critics’ lists. As someone once said, “When a fire starts to burn, and it starts to spread, she gonna bring that attitude home.”
Those exact factors are why certain genre partisans find Deafheaven and Disclosure so irritating. What your average Metacritic gusher sees as pushing forward modern music, purists see as a betrayal of sacred (profane?) tradition, be it Deafheaven forsaking the lo-fi “necro” sound or Disclosure favoring compact, melody-driven pop singles over stretched-out, beat-centric club tracks. (Ironically, ultraconservative black metal zealots decry their crossover stars for being too progressive while evolution-obsessed club kids clown theirs for being too retro.) When buffet-style dabblers opt not to dig deeper than the big buzz release, the genre acolytes resent seeing so much similar, equally worthy music going ignored. Yesterday on Twitter, a user by the name of @bfordelokoxvx posted regarding Deafheaven, “they rip off wolves algalloch [sic] Alcest envy etc super hard. Idk everyone thinks they are doing something innovative and they arent.” Last month, another tweeter named @mcviper rattled off a bunch of old UK garage producers: “I reckon disclosure is made up secretly of Wookie, mj cole, artful dodger, zinc, Jameson and Karl brown.”
Metal and club music are worlds apart aesthetically, but it’s easy to find some common threads. Both rely on relentless pounding rhythms designed for physicality and catharsis; both are havens for outsiders or people who view themselves as outsiders; both are vast universes to themselves containing a litany of carefully codified subgenres. Most importantly for our purposes, both groups have been infiltrated by armies of ideologues ready to passionately defend the gates to the fan club. And defend they have — sometimes with bizarre insults (Metacritic user finnigan37 on Settle: “If you dance to this you are a terrible dancer”), other times with threats (the charming @chudblunter on Twitter yesterday: “How many Deafheaven kids do you think I can fit in the trunk of a 1998 Buick LeSabre”). It’s worth noting that most of that rhetoric has been relegated to social media, message boards, and comments sections, because the overwhelming majority of music writers are attempting to present themselves as open-minded omnivores. In professional coverage of Sunbather and Settle, you’re much more likely to find disparaging references to purist backlash than actual purist backlash.
As someone who’s writing professionally about those albums right this second, and who is frequently guilty of scouring a genre’s critical-consensus fringe without bothering to plumb its depths, I can’t help but wonder: Is that so bad? I resonate with William Bowers’ defense of dabbling in his concert-review-as-treatise last year: “A few of us dilettantes overestimating Liturgy, and then maybe checking out some other black metal bands’ releases and shows, isn’t ‘doing’ anything to your precious ‘true’ black metal.” Sure, Deafheaven doing “the exact fucking opposite of what black metal bands do” is probably trolling the trolls as Michael suspects, a deliberate attempt to inflame. And sure, Deafheaven’s forebear in the “hipster black metal” designation, Liturgy’s Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, is up his own ass a bit with that brilliantly pretentious manifesto. But which Fenriz fanboy was prevented from enjoying some limited edition cassette because of it? And who’s really suffering for my sins of Agalloch omission besides me? Cue Bowers again: “You happily torture yourself practicing lifelong monogamy to the ‘true’ black-metal strictures, and let Hunt-Hendrix write any oracular PowerPoint exegesis he wants to, while others of us whore out our iPod space to whatever comes along and seems halfway interesting.”
Still, a part of me sympathizes with the authenticity police when they call out interlopers like myself for branching out only when it’s fashionable — not because there’s anything wrong with attempting to stay on the cutting edge, but because when you’ve staked your identity on something, it stings to see other people so casually co-opting it. We all structure our worldview around some center; we all define ourselves according to some core identity. For a certain sect of people, that identity happens to be “super kvlt.” They probably relate with a commenter named TheWolf who spewed venom back in May when the metal blog Invisible Oranges posted Deafheaven tour dates: “Thanks for encouraging hipsters who treat metal like a fashion of the week or a garnish to place on top of their indie rock main course.”
I’m the guy with the garnish, but I totally see where the TheWolf is coming from. As someone who defines myself first and foremost as a Christian, you would not believe how much it galls me when people crib elements from my faith as a fashion statement. Examine it, sure, but at a certain point you’re either in or you’re out. Who on Earth wants to see his entire lifestyle reduced to an accessory? Certainly not a gay suburban teen who found himself in house music, only to see the latest wave of EDM exploitation encroaching on his scene. Definitely not a woman who claims “Black Metal Saved My Life.” Even Michael, a passionate supporter of Deafheaven’s quest to redraw the borders of black metal, felt antagonistic toward the party-crashers at the band’s New York show, if only temporarily.
Provincial thinking is tied to music more often than I sometimes realize. It’s easy to mock a guy who gets his corpsepaint all tear-smeared over a Williamsburg Starbucks-sipper discovering “Dream House” via NPR, but every chosen identity comes with its codes of conduct and its fear of ill-willed intruders. Consider other, more widely embraced musical genre archetypes: Blake Shelton’s “Boys ’Round Here” runs down a pavlovian laundry list of country cliches including ice cold beer, trucks, tobacco, red dirt roads and God; when A$AP Rocky suggests, “Pussy, money, weed/ It’s all a nigga need,” he might as well be playing gangster rap Mad Libs. You’d better believe those are codified identities rooted in a musical style. People aspire to be that, and to protect that. How many songs are there about fake country or fake hip-hop? Maybe those who think of themselves as underground music experts can relate: Does it grate on you when Taylor Swift sings about “dress(ing) up like hipsters,” or when your teenage cousin uploads selfies wearing horn-rimmed glasses hashtagged #indie? What about when Jay-Z borrows lyrics from Nirvana? (Speaking of territorial pissings…)
It would be ludicrous to suggest that there’s something wrong with Deafheaven painting black metal in pastels or Disclosure scoring the kind of Top 10 smashes James Blake could not. We’re all lucky to have Sunbather and Settle available to us this summer, even if our journey into their sonic territory never progresses any further than the end of each respective tracklist. Anyone who takes offense at such harmless musical mix-and-match ought to take a long, hard look at their priorities. That said, don’t just mindlessly ingest this stuff. Make an attempt to digest it too, and if it doesn’t sit right, don’t hesitate to spit it back up. Along with this new spirit of genuine critical thought could come a new motto for the gatekeepers: Death to false middle.