-By Zack Sigel
It is difficult to discuss music, especially new music, without discussing the way it makes one feel. Music may not even have any purpose other than to evoke a feeling or emotion, and attempting to compare it with other art forms often signifies only that the given critic is pretentious or imprecise. Saying perhaps more about the writer than the artist, critics of metal are especially vulnerable to this cheap dodge, and if it were asked of even the better critics why he or she enjoyed a particular album, the response will be rather focused on hooks and riffs. Much will be said of the way its textures and tones settle into your ears, and very little of why it was made in the first place. This tendency explains why so many reviewers make a show of mentioning a record’s producer, as if knowing who is turning the dials in the control room helps us make sense of the experience.
I make this distinction in light of a recent Deafheaven review that likened listening to their latest album New Bermuda to the sensation of flying, as if being actually carried off on the strength of the band’s guitar or percussion. Most revealing about this point was not that this was a frivolous way of saying you liked it, but that its author also took pains to note that this was a physical feeling, not an emotional one, and he had in fact no emotional takeaway at all. Very little if any attention was paid to the thematic content of the music, despite the generous collections of lyrics and visual culture to which Deafheaven attends, so we are never any closer to feeling the music than if one were just to put the article aside and play the new record. A brief tweet with a recommendation of the album and a link to play or purchase it would have accomplished almost the same thing, and one still would have no more context through which to process it. I will take Brandon Stosuy’s numerous tweets about crying while watching or listening to Deafheaven over four thousand words about why someone else didn’t.
When New Bermuda, then untitled, was announced last year, most of music was only just getting over the greatness of the band’s previous record. That would be Sunbather, which made it onto the best-of lists of so many traditionally metal-opposed publications that there was a sense black metal had actually produced a breakthrough album. That frightened black metal’s introverts, and it inaugurated the familiar process of openly denouncing Deafheaven as impure or fraudulent. At the time, there was a sense that what fans of black metal were worried about was that the genre as they’d known it would go away forever, perhaps as Deafheaven made it more respectable to be open and honest rather than abstract and theatrical. But when I reached George Clarke, Deafheaven’s lyricist and vocalist, by phone last week, he disagreed.
“I think that it’s always going to have its listeners,” he said. “And it’s been a very self-sufficient type of music for such a long time and will probably continue to be.” They have been described as black metal in the music press, on their streaming music artist pages, and even by their own record label. Clarke is less than committal about the classification himself; in Pitchfork, he wondered whether Deafheaven even plays metal at all. “Although the influence is definitely there, there are so many other types of things going on that it would be unfair to a person that’s not familiar with our music [to label the band black metal],” he told me. “I think it’d be unfair to us as well.”
One key distinction, if not the most important one of all, is how introspective Deafheaven’s music is in comparison with black metal. “For us,” Clarke says, “all of our albums and everything that we’ve ever tried to do has been definitely very personal, and definitely very reliant on introspection and self-analysis and things like that.” When he is writing lyrics, he is probing at old wounds and making them fresh again, a version of black metal’s sadomasochism without its sense of loathing. “We have our own take on the genre and I think we kind of always have,” Clarke says. There are no stories of weary soldiers marching to war, no vampires or ghouls, no concern for nationalism or history at stake. It isn’t even clear that the music’s protagonists are male. If there is to be a phantom haunting Clarke’s words, it is the departed spirit of a feeling; if blood is to be spilled, it will be Clarke’s own. “Break bones down to yellow,” he screams on Sunbather’s title track, “and crush gums into blood.”
Deafheaven embarked on a massive tour to support Sunbather. It spanned continents and demographics — I saw them play one of the poorest neighborhoods in South Florida, and one of the wealthiest in Brooklyn — and seemed, at the time, to go on forever. They were also already dreaming of the next record, and, Clarke says, waiting to write the album “involved us having to wait for that to be over.” After taking a breather from the schedule, a time came when the band, which by then had permanently expanded to include Daniel Tracy, Shiv Mehra, and Stephen Clark, finally could sit down and write. “We were eager to put out a new record, so we started piecing it together,” Clarke says.
