Steven Hyden of Grantland brought up a bold statement when musing about Queens of the Stone Age (in anticipation of their new album, …Like Clockwork): “Anyone interested in forward-thinking rock music should focus on metal right now.”
While there will be those clutching to the early 2000s save-rock and roll New York bands, or the hordes of musicians capitalizing on a loud-quiet-loud structure from grunge, metal is a genre whose growth remains largely untapped. It’s only now that heady metal-rooted bands including Pallbearer and Kylesa are becoming more recognizable outside of niche label circles, both for their immense instrumental talent and genre-bending artistry.
This year truly is the time of unthinkables: U.K. youngsters Disclosure are straddling the charts with their recent release Settle. Justin Bieber is going to space. And San Francisco’s Deafheaven, on the cusp of releasing their second album Sunbather, have easily grasped a place as one of the year’s most challenging and rewarding listens.
The band’s second release — on Converge frontman Jacob Bannon’s Deathwish label — is possibly the furthest thing from sophomoric you could ever imagine. Sunbather is an album that displays mastery of spaciality and temporality. It basks in the white spaces you didn’t even know were blank, relying on converging dualities instead of dispelling the elements altogether.
Over the phone, Deafheaven vocalist George Clarke sounds unhurried. His voice is tempered and nonchalant; he has the sun-steeped speech of someone who either has spent an entire day leisurely lying under a tree, or carefully considers every word before it leaves his mind. In Clarke’s case, it’s both. He’s spent the day meandering through bookstores and parks in his hometown of San Francisco, enjoying quiet moments with his girlfriend before his band embarks on a tour that will undoubtedly be their most anticipated yet.
At the bookstore, Clarke snagged the wrenching Suicide by Ã‰douard Levé, a work that the author wrote just days before he ended his own life. Clarke is a huge fan of Milan Kundera’s philosophy-driven writing, and bought a copy of Life Is Elsewhere for his own collection.
“I think he really understands human emotion very well and has a well-rounded, almost unbiased view on the way people feel and why they do the things they do,” he explains. “He sort of empathizes with different motivations and is very non-judgmental and his characters are an open book, which reflects on him.”
Undoubtedly, the spoken word introduction of “Please Remember” will be a primary focus of Sunbather reviews. It features a muddy cameo from Stephane Paul of the swelling French band Alcest, reading a passage from The Unbearable Lightness of Being (one of Clarke’s favorite works). You can tangibly make out the word “possibility” underneath the room-sweeping distortion heavily layered on the track.
Certain albums leave vivid first impressions that rarely ever shake off. They linger over the album, leaving each subsequent listen to always rekindle those certain premature feelings — a rubbed rawness you can’t replicate elsewhere.
Sunbather is one of them. When I first listened to Sunbather, I had just moved to New York from Texas. With an empty apartment and suitcases left to unpack, I listened to it through headphones. It was 12:40 am. There was a mauve light outside of my window. It looked as though the sky was about to open up, like some kind of divine omen, but it didn’t. Then “Dream House” thundered through my ears, and in that moment, I thought it was the closest thing to experiencing a deus ex machina – a divine intervention. This still happens.
“There’s an idea of dynamics when we go into writing a song,” Clarke comments. “Initially, we aim to combine different styles and hopefully in an effective way, to maximize essentially the emotion of topics we talk about. We definitely have an idea of space.”
Space and its absences are perhaps the most captivating and enigmatic elements of Sunbather. “Irresistible” is a warped interlude with a gauzy warmth that crackles the same way an old vinyl clicks on a turntable. A great sense of déjÃ vu happens when you listen to Deafheaven – maybe because you’re hearing things you’ve actively felt before. Feedback cuts so delicately into “Please Remember” that suddenly you’re immersed in static waves, only to glide down humble strums.
