We’ve talked about black metal before, haven’t we? Let’s recap. I’m attracted to the sound like a moth to a cold flame. I’m repelled by the cod-Lovecraft imagery and look-at-me-being-icky-and-dicky lyrics and artwork. Not, let us be clear, because they strike a chilling blow to the very heart of what it is to be human in an inhospitable universe, but because they are very silly.
But there’s another way. There are a number of bands out there making interesting, creative black metal as open and exploratory as the best post-rock, as bracing as a hydrofluoric acid power shower and, crucially, laying off the schoolboy horror flick schtick. We say ‘hello’ to An Autumn For Crippled Children, Alcest, Botanist, Locrian and Have A Nice Life. Most prominently over the last 12 months, we have San Francisco’s Deafheaven.
This is a band who sound exactly like what they say they are: a black metal outfit who grew up loving Slowdive. Half their songs could be mistaken for a severely beefed up Cocteau Twins, albeit one where Liz Fraser has a really, really bad case of tonsillitis. In a hurricane.
‘Sunbather’ is their second album, and easily the most prominent cross-over metal record of last year. I’ll be honest, I don’t know a great deal about the ins and outs of the BM scene, but it does seem to have a totally schizophrenic relationship with its artists, one which touches on subcultural xenophobia whenever any of them threaten to escape from the crypt and out into the sunlight or, even worse, to bring outsiders back into the darkness with them. Deafheaven did both last year and, like Liturgy before them, have had to put up with constant examination of their ‘metal’ status as a result. Black Metal: the scene which loves to scream about total physical and spiritual annihilation, but won’t countenance you if you have a pink album cover.
’Sunbather’ is a great rock record. Essentially four long tracks with three, often beautiful, counterpoint interludes, it has searing guitars, pummelling double-kick drums and yes, a guy screaming his lungs sore, although in this mix the vocals are essentially just another caustic sound to throw into the mix. But within the noise there is light and shade, colour and contrast, motion and intense emotion. Deafheaven aren’t afraid to pause, to gaze at their shoes and take their effects pedals for a couple of laps around the stratosphere. It’s a thrilling and, after a while, an apparently entirely natural combination of influences and they pull it off to epic effect. The album is mesmerising and convulsive whilst remaining reverential and even warm in tone for long stretches. The longer you live with it, the more it starts to become a soaring chamber-noise record, a la Godspeed You! Black Emperor. It’s dynamics are pure Slowdive, its details full of warmth and touch rather than dread.
If Deafheaven are sneered at by the corpsepaint gloom brigade as being ‘hipster metal’ then fine. If that means people will find them and their ilk via Pitchfork and The Quietus then great, because I read those websites and I want to find new, bold music which takes accepted forms and twists them into new shapes. And which rocks. So, I guess I’d nail my flag to the hipster metal mast. That’s because I like a lot of the music that idiots choose to nail that label to and also largely because a fair proportion of the DNA of the rest of black metal is completely stupid.
Nick listened: I strongly suspect that I am absolutely the kind of bearded, glasses-wearing, cycling, real-ale-drinking, boardgame-playing hipster douchebag that fans of ‘real’ ‘metal’ get upset about for liking this record. But I’ve kind of avoided it, partly for that reason, and partly because, despite the embrace of it by said hipster douchebags, there are still a couple of key sonic ingredients to this record (from the tiny snippets I’d heard before last night) that I absolutely cannot stand – firstly, the screaming vocals, and secondly, the ridiculous, relentless, contourless drumming, both of which seem to be absolutely essential to whatever-it-is that defines ‘metal’ (of the modern variety?) from ‘rock’, or whatever. So I’d picked up Sunbather and thought about buying it on numerous occasions, but never gone the whole way to the counter with it, despite the fact that I adore the graphic design (that font; that colouring – it’s meant to be the colour you see when you face the sun with your eyes closed, Rob tells us) and love the look of the physical object that is this album (obviously the CD is better looking than the LP). But I know it’s going to be full of screaming and ridiculous drumming. The question is ‘how much’?
By the end I was quite enjoying Sunbather, despite, rather than regardless or because of, my misgivings. The screaming and drumming still faintly nauseates me, but the vocals are mixed so that they’re not all that prominent, and the drumming isn’t quite constant. The lighter, airier passages that follow the cacophonies felt like beautiful contrasts – somewhere between shoegaze, postrock, and miserable acousticana – because that’s what they were, and the juxtaposition made them shine. I also suspect it made them seem far more phenomenologically beautiful than they actually are; so ugly are some of the other parts that by comparison almost anything else would feel warm and beatific, even if they’re actually just bog-standard postrock reveries and shoegaze plateaus. But that’s the politics of intimate genre familiarity.
I’d definitely like to listen to this a couple more times and ascertain further what I think and feel about it, because I’m totally not sure thus far. But I’m delighted that Rob blasted it at us.
Tom listened: Hmmm…once again Rob has opened the floodgates of debate, both in the real, and virtual, world…simply by bringing an album that straddles some of those genre boundaries we are so keen to erect. I suppose the boundary surrounding metal is a pretty robust one and it has, to my (admittedly scant) knowledge, rarely been breached. So Sunbather got us all talking and, I for one, find the conversation fascinating.
And it got me thinking more about my relationship to the genre than about the music itself. Why can’t I stand metal? And what binds ‘metal’ as a genre. What does this have in common with Def Leppard and what does that have in common with Anthrax and what does that have in common with Sunn o)))? Because they all have something that produces the same response from me and that’s to run away. In his lengthy response to Rob’s post, Chris states that metal has a strict sonic template…well, can you describe it because, whilst I am sure it exists, I can’t put my finger on what it is? That’s why Deafheaven is so interesting – remove the vocals and (to a lesser extent) the drumming and what’s left would be something that I would enjoy hugely. Listening again since Record Club, even the noisier bits remind me of Red House Painters and I could listen to them until the cows come home. So is it really just a screaming vocal that is putting me off or is there something more subtle at work that I haven’t managed to identify? For now I’ll ponder the answer and wait for that nice Mr Kozalek to do his Deafheaven covers album.
Graham listened: Doubt a numpty like me can add anything to the debate that this has inspired. I’m tempted to explore some more ‘metal’ crossover points, just to see where Tom’s fear and loathing begins and ends though. Back to this for a moment. I began enjoying it, then the drumming got on my nerve endings. I didn’t mind the vocals and started enjoying until yet again until the bloody drumming got my back up. I’ve streamed it a few times since DRC and still feel much the same way. I probably want them to explore the guitar sound further and leave the percussion and vocals behind. They surely won’t, so it will remain troubling. ps I’m no ‘hipster’!