Black metal has threatened to defile mainstream pop culture plenty of times in the past. At one point there were rumors that the book Lords of Chaos — an oral history of the genre that includes all the bits about the church burnings, murder, etc. — was going to become a movie starring Jackson Rathbone, whom Google tells me was in those Twilight movies. Google also tells me that the plans for that movie have been squashed, so black metal's mainstream breakout has possibly been delayed. Meanwhile, there's Deafheaven.
Sure, Yeezus may have gotten the lion's share of the "Album of the Year" chatter, but the San Francisco black metal band (or kinda-sorta black metal, but more on that later) Deafheaven saw their name mentioned in a lot of surprising places. Their sophomore album Sunbather was listed as the second-best album of the year by the somewhat hipster-y Stereogum, and it landed at No. 3 on The A.V. Club's list. It was one of the 50 best albums of the year on NPR's unranked list, and it was the only metal album to crack the Top 20 of The Village Voice's annual Pazz and Jop poll, sandwiched between Drake and The National. Metacritic, a site that creates a composite score out of critics' reviews, singled Sunbather out as the best-reviewed album of 2013. It's the first time a metal band has topped that list.
"It was certainly unexpected — I mean really unexpected," Deafheaven vocalist George Clarke tells the Scene regarding the record's reception. "Publications that not only did I not expect to get featured in, but also just don't typically cover a lot of metal in general."
And like what happened to Liturgy before them, Deafheaven has been subject to the many protests from purists decrying the band's perceived accessibility and lack of "kvltness" (i.e., general black-metalness). But unlike Liturgy, whose frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix likes to issue heavy-handed pronouncements of what black metal could and should be, Deafheaven is a lot more casual in their approach.
"People are always going to complain about something, especially in the vastness of the Internet," says Clarke. "You can't really impress anyone anymore."
But even while the message-board-trolling segment of the metal-listening public tends to be the loudest, Deafheaven has otherwise situated itself as something of a gateway band to every other kind of listener. They're as much a shoegaze band as a metal one, and post-rock's wide scope and sense of drama sit at the forefront. Sure, Clarke screams with the standard high black metal rasp, and there's sometimes tremelo picking over blastbeats (trademarks of the genre), but the overall package lands closer to "pretty" than "grim."
Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy first started toying with that template in a grindcore band called Rise of Caligula, whose album Parading From Heaven's Descent closed with an eight-minute track called "Calendar Year/Heroin Blues" that telegraphed a lot of the moves the duo would make in their next band.
"We joke saying that that was the first Deafheaven song we wrote, and it was totally different from the rest of that record," says Clarke. "I listen to grindcore as much as I listen to black metal, but it's just that one day I was more interested in playing one more than I was the other."
So Clarke and McCoy split off to do their own thing, recorded a four-song demo and sent it out to a number of music blogs. A few months later, Jacob Bannon, singer for metalcore stalwarts Converge and head of the Deathwish record label, downloaded the album.
"I got a phone call like a month later saying, 'Hey, I'm really interested in putting you guys out,' " Clarke explains. "We were only really out of the gate for maybe six months before they came calling."
Deafheaven's full-length debut, Road to Judah, followed soon after and made a big splash — but not one big enough to keep Clarke and McCoy's bandmates around. "We were financially unstable for so long," says Clarke, "and it's hard to be in a band that wants to tour at the level we do and essentially not make any money from it and lose your job, lose your place and all that.
Sonically, Sunbather is more penetrable than a lot of black metal. Lyrically, it's a lot more heart-on-sleeve than devil horns, even if it's mostly indecipherable without a lyric sheet. The album cover is pink, not black. And it's called friggin' Sunbather. But the risks weren't just aesthetic. The track "Windows" includes a field recording of McCoy making a drug deal.
"It was a little sketchy," Clarke explains. "Kerry just had a recorder in his pocket. Something bad could have happened. They would have fucked him up, probably. It was a risk, but I'm glad it got pulled off."
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