by Dan Murphy (@danmurphy3220)
It seems Deafheaven was one of the few bands responsible for sparking a heated conversation concerning the bounds and definitions regarding black metal in the last few years, with seasoned metalheads actively lamenting their “hipster” and “poser” sound as a bastardization of the genre’s conventions. On the other side, we’ve seen critics and fans praising the group of San Francisco natives for their incorporation of shoegaze and post-rock influences into a sound that had otherwise stagnated into tired tropes and the close mindedness. Their 2013 full-length release, Sunbather, was at the forefront of this debate, an album heavily lauded in reviews and year-end best-of lists, yet attacked by black metal purists, not to mention the occasional YouTube troll.
Sound aside, Sunbather also drew new fans in as a result of a strong background narrative that fueled its deeply personal lyrical content. The band’s founding members and primary songwriters, lead singer/lyricist George C. Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy, were close to homeless in the years leading up to Sunbather’s release, crashing on friends’ couches and in cars before finding small house shared by fourteen inhabitants. During this period, the duo struggled with substance abuse as documented on the track “Windows” by an audio sample of McCoy conducting a drug deal. Amidst this, the lyrics on Sunbather find Clarke longing for the life of luxury, most notably in the song title “Dream House” and album’s namesake discussing the narrator’s wishful drive “through a maze of wealthy homes.”
In the press lead-up to the band’s most recent release, New Bermuda, Deafheaven has crafted a new story for themselves—not one of two creative-types drowning in crust-punk lifestyle, but of a group growing up and out of humble means and facing a new set of issues with the transition. The band’s moved out of their home of San Francisco, away from the rising rent prices and tech-fueled immigration into the uncharted territory of Los Angeles. Lyrically, it sounds like the move isn’t going that well. The album opener “Brought to the Water” kicks off with Clarke growling, “Where has my passion gone,” while Luna sees the lead singer bemoaning, “Tricked into some fodder about this oasis, this conversation of a new beginning.” I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the sample ending “Baby Blue” of a George Washington Bridge traffic advisory that will fill any New Yorker with more existential dread than a reading of The Unbearable Lightness of Being ever could.
Bermuda’s sound immediately reflects this altering narrative, as the differences in production value between the two albums are apparent from the get-go. Sunbather sided with a looser, more muddy sound that you’d find yourself sinking into, whereas Bermuda comes across much crisper. Before, McCoy was content to barrage the listener with a wave of heavily effected guitar chords, resulting in an all encompassing audial assault not different from the full-blast feedback techniques you’d get at those now-fabled My Bloody Valentine shows. Here, however, he’s leaning on more conventional metal tropes—staccato’d Iron Maiden galloping, harmonized lines, and quick scale runs, not to mention that wah-wah solo on “Baby Blue” that’s injected with so much machismo, I wouldn’t doubt McCoy had a nice wank in the mirror after recording it.
But all of this is to be expected, right? If you want to make an album about feeling lost in poverty and drug abuse, you’d make the audience feel lost with you by drowning them in sound. Bermuda, on the other hand, carries a different message. Deafheaven’s managed to get out of the overcrowded punk house into the dream house only to find the good life wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Because of it, they’re relying on a more concrete sound. The lingering question of, “Which album is better?” still remains, and I’m more willing to side with Sunbather on this one. Take away that context, and this is still an incredible and important metal album. A song like “Gifts for the Earth” is a huge step in the right direction for Deafheaven, as they’re managing to explore more dynamic options with their music that are working out tremendously, and the intro buildup on “Baby Blue” isn’t hard to listen to on repeat ad infinitum.
Consequently, it all depends on the story you’d find most interesting—the tale of two friends deep in the depths of substance abuse and poverty longing for the good life, or one about the same guys climbing out to find that stability comes with its own set of problems and doesn’t really quell that whole fear-of-the-black-abyss-that-is-death thing. Either way, I can see New Bermuda having an important place in the discussion of Deafheaven’s effect on the black metal genre in years to come.