Since its genesis in the 1980s in Europe, the music genre has been synonymous with expressions of pure malevolence and harsh, bleak landscapes. Its pageantry and association with corpse paint, Viking mythology and occult imagery lend it an escapist sensibility, albeit one couched in a sordid history of violence and fascination with Satanism. To the uninitiated, black metal is anything but approachable.
Yet, over time, the harshness of old-school black metal has given way to greater experimentation and exploration, with bands like France's Alcest and Washington's Wolves in the Throne Room blending blast-beat rhythms and raw-throated screeches with accessible melodies and dreamy textures. And just as the Age of the Vikings came to an end with the Norman conquest of England, the stereotype of church-burning black metal was finally put to rest sometime during the past decade, leaving an opening for iconoclasts to carve a path forward.
Enter Deafheaven. The San Francisco-based band— who'll play at The Void on Aug. 22 with Wreck and Reference—put a strongly melodic, even beautiful spin on the genre. Combining elements of post-rock and shoegaze with the intensity of black metal, Deafheaven are taking the sound in interesting new places. Vocalist George Clarke, far more personable and less intimidating than his screaming style would suggest, tells CityBeat in a phone conversation that their recorded efforts sometimes surprise even them.
"We always had a pretty decent vision of what we were trying to do," Clarke says. "But, at the same time, as you grow as musicians and stuff, you don't know exactly—you have ideas in your head of whether you should incorporate this sound, or do a little more of this, or less of this, or what have you.
"It's not until the end when you realize how fully fleshed-out everything is, and then that takes you by surprise."
From the opening chords of "Dream House," the first song on the band's new album, Sunbather—released in June on Deathwish Inc.—it's not immediately apparent that you're listening to a metal album. It has a dense, major-key structure, sounding perfectly at home alongside anything on My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. Yet when drummer Daniel Tracy opens up his rush of blast beats and Clarke lets out a mighty scream, the heaviness and intensity of the music comes at the listener with full force.
With Deafheaven's musical intensity comes an added emotional weight, partly from the band's juxtaposition of quieter, intricate instrumental textures, and partly from Clarke's lyrical content. In "Dream House" and the title track, his lyrics deal with ideas of wealth and privilege from an outside perspective. The powerful, graceful closing track, "The Pecan Tree," finds Clarke exorcising demons of strained familial relations against Kerry McCoy's massive arrangement. And the spoken-word interlude "Please Remember" even contains a reading of a passage from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
The band's approach—not to mention Sunbather's bright-pink cover art—sets them starkly apart from the theatrical blasphemy of early black metal. It's their intent, Clarke says, to capture a broad range of feelings in their music.
"I think that's one of our goals," he says, "not to focus on one emotion but to try to express the intensity that comes along with every kind of emotion, whether it's your high points or whether it's your low points."
The band's combination of sonic innovation and emotional intensity is resonating with a broad audience. One of the most highly acclaimed albums of 2013 so far, Sunbather is the only metal album to earn a Best New Music designation from indie-centric website Pitchfork this year. And on review aggregator Metacritic, the album has a metascore of 95, denoting universal acclaim.
But perhaps the best measure of the response to Deafheaven's visceral, draining assault is by watching the audience frenzy that they can stir up in a live setting. A YouTube clip of the band performing at Kings Barcade in Raleigh, N.C., reveals a stirring visual, Clarke hovering over a beyond-stoked crowd, gripping his microphone with black leather gloves and delivering a seemingly superhuman vocal roar.
This kind of fiery display led NPR's Bob Boilen to call Deafheaven the most intense live band he's ever seen. And while Clarke says that none of the band's songs are written expressly to be performed live—"We just eventually figure it out"—when on stage, the group taps into a feeling universal to rock audiences: catharsis.
"It leaves you drained," he says. "It takes everything you have in you, you release it over the course of an hour and then you're fully mellowed out.
"Emotionally, spiritually, it's very exerting."
Critical acclaim aside, the band's been on the receiving end of some harsh feedback by listeners either unimpressed by the band's take on black metal or skeptical of a metal band whose appeal crosses over to the cardigan-and-horn-rimmed-glasses crowd. A Twitter user with the handle @SlayerSwift called the band "Urban outfitters black metal,'" while a Tumblr blog titled "Dead in Drag" accused them of being "hipsters trying to do metal."
But Deafheaven isn't interested in purism or maintaining the status quo. Clarke is as much a metal fan now as he was as a teenager. "Heavy music has always been a home base for me," he says. Yet, he argues that old traditions need no longer apply.
"I think when you know anything about orthodox black metal, that's a style of music that began in the mid to late '80s," he says. "And that's cool. That's what got me interested in the first place. But that time is kind of passing. I don't think one can expect every band to just continue the sound as-is. You know, it's 25 years old, or more. It would be ridiculous to think that."
Criticism is just one of the side effects of doing something that resonates with a large group of people. Deafheaven are creating their music without any expectations. Whether metalheads like it, or indie kids do, what's most important is that people are listening.
"We just do what we do, and we were just surprised, as maybe other people were, at the reception it got from the quote-unquote non-metal community," Clarke says. "I'm just appreciative of everyone that pays attention.
"Even if it's not your background and you connect to it in some other way, that can only make me happy."