The Complicatist : Deafheaven and Sunbather

This black metal / shoegaze hybrid is (almost) everyone’s pick as album of the year
by Gordon Campbell

Every now and then, a punk or metal album reaches right across the aisle to people who normally never listen to that sort of music. In 2005, Mastodon’s second album Leviathan reached an indie audience well beyond the shores of metal. In 2008, The Chemistry of Common Life album by the Canadian punk band Fucked Up did the same thing, and this year the San Francisco black metal band Deafheaven have become critical darlings in the same unexpected fashion. Their second album Sunbather has found almost universal acclaim – on Metacritic polling, it has the highest score of any album released in 2013 that isn’t a re-issue. For whatever reason, it is reaching people far beyond the audience Deafheaven has hitherto seen as being its natural base.

Not that everyone is thrilled about that. Since Sunbather went mega, a lot of purists have decried the album and the band, almost on principle. That aside, how come this album has had such a positive reception ? Its not as if Deafheaven are the heaviest of metal bands. On Sunbather, much of the beauty of this music lies in the shadings of power, and not just in the usual “loud/soft/really loud” cliche format. Even the band’s combination of black metal, shoegaze and post rock elements is not an entirely new thing. (Alcest has been cited by many as a forerunner, and Stephane Neige from Alcest makes a guest appearance on the ” Please Remember” track, reading an excerpt from Jerzy Kosinki’s Unbearable Lightness of Being.)

Speaking personally – and as an only occasional visitor to any kind of metal – Sunbather stands out simply because of the quality of the writing. The four lengthy tracks – and especially the “The Pecan Tree” that closes the album and the “Dream House” cut that opens it – are all solidly crafted compositions, even when singer/lyric writer George Clarke is sounding entirely lost in the maelstrom. Around the 10 minute mark, “The Pecan Tree” lifts off into the shoe-gazing sublime, in the wake of lyrics that have referenced his grandmother, decaying from Alzheimers :

Setting fire to curtains in hope that you’re dreaming,
Destroying the tomb of memories from your life

Family and its dischords is the theme here. Clarke has made it clear in interviews that this song is one he wrote primarily about his father, in recognition of how he held the family together through its times of crisis. Clearly, its been a mixed legacy though :

I am my father’s son/ I am no one /I cannot love /It’s in my blood

But as a parent, I love this line :

I laid drunk on the concrete on the day of your birth/ in celebration of all you were worth

Here’s “The Pecan Tree” …and even if the screamo aspect of black metal isn’t your cup of tea at first, hold on….at least until the templates begin to shift around the 1.30 mark, and reach their first oasis around 4.20. In separate steps at the 8 minute and ten minute marks, the track lifts off into the stratosphere. To date, track of the year.

Deafheaven consists of George Clarke as lyric writer/vocalist and focal figure on stage. His one time school friend Kerry McCoy ( they met in 9th grade, when Clarke introduced McCoy to Slayer’s Reign in Blood) plays guitar, and writes the melodic frameworks for the songs. After a few personnel changes, the current touring line-up also includes drummer Daniel Tracy (who was brought on board for the Sunbather recording sessions) bassist Stephen Clark and second guitarist Shiv Mehra. Clarke is a a pretty avid reader. He has acknowledged the Bret Easton Ellis book Less Than Zero as an influence – but as with anyone, the influences get filtered down through far more immediate personal experiences, and sheer accidents.

On the album opener “Dream House” for instance, some of the lyrics reportedly originated with Clarke’s drunken 3am texts to an ex-girlfriend : There’s just these bits and pieces I threw together. Like, on “Dream House”, that conversation is really a conversation I had with this girl I was totally in love with. I was really hammered one night and was texting her, like, “How are you?” She’s like, “I’m dying.” And I was like, “Is it blissful?” She said, “like a dream.” And I said, “I want to dream.” It sounded nice at the time. So I wrote that text conversation down, and two years later, when I was working on that song, I thought it fit because it sums up the contrast between this big, beautiful ending and this big, tragic ending…..

Here’s “Dream House.” For obvious reasons, someone else has likened it to an Explosions In The Sky track in the way it winds its way through its loud/soft/loud again passages – the dip back into chaos at 5.51 for instance, is like a trapdoor suddenly opening – but it also manages to be really beautiful, at times. Around 7.25, Kerry McCoy’s guitar comes sailing in over the top in a way that’s utterly transporting, and the song holds that sense of sublimity right through until the close.

There aren’t that many interviews with this band online. This is a really good one, though.

Another good one was done by an 13 year old kid from Santa Cruz called Marcel, who does a thoroughly professional job, despite having a dud microphone and (occasionally) badly recorded sound. (The link to it is below.) Marcel’s final question to Clarke and McCoy – why do you love music ? – is one of those naive questions that draws a couple of great responses. As in:

Clarke : ‘It can be like, the purest form of expression. It is universal. It is interesting. People study it for their entire lives and never get its full scope. Its huge. Its always evolving, and fast paced. And the more we’re involved with aspects other than just writing music – with journalists, labels, agents, things like that – it becomes more and more interesting, in learning about how everything works. I’ve always been confused by people that weren’t music enthusiasts. Have you ever had a conversation with someone and they’re like, I just listen to the radio… ? .(Incredulous laughter on all sides.)

McCoy then picks up that same theme : ‘For me its a feeling you just get when you hear a song or a riff that really resonates. It hits that certain sweet spot in your chest. Same thing – at least I get this – when you’re writing something, and it clicks all of a sudden. Its just the coolest thing ever, a feeling you can’t get from anything else. Baseball players I’m sure feel that [way] about hitting a home run, whatever. But for me at least, and for a lot of people I know – who are into into [music] by writing it, or by listening to it.. I’m sure you feel it too. You hear a certain song and it instantly resonates for you. This is amazing, awesome. It never goes away. That’s the best thing about music. If you look hard enough – or don’t even look hard, just stay actively involved with it – you’ll find that [feeling] all the time. There’s a bunch of stuff coming out, and so much of it is good. That’s what I like about music. So much of it is just awesome.‘

Below is the full interview with Marcel. And also one of the shorter tracks on Sunbather that uses found footage in some interesting ways. It mixes together the sound of an evangelist in San Francisco, with a recording of an actual drug deal involving Kerry McCoy that he happened to capture on tape, back during the time when he was heavily into opiates.