Font choice goes a long way in the world of metal. The industry standard typeface is as ornate as it is brutal — part gothic calligraphy, part blood-dripping misanthropy. But on the soft pink hues of their 2013 breakout effort, Sunbather, black-metal quintet Deafheaven went a different route.
This font is sleek and elliptical, more of an allusion to letters than letters themselves. The “A” and “N” in the title are single horizontal lines, challenging the eye to draw out a conclusion. It’s a divisive style, causing either an aching cornea or a Patrick Bateman drool. (For aesthetes and superfans, the typeface is available for $30.)
The Sunbather cover is prescriptive of some of the metal community’s seething opinion toward Deafheaven. For better or worse, the Bay Area quintet is pretty, an anathema after the pop-metal disaster of the ’80s. With a tapered haircut and a jaw you could do your homework on, frontman George Clarke is easy on the eyes and punishing on the ears. Between military-grade barrages of black metal, the band dips into long, gorgeous interludes featuring acoustic guitar and piano.
Founded in 2010 by Clarke and guitarist Kerry McCoy, Deafheaven is the product of the pair’s vagrant youth in Modesto and San Francisco. (Pulling a move from the Biggie/Puffy school of production, Sunbather’s “Windows” includes an audio snippet of McCoy scoring opiates in San Francisco.)
Nominally adult, the band gained traction with a $500 demo, scoring a deal with Converge singer Jacob Bannon’s Deathwish, Inc. By 2011, Deafheaven had their debut statement in Roads to Judah, a display of the patient songwriting that would define their career. Only five songs long, the record clocks in at a roomy 38 minutes. As that math suggests, a Deafheaven tune is a long and wandering thing, weaving through black metal half-time and shoegaze atmospheres.
By Sunbather, the formula had become an art: the band's salvos slowly decaying into lush works of piano and layered guitar. When Clarke is at peak howl and the band is at full volume, Deafheaven produce their purest and prettiest work. McCoy and guitarist Nick Bassett are simultaneously dense and delicate, creating a sheer wall of sound adorned in melodic, post-rock runs. The result is symphonic and brilliant — John Williams in black facepaint. By the end of the year, Sunbather topped Best-of lists across the mainstream and taste-making media.
In this critical consensus, some of the metal player-hating toward Deafheaven makes a bit more sense. It’s reasonable that a community that has to defend its artistic merits would find ire in the warm reception of an ambitious crossover band. And, as a rule, it’s the popular kid in class who is subject to the most gossip.
But the year-end accolades were truly deserved. In Sunbather, Deafheaven provided a model for bands looking to touch on genre indicators as a building block, rather than a limiting trope. Double-bass hits mesh with shoegaze guitar delay in a way that suggests that Deafheaven is able to adapt their favorite styles without jamming together incongruous puzzle pieces.
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Unless black metal is your native tongue, a Google search is necessary to understand Deafheaven’s verbal content. On Sunbather, the curtains match the drapes. Clarke writes in disconnected images — “I sweated against the leather...I watched you lay on a towel in grass that exceeded the height of your legs,” he sings on the title track. Much of the album reads like one of the post-war suburbanists, an Updike or Roth. Like this Great White survey-course material, Clarke comments on the dappled beauty of America, but feels alienated from it.
On Sunbather's 2015 followup, New Bermuda, Deafheaven promised in a press release that the effort marked a “new destination in life, a nebulous point of arrival.” Wherever that boat landed, it’s a much bleaker place. On “Brought to the Water,” Clarke sounds like a head-banging character from the True Detective universe — “A multiverse of fuchsia and violet surrenders to blackness now.” Oh sweet McConaissance, you had me at multiverse.
Of course, the band has retained its lighter moments. “Brought to the Water” could host a feature from Hellhammer or the Cardigans, depending on which mode Deafheaven is on. But drummer Daniel Tracy serves as the tipping point that sends the band toward its heaviest destination yet. Tracy swarms the kit in creative blasts, patching one of the last great faults of the band. With a tightly coiled rhythm section and a dark new outlook, Deafheaven has found room between the genres to thrive.
Deafheaven performs tonight at Warehouse Live (Studio) with special guests Tribulation. Doors open at 8 p.m.