Swells of color burst like prisms on the nine-minute long opus “Dream House”. It’s remarkably emotive in the way that humans actually perceive emotion; as a progression that sways with circumstance, tragedy, even the weather. The prevailing feeling is one of uplifting the listener, but only one that comes with experiencing serious past strife. You don’t know exactly what you’re hearing — you just know it’s right.
It’s all the more surprising when you realize that Deafheaven performed their very first show not even three years to the day – only July 29th, 2010. When you listen to Sunbather, you could swear Clarke and Kerry McCoy have been commanding stages since their teenage years – at the very least. The fluidity that the two have stems from a positive dynamic, and a strong work ethic that holds touring at the center.
“A lot of this has to do with our guitar player Kerry, who does damn near all the writing,” Clarke mentioned over the phone. “When he’s playing, he has a strong idea of his own style and what he enjoys. So while we’re consciously thinking of dynamics it’s an organic thing as well.”
Deafheaven’s success has been steepened in the past year or so, thanks to the meteoric anticipation that Sunbather has been currently garnering. Besides a very weighty dose of talent, this is due to the band’s unrelenting self-discipline and commitment to showcase their work to audiences through extensive and worldwide tours. It’s one that began almost as an experiment three years ago, where the band thought: What can we do with this time?
“We didn’t think Deafheaven would last at first,” Clarke admits. “We thought, let’s go as far as we can in the time we’re given.” The band then proceeded to tour in over 25 countries, including stints in Japan and Southeast Asia.
Given their inception three years ago, Deafheaven has experienced a shuffle of lineup shifts besides founding members McCoy and Clarke. It’s not been over creative differences or disagreements, but the strenuous side effects that tours can produce. “When you’re living in an expensive city, and we still have to pay bills not being there for months at a time, it gets really stressful. We’ve lost players that way. We’ve had to let players go and then several months later, we become friends again.”
But for Deafheaven, touring has been the driving force behind the band, and to showcase to as many fans as they possibly can. “That’s just how it is,” and you can almost hear him shrugging on the other end of the line. “When the record goes out, and we get a good tour offer, we take it. If we want to go to a country, we figure it out.”
The band’s fan base extends from the United States to Russia, where Clarke admits is “one of two places (besides Tokyo) where I’ve felt like a rock star” – taking photos with people, them asking for autographs, drumsticks, guitarpicks. They don’t get the volume of acts that we do, so every show is really important.”
Misconceptions about Deafheaven – who they are as a band, what their style of music would be considered – are rampant. The black metal label is thrown around as often as the My Bloody Valentine cover band moniker. “It’s one of those things when one person said it, a lot of people jumped on it too. Someone called Sunbather a post-hardcore record? Or people say it’s black metal, or definitely shoegaze,” Clarke comments. “People are so eager to throw their own definition on it. I don’t really think it’s anything. It’s just us, and we’re the sum of all of our parts.”
In light of the media coverage swarm, Clarke remains unfazed and even floored with the attention Deafheaven has been receiving as of late.
“At the end of the day, my whole thought is, the more we keep talking, the more we keep you interested. It’s still surprising to me. We keep getting these reviews, and doing photo shoots. That is so foreign to me. But it rules. So I’m just riding the wave, seeing where it goes. People will talk until the days end, so might as well let them.”
Clarke’s casual attitude toward the rampant media is earnest, as is his nature when he speaks to you. He speaks excitedly about his friend’s band, Brooklyn’s own Weekend, and about their new release Jinx that is going to blow things out of the water. Rhye’s Woman has been on repeat for him, and shares how the new Portal record is “this total ugly, distant music. Every time they put out something I’m re-shaken up by it.”
Sunbather, though, is the year’s floor-shaker. It’s not a hyperbole to call it a modern classic, a work that’s both brutal and beautiful, with the careful convergence of McCoy’s guitar-driven, expansive melodies and the sludge-encrusted vocals of Clarke. Somewhere in there, an uplifting light shines outward. It’s the triumph that lies hidden in the catastrophe, an element that Deafheaven searched for, and has ultimately found.