The first track to come out of those sessions was called “From the Kettle Onto the Coil,” which was commissioned by Adult Swim, the cable network. It was written quickly, and sounded a little too much like a B-side from the record, but Deafheaven fanatics were so intoxicated from the neon luster of Sunbather that anything new from the band felt like a gift. “It was just fun, it was a quick single,” Clarke says. “I definitely think that it bridged the gap between the two albums.” That year, 2014, was the summer, autumn, and winter of Deafheaven, between its relentless live performances, media blitz, and the emergence of new music. The only thing more surprising would be the announcement of a new record. And then on Twitter, Kerry McCoy, the band’s guitarist, did just that.
McCoy formed the band with Clarke in 2010, and released their first studio album, Roads to Judah, that year. When a critic describes the sensation of listening to Deafheaven, he or she is usually responding to McCoy’s melodies, and the confidence with which he switches between registers and textures, between influences as varied as Oasis and Morbid Angel. He is responsible for the soaring quality of the music, and for its decrescendo, in which segments of Deafheaven’s songs pay equal homage to the dive bar as the opera house. “There’s a lot of stuff that I write where it’ll start off as a totally intense blast beat part or like a big mid-tempo kind of post-rock thing,” he told me. “When I’m done, when we’re done working through the song, it’ll actually wind up being some quiet, little, reserved, almost solo piece.”
McCoy talks about music like a maestro instead of a musician playing music that most people consider an acquired taste. He once told an interviewer that if you were to sync Burzum’s “Beholding the Daughters of the Firmament” with the Cranberries’ “Zombie” neither would seem out of place. (I actually tried this out, and it sounded amazing. The key is to start “Firmament” about thirty seconds later; eventually, Varg Vikernes and Dolores O’Riordan will perform a very ironic duet.) “The point I was trying to make,” McCoy says, “was if you strip all of the tones and the attitudes and all the other instruments away from the chords themselves, the chords are the same, it’s E-minor, A-minor, C.” Even the rhythm is almost the same, even if the sound (and the politics) are not. “However you want to flavor those chords will determine the genre it is,” he says. “Chords are chords, and progressions are progressions, they just exist, and they are their own thing.”
When he writes music, McCoy explores the many ways that dynamics and tones can come together to communicate a kind of experience. “I think about that a lot,” he says. “A lot of stuff that we use would not be your typical black metal-influenced part, and yet I feel like it works and it sounds fresh to me because we’re taking it from different influences.” Since releasing Roads to Judah, the band has become increasingly comfortable experimenting with these influences, and the ways in which combining them produces the signature Deafheaven sound. New Bermuda is flashier, McCoy says, and “a little more riffy.” It has elements of thrash metal, shoegaze, and even breakdowns that wouldn’t feel out of place on a metalcore record. McCoy told me that New Bermuda employed less open tremolo strumming, delay, and reverb than Sunbather, which is another way of saying it has fewer of the components that make an album black metal.
He lets his songs breathe. “Whenever I’m writing,” he says, “[the songs] kind of have a feeling or a vibe and I just let them go where they want to go. It almost feels like the things are writing themselves, to be honest.” It has been noted that Clarke’s vocals often signify a change in McCoy’s instrumentation, as a conductor’s baton might, but Clarke told me that this is merely a coincidence of good chemistry. “I think that the way I write lyrics and the things that I talk about and the way that Kerry writes music, I think it’s very complimentary,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a purposefully matched up partnership. I don’t listen to his guitar riff and I think, ‘Okay, I’m going to say this here, and that fits this.’ It doesn’t really work like that. I think just naturally the moods that I’m expressing through words and the moods that he’s expressing through his guitar just mesh really well.”
The title New Bermuda conjured several images for me, but nothing so memorable as the short trailer the band released in advance of the record. In it, a tranquil beach scene gives way to the imposition of darkness. It isn’t nightfall, so it must be something unnatural and out-of-order, like oxidization or an eclipse. The soft-segment opening of the track “Come Back” plays over it, and it explodes into its hard-segment over a montage of Deafheaven’s five constituents, completing the corrosion of an unspoiled land.
