-By Zack Sigel
To say that George Clarke moves like Conan O’Brien is not to undercut the sincerity of his music and art, but to describe the two tall charismatic men as both rigid and choreographed. The latter moves to the music of his in-house band and the former to Deafheaven. Conan shuffles onto stage and always lands a halfway hop timed to his drummer’s snare; Clarke extends his arms as as if casting spells and summoning spirits. Both thrive on the indictment of their audience through their performance.
But Clarke isn’t funny. In fact, he’s dead serious. You can hear it in the gruesome shriek he lends to his music, or read it in his lyrics. Deafheaven is a black metal band, which means that, with few exceptions, they must be moody and austere. One may choose to hear Clarke’s screams as angry, but catharsis is an outlet for a variety of emotions. With that in mind, it’s possible to hear Deafheaven as profoundly sad or triumphant. Someone recently asked me to revise the toast she was to give as her best friend’s maid-of-honor. And so, somewhere, on a bright day in late spring, a young woman who had never listened to black metal in her life unknowingly recited a couplet from one of Deafheaven’s earlier releases. The response was rapturous.
It would be difficult to imagine a place for Deafheaven’s lyrics among the first and second waves of black metal, as bands of those eras were concerned with occult blood and necrophilia. But then, it would be almost impossible to imagine Deafheaven putting on a show then, either.
I have seen Deafheaven twice. The first time was with one of my oldest friends, not far from the town where I grew up, and the second happened to be with one of my newest. On stage, the movements of the other band members are unremarkable— the centerpiece is Clarke. He plays no instruments but his prodigious vocal cords free him to chew up the stage. It is a performance of axiomatic intimacy. Deafheaven’s music envelops you, reverberates through you, overtaxing your senses of hearing and touch until invisible waves of sound compress your being into space. That much is not unique to black metal. It is only when Clarke reaches out to feel you experiencing this that we might witness black metal diverging into its third wave.
The epistemic status of “black metal” is itself open to interpretation. There are those, perhaps a majority, who believe it denotes something strict or “pure.” These are the originalists, whose descendants still produce music in limited quantities on cassette tapes as if upholding an ancient ritual. Several of these bands, which constitute the tail end of black metal’s first wave and the lion’s share of its second, have gone on to worldwide notoriety. Mayhem is the ugliest of the second-wave bands, but also its most influential. They are credited with not only introducing and popularizing the “corpsepaint” face mask associated with black metal’s visual culture, but also with much of the music’s defining sound: The raw vocals, high-end guitar work, and blast beats that matter less with keeping time and more to create an aural assault in its own right.
The other camp understands black metal to be an evolving genre, capable both of influencing other forms of metal and non-metal genres and subject to influence from without as well. These are the loose constructionists, of which Deafheaven must be considered a part, if not emblematizing the movement outright. The emergence of the loose constructionists also signifies the first evidence of black metal’s third wave, of musicians raised as much on Brahms as on Burzum. A band like Deafheaven can cite the Emo pioneers Rites of Spring or the daydreaming shoegaze legends Slowdive as influences and a new generation of fans recently turned on to black metal knowingly nod their heads. And when George Clarke sinks to his knees, his shriek never wavering, he knows with whom he is connecting. Our hearts are heavy; our hands reach out to grasp his, forming a cone of flesh converging to a point that brings to mind the hordes of infected humans in World War Z. This is how black metal remains primitive while losing its taste for the hateful.
Across town, Dispirit was playing at Saint Vitus, the celebrated all-metal music venue and bar in Greenpoint. Dispirit still plays music in the old style of the second-wavers, but without adhering to originalist dogma. Its frontman is John Gossard, who also, at the end of the 1990s, almost singlehandedly created the genre known as American black metal when his band Weakling released its first album Dead as Dreams, which quickly became its last. But Gossard’s influence is difficult to overstate, even while he prefers to be coy about it. You hear his innovations with layering and texture and song length in nearly every prominent American black metal release, including those of Deafheaven. In Dispirit, he is still experimenting, and it is no criticism to say that, heard live, there is little distinction between measures and sound, with Gossard preferring to blur his musicianship together and produce an atmosphere instead of a “piece”.
The result is haunting, like an explosion captured in time-lapse, and dragged out for maximum effect. Even in a packed room, you might feel isolated. Gossard himself endeavors to disassociate himself from the music, cranking a fog machine up to eleven and bathing his band in crimson light until he disappears into a barely noticeable silhouette. (The other band members are almost totally erased.) All that’s left is the music and the worshipful shifting of bodies: in the third wave, there are no mosh pits. That is not to say that violence is all absent. Had Saint Vitus been any less well-ventilated, the admixture of liquid nitrogen obscuring our hosts would have induced a mild case of anoxia, subtracting the oxygen from our lungs until we slipped into unconsciousness. That condition has been implicated in the phenomenon of near-death experiences, and something tells me that’s precisely what Dispirit had in mind.