Black metal has changed since the confused “notice me, senpai” days of Hideous Gnosis and Until the Light Takes Us, and in large part this is because of Deafheaven. Where bands like Agalloch, Alcest, and Wolves in the Throne Room made inroads into the mainstream thanks to coverage from Pitchfork and NPR, it’s Deafheaven who have successfully divorced black metal from its aesthetic confines and made it truly crossover material.
To wit: Black metal is silly. All metal is silly, yeah, but black metal, with its wraith-like maelstroms of screeching guitar and vocals packaged in wintry cover art and esoteric Lovecraft-speak song titles, is especially silly. Some classic black metal tracks are: Emperor’s “I Am the Black Wizards,” Immortal’s “The Call of the Wintermoon,” and Darkthrone’s “Summer of the Diabolical Holocaust.” Silly!
But the music is dead fucking serious. This is vicious stuff. It strains at the boundaries of what you can do with a drum kit and a couple of guitars, stretching magisterial chord progressions until they’re as gossamer as spiderwebs. It’s not experimental, per se, certainly not at this point in its history, but it’s a much harder sell than doom or thrash, both of which are satisfying on a gut level. Even grindcore takes black metal’s blurred aggression and cuts it into bloody, bite-size bits. Black metal is unapologetically heady; it’s as much about the idea of the music as it is the actual music. Sometimes you’ll get five minutes of crackling fires or trickling streams before any guitars come in.
But with their 2013 record Sunbather, Deafheaven lifted the core aspects of black metal and situated them in a context closer to indie and post-rock. You could call it “blackgaze,” I guess. The cover art is almost confrontationally bright and inviting. The songs are named stuff like “Dream House” and “The Pecan Tree.” And the music is brittle and thunderous in the mold of Russian Circles or Jesu: a sort of technical shoegaze, full of tempo shifts and spitshined guitar tones that envelop more than they assault.
What makes it black metal, then? The vocals, primarily. George Clarke screams everything in the painful rasp emblematic of black metal. Tremolo-picked guitar lines and thwapping blast beats further characterize this as BM. French shoegazers Alcest got attention by putting cooed, angelic vocal parts over BM; Deafheaven retain the offputting texture of screamed vocals, but recontexualize them against gleaming, modernist surfaces. Those vocals over this music became almost ecstatic. You could slot Deafheaven in next to John Zorn and Boris, a sort of tastemaker’s extreme music sampling.
Divorced from the ornate, incestuous occult leanings of the genre at large, Deafheaven is able to reach listeners who probably wouldn’t pick up a record named, like, Invoking the Majestic Throne of Satan. It’s a simple trick, really, the same sort of deft curatorial touch that characterizes Kanye at his best.
Sunbather was a record about modern discontent, about “wealthy homes” and ephemeral love and suburban banality. It was fresh territory for black metal (though well-trod by bands from Rush to Arcade Fire); if a BM band isn’t singing how great the woods are, they’re trying to convince you that Hitler maybe had some good points. Like videogames, metal bands often just reference other metal bands, but Deafheaven manage to focus black metal’s cosmic fury on something we can all relate to: life kinda sucks if you’re not rich.
It’s ironic, then, that Deafheaven’s latest album New Bermuda is at its best when deploying razor-edged, no-bullshit black metal. I’m not a huge fan of Sunbather, to be sure, but I’ve come to respect its confidence. On New Bermuda Deafheaven double down on the harshness of their sound rather than pushing Sunbather further. So as a black metal record, New Bermuda is possessed of dynamic, powerful riffing and the kind of meticulous production (… and major-label money) not usually afforded to black metal acts.
Unfortunately, when the band downshifts into one of their signature detours, they fall completely, immediately flat. This record is full of corny wah-wah guitar solos, rote, swirling goth rock clean passages, tentative slide guitar leads, Oasis outros, and huge major-key post-rock Positive Riff moves that serve only to distract from the adept black metal happening elsewhere. The touchstones for the quieter moments and obtrusive flourishes are evident and all of it has been done better elsewhere. Metal + “other genre” has been around for decades now. Opeth used to put carnival waltzes in between pounding Morbid Angel riffs. Ulver turned into Portishead after making three albums of cassette-tape, forest-bound black metal. That Deafheaven have garnered so much praise is proof that they’ve managed to penetrate further into the mainstream than any of their contemporaries.
Sunbather knew what it was, for better or worse. Its legacy is assured as an album that dared to reimagine black metal in a new context, relatable and accessible while retaining some edge. New Bermuda is too diffuse to stand up against Ludicra or Agalloch as vanguard modern-day black metal, feeling almost obligated at points to take stylistic left turns, and yet it’s too abrasive to count as anything but black metal. Whether Deafheaven or another band will be the ones to carry Sunbather‘s promise forward will be fascinating to watch.