Deafheaven are debuting a new song today called “Come Back,” and it’s preceded here by an extended diatribe — or “thinkpiece” — on the subject of Deafheaven. You can skip all that noise and just listen to the song, if you’re so inclined.
At the beginning of September, Paste published this list called “10 Metal Albums For People Who Don’t Like Metal.” Yeah, that’s right, Paste: the Wilco-and-Linklater glossy from the aughts; the American Mojo. Not famous for being a big authority on metal. No shade! Paste publishes a huge amount of outstanding work by a long list of great writers, and I would never imply otherwise. I’m just saying, metal is not a lane in which Paste has traditionally trafficked. We can agree on that, right?
So anyway: “10 Metal Albums For People Who Don’t Like Metal” according to a tasteful, traditionalist-leaning general-interest culture publication. I’ll give you three guesses who came in at #1 on that list. No cheating! Need a hint? Okay. Here’s a visual clue. This photograph appeared at the top of that article:
Did you get it right? Of fucking course you did. You got it on the first guess without even looking at the picture because who the hell else was it gonna be? Was there ever another option?
It gets exhausting, man, I tell you. It would be a whole lot easier if Deafheaven sucked, because this kinda stuff? For someone like me? A Person Who Does Like Metal And Also Likes Deafheaven? It’s draining. It is! Not because Deafheaven shouldn’t appeal to People Who Don’t Like Metal — they sure as hell should — but because Deafheaven’s prevalence in publications generally aimed at People Who Don’t Like Metal sort of serves as a red flag and/or huge turnoff for People Who Do Like Metal. The message being sent: Deafheaven are not for you. More insidiously: Deafheaven are not for us — so if you’re one of us, Deafheaven are not for you. Deafheaven are fake, fraudulent, false. Deafheaven make music for People Who Don’t Like Metal and therefore should be avoided if not denigrated by People Who Do Like Metal.
This is utter bullshit, of course, but many People Who Do Like Metal tend to take a binary view of all music — i.e., all music is either metal or not-metal — and have done so for the last three decades. That mindset started with the hair-metal vs. real-metal wars of the mid-’80s (at which point Poison, for example, were on the wrong side of the line while Metallica were on the right side); it peaked with the release of “The Black Album” in 1991 (at which point Metallica were on the wrong side of the line while Morbid Angel were on the right side); and it has cruised at that altitude ever since, covering nu-metal (almost exclusively not-metal), grunge-metal (same), metalcore (NOPE), and a billion other ensuing emergent subgenres extending the entire span of the ever-growing long tail up to (and surely beyond) this very moment. Like … what’s the new thing? BLACK YO)))GA, is it? Well that’s a hearty fuck no!
Of course, most of the above-mentioned “wrong side” stuff does in fact suck and is absolutely worthy of scorn. Deafheaven, on the other hand, are one of the best bands in all of music today; their last record wiped the floor with everything else that came out in 2013 (quantifiably!) and their live show is as hot, intense, and explosive as an Appalachian Pentecostal church service in July. So maybe, just maybe, they’ve transcended (lol @ transcended!) the harsh and divisive knee-jerk stigma that has dogged them since Sunbather went supernova two years ago? Maybe they have! Let’s take a look at the comments in that Paste thing to get a better idea. Hmm, okay, here’s one:
And so on and so forth, you get the idea.
Look, full disclosure: I know the guy who wrote that Paste article. His name is Jonathan Dick and he sometimes writes for Stereogum, too. He’s not a dilettante, not some overextended staffer tasked with churning out random listicles. He’s a metal lifer with excellent taste; he’s spent the last three years running his own essential heavy-music blog, Steel For Brains. And looking up and down that Paste list, it’s not hard to see how Jonathan came up with those “10 Metal Albums For People Who Don’t Like Metal”: He basically just picked 10 records that are great by any standard and wrote about each one. (It’s an unconventional approach, but I like it!) He put Sunbather at #1 because Sunbather is a fucking awesome album. If its inclusion or placement feels tokenistic or inevitable, that’s only because its awesomeness has been recognized by lots of sites and magazines and listeners who traditionally Don’t Like Metal or don’t get much exposure to metal.
Still, it is draining. What’s worse, though, is: It stings a little bit, too, because I’m forced to concede, like, half a point to the haters. Here’s what I mean: Jonathan’s Paste piece stopped short of calling Sunbather not-metal, but he did say this much: “While the word ‘beauty’ often results in the unfortunate gag reflex of many a metalhead concerning Deafheaven, it’s the selling point of one of today’s most captivating bands, metal or not.” When I reviewed the album for Stereogum in May 2013, I wasn’t nearly so equivocal. I stated outright that I was discussing the album in a black-metal context solely because Deafheaven frontman George Clarke chose to employ a very traditional black-metal vocal delivery throughout. Furthermore, I wrote:
If you were to remove all Clarke’s vocals 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.
Two years later, those stipulations still stand. Sunbather was my favorite album of 2013, but I won’t argue with you if you want to categorize it as not-metal.
The band’s upcoming New Bermuda, on the other hand, is definitely a metal album. Clarke’s vocal approach hasn’t changed, but the guy who writes the music over which Clarke is screaming — Deafheaven guitarist Kerry McCoy — reportedly drew from cornerstone influences like Morbid Angel and Mustaine-era Metallica when constructing New Bermuda. Said McCoy of the band’s process this time around:
[A] lot of this record is us being like, “Look, we are a metal band. We do a lot of other stuff, but we can solo; we can have some Slayer riffs in there. There was a lot of, “Hey, what if we throw some traditional thrash metal stuff in here, but just make it our own?” And I think it worked really well.
I am gonna eliminate whatever uncertainty might be conjured by McCoy’s hesitant “And I think…” disclaimer. There’s no question: It worked REALLY FUCKING WELL. New Bermuda is exponentially denser, heavier, and shreddier than Sunbather, but it feels like a natural progression. It feels like a necessary progression. And even amid all its monstrous, suffocating fury, it still delivers moments of sublime beauty, knee-buckling grandeur, and glorious release. Frankly, those moments are even more striking in these arrangements.
New Bermuda is one of the best albums of the year, period. It’s also one of the best metal albums of the year. Deafheaven are still gonna capture the imaginations and hearts of a lot of People Who Don’t Like Metal. But New Bermuda is a gift to the genre. It’s an album for People Who LOVE Metal.
So ANYWAY, let’s hear some music, right? “Come Back” is (I think) my favorite song on New Bermuda. It spans the spectrum of Deafheaven’s sound, from blast-furnace intensity to sky-watching wonder. I can’t imagine asking more from a song than everything delivered in this one. Listen.
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