#40: JPEGMAFIA – Veteran
Deafheaven – New Bermuda
The purists are going to hate this.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Black metal is a form of metal originating in Norway in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It de-emphasized the knotted, complex riffing of the then-popular death metal bands in favour of a more simplified type of movement. The early stuff – De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, In The Nightside Eclipse, Under A Funeral Moon, Carpathian Wolves, etc. – built monuments to the bitter Scandinavian winter out of tremolo-soaked guitar, relentless blastbeats, ultra lo-fi production, and vocals that alternated between the screech of a demon and the howl of the wind over a churning field of snow. There is a disturbing documentary called Until The Light Takes Us that chronicles those early days – the madness, the jealousy, the flirtation with fascism, and the vicious streak of pagan-nationalist church burning. For further information, see it.
The aesthetic trappings around the scene were cheesy-Satanist at best and outright Nazi at worst; it failed to catch on much in America beyond finding a home in certain curious circles. Half a decade later, though, Americans began to create their own mutation on Norwegian black metal. Bands like Wolves In The Throne Room, Weakling, and Nachtmystium absorbed the lessons inherent in the sound and left out the immature, arson-obsessed, murdery parts (and, largely, the corpsepaint). Wolves In The Throne Room, as an example, replaced the violent, viking-inspired paganism of the Norwegian bands with a more “back-to-nature”, Cascadian-inspired paganism.
Deafheaven isn’t a black metal band, though.
Per se. Deafheaven isn’t a black metal band per se. Back in the earlier part of this decade, there were a couple of bands that adopted the aesthetics of black metal and amalgamated them into a larger musical philosophy: Liturgy and Deafheaven. Both bands amalgamated the blastbeats, simplified guitar lines, and howling vocals of black metal, but they took them in different directions. Liturgy frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix spun out a complicated philosophy he called “Transcendental Black Metal” and used the aesthetic as support for his academic work. Deafheaven skipped out on the philosophy and blended the black metal influences with the widescreen gaze of post-rock to discuss class issues, loneliness, and longing. Both were heaped with critical praise, and both were disparaged by black metal purists who derided the bands as not being “true kvlt” enough (many with their tongues in their cheeks, but a large number without). What both did, however, was not “rip off” black metal for gain, but recognized the vanishing point between black metal and shoegaze. Both styles blur the proceedings to the point where the entire song seems to shift for melodic movement, rather than any particular instrument. Everything blends into one defining line, and that line becomes the entire artistic moment.
Both bands have released the all-important followup album in 2015. Liturgy’s The Ark Work came first, and it arrived in a fury of confused reception and crumbled expectations. The Ark Work featured MIDI preset keyboards, hip hop influences, and a general lack of care for what people loved about Aesthetica, their breakthrough album. Reviews were extremely mixed; while I normally am a champion of noisy, difficult albums, The Ark Work felt more like Hunt-Hendrix intentionally trolling his audience rather than forging out a bold artistic statement.
New Bermuda, however, succeeds massively where The Ark Work failed. The album builds upon Sunbather and adds more shade and colour to the mix. On top of the existing mixture of black metal, shoegaze, and post-rock, they add in piano passages, guitar breakdowns straight out of the playbook of The World Is A Beautiful Place And I No Longer Want To Die, Slayer-esque death chugging, and in a couple of places guitar solos that sound as though they could have been lifted whole and breathing out of latter day Metallica albums. It expands out of where they came from to embrace a fuller noise-metal experience; rather than stick to their niche, Deafheaven goes more cinematic in the pursuit of their muse.
Much like Sunbather, New Bermuda examines some fairly heavy ideas that manage to be relatable for the great broad middle of the listening audience. The opening track “Brought To The Water” deals with growing up out of your early 20s and falling into the hypnotizing routines of adulthood. “Where has my passion gone,” he asks, “Has it been carried off by some / Lonely driver in a line of fluorescent light?” Shortly after he acknowledges that “A multiverse of fuchsia / and violet surrenders to blackness now / My world closes it’s eyes to / sex and laughter.” “Luna” looks at the suburban L.A. wonderland imagined in Sunbather‘s “Dream House” and examines how it turned from dream to nightmare; “I’ve boarded myself inside, I’ve refused to exit / There is no ocean for me / there is no glamour / Only the mirage of water ascending from the asphalt / I gaze at it from the oven of my home.” “Baby Blue” and “Come Back” seem to discuss the nature of notoriety and the endless hard cycle of critical acclaim and popular cynicism and it is here that the real intent of the album becomes clear. George Clarke – the main songwriter for Deafheaven – has realized that being in a popular band is a lot like being stuck in the depressing adult cycle of work; the dreams he sought for himself turned out to be even more trapping than the relative poverty he’s left behind. There is no end in sight for this (“I imagined the overcome and fell to my knees / Before the endless truth of instability and futility” he howls on “Come Back”) and so, on the final track, “Gifts For The Earth”, he throws himself into the “waves of the icy seas” which stand in direct cooling contrast to the shimmering mirages and oppressive ovens he writes of back on “Luna”. It’s at once startling, depressing, freeing, and absolutely understandable.
“This isn’t black metal!” the purists will cry, gnashing their teeth and wailing, and that’s sort of the point. Deafheaven has moved themselves completely beyond that pigeonhole trap of being a “black metal band” and has embraced all of the styles that blur and bludgeon and tug movement gracefully through the entire instrumental wall. It isn’t black metal, it isn’t shoegaze, it isn’t post-rock or post-metal. It’s Deafheaven, circa 2015, and it’s a triumph of both heavy music and noise.
It’s funny how things work. Take black metal for instance. Emerging from the bleak, permanent-winter vibe of the Scandanavian metal scene in the early 1990s, it was simultaneously praised for it’s new, lo-fi, nearly shoegazer take on death metal and derided for it’s cheesy, immature Satanic imagery and for it’s nationalistic ideals that approached National Socialism (indeed, there is a distant branch of the genre literally named “national socialist black metal”). Then, six or seven years ago the Americans took the genre by force, and acts like Wolves In The Throne Room and Liturgy breathed new life into the instrumental hallmarks while generally abandoning the lame imagery. At the same time, the post-rock movement has, in recent years, developed a harder-edge strain through acts like *shels and Russian Circles, using heavy guitar passages and bludgeoning arrangements to inject metal into the sprawling suite-structure made popular by Explosions In The Sky and Godspeed! You Black Emperor.
Sunbather, then, represents a junction between the two disparate movements: they use the brutal, blastbeat-ridden instrumentation and howling-demon vocals of black metal and use it in the sprawling, dynamically-exciting structures of post-rock. The album hovers between the two worlds with sure-handed expertise; there are moments, such as on the stellar closer “The Pecan Tree”, where the band shifts from a blur of heaviness into droplets of pure, calm beauty without even batting an eye. Hunter Hunt-Hendrix may have developed the ideal of “transcendental black metal” but Deafheaven has crafted something that is actually Zen; it shows the chaotic futility of modern existence and then proceeds to show us that even in those seemingly bleak days there is sunshine, colour, love. It is a meditation on life circa 2013, a perfect representation of the unpronounceable feelings that rule us beneath the surface of consciousness. It may not be, strictly speaking, the best album of 2013 (I mean, we still have Kanye and Arcade Fire to get to), but it is, to this music nerd, probably going to stand up in December as the most important.