One of the more curious sections on New Bermuda depicts the corruption of different kind of environment. At the end of the track “Baby Blue”, there is a recording announcing a lane closure on the George Washington Bridge, which connects New York City to New Jersey. Clarke told me that it wasn’t necessary to actually envision Bermuda (new or old) in order to appreciate the album’s themes, but this recording was a reference to a very specific geographical time and place, and it seemed impossible that it should not mean something more. “We’re naturally drawn to cities, where we live and that we visit, and our travels have definitely influenced our art in certain ways,” McCoy says. “To me, living in a place like that does kind of affect your mood and vibe and probably inadvertently affect the type of guitaring or guitar stuff that I write. It’s definitely not something I’m conscious of.”
Thinking of the symbolism Clarke draws from in his lyrics, I asked if crossing that bridge — the band is from San Francisco, so it wasn’t likely that they’d crossed it more than a handful of times — represented something like the the closing of a chapter of their lives. (They’d done this on Sunbather with the track “Windows,” a recording Clarke had made of McCoy selling drugs to survive, for when the time should came that they look back on it.) “No, I don’t think it plays that heavily,” Clarke said. “Honestly, one of the ideas for the record was to incorporate elements of the places we’ve traveled to a lot in the last couple years, using field recordings.” He also mentioned a rain sample on the album that I hadn’t even noticed, which they’d recorded while on tour in Malaysia. “It was an idea to enhance the album overall,” Clarke said. “They’re almost like little winks that we put in there, like just for ourselves, to personalize it,” McCoy added.
Or, perhaps, to memorialize it. In “Gifts for the Earth,” the last track on the album, Clarke sings, “I imagine the end / Then further downward, so that I can rest, cocooned by the heat of the ocean floor / In the dark, my flesh to disintegrate into consumption for the earth.” To the planet that has given him so much, from the touch of rain in May to the rush of bodies transporting their hopes and dreams across state lines, Clarke has offered up the ultimate sacrifice, his soul. There but for the grace of death, he is saying, like the stone effigy of the Earl of Arundel lamenting to Larkin, “Our almost-instinct almost true: what will survive of us is love.”
Most metal bands have a commanding stage presence, and Deafheaven is no different. But when Clarke looks out at the audience filling out before him, he sees hundreds of intimate little relationships blossoming below the stage. “People have always responded to our music in a very personal way,” he says. “And people have always really appreciated the lyricism, and I think that people have connected with the music itself, in a such a way that when we perform live I like to reenact that personal connection.” The mic stand in one hand, he reaches out with the other to grasp the hands of those fortunate enough to stand inside his periphery, as if seeking their warmth, their reassurance, and to convey his own. The transference is electric because Clarke is imbued with it. “The audience gives me energy and they inspire me to push myself further and to be as energetic and as close as possible,” Clarke says. “So I think it’s definitely a mutual relationship. I give back a lot of the times what they’re giving me to begin with.” Sometimes, when you see the band live, it looks as if he is collapsing, as if he is weeping into his hands; sometimes, when you look backward, into the crowds of hopeful faces, he is not the only one.
McCoy told me that he doesn’t think success will change the band. Even with all the near worshipful coverage of New Bermuda, Deafheaven is far from the dream house they conceived of in Sunbather. “As much as we’re just living normal middle-class lives,” McCoy says, “the jump that we made from before Sunbather to now was a pretty big jump in terms of the socioeconomic ladder. I feel like if it was going to change us, it would have changed us already.” Their rise was so profound that the band can’t help feeling as if the whole thing survives only on borrowed time. But it’s difficult even to imagine what would happen to all the adoring fans, to the enraptured critics, to the men and women taking flight with them, to the world tours in places they’d never expected to see, to the crooked love flowing in humid rooms and late hours, to the relief of acquired capital and the promise of shelter. “If it all ended tomorrow, or if we became Metallica tomorrow, either way is okay with us,” McCoy says. “We’re just going to keep doing what we do.”