Publish Our Love: Deafheaven

Wednesday, July 31, 2019 - 1:49pm

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Design by Kathryn Halverson

“You can never publish my love,” Rogue Wave chants, in the song that the title of this series riffs on. Maybe that’s true, and we can never quite account for our love on paper or in print, but we sure can try. That’s what this series is devoted to: publishing our love. Us, the Arts section of The Michigan Daily, talking about artists, some of the people we love the most. Perhaps these are futile approximations of love for the poet who told us we deserve to be heard, the director who changed the way we see the world, the singer we see as an old friend. But who ever said futile can’t still be beautiful?

In 2013, an obscure, post-metal outfit released its sophomore record, the psychedelic, blaringly tender Sunbather. The album’s artwork is simple and unforgettable: a pleasant salmon gradient overlaid with white, stripped-to-the-bone minimal lettering that spells out the title in three rows and three columns. That is to say, Sunbather’s aesthetic is far from what most would consider metal. And yet appearances are deceiving. 

If Sunbather proved anything, it’s that the primal shrieks, the thundering blast beats and the dissonant tremolo guitar chords of black metal can push into the fringes of mainstream when packaged in just the right way. Indeed, when Sunbather first broke through with a devout cult of listeners, it wasn’t treated like a metal album, but rather like something amorphous, the lost mutant child of post-punk and dream pop that had suddenly found its way back into the popular consciousness. 

Only years afterward did I discover the album myself. Like many other metalheads who propelled the album’s second wave of influence, I heard about Sunbather through the esoteric term “blackgaze.” “Blackgaze” was what people were calling this new stylized aggression, a hybrid of black metal and shoegaze. I was immediately drawn into the sheer craft of the music, vividly aware that mention of the album’s style as its own subgenre were more than valid. It didn’t take me long to reckon with and accept the fact that a band called Deafheaven was profoundly and irreversibly shaping modern metal. 

I return time and time to Deafheaven because I discover something new on every listen, a quality that I find bitterly rare in experimental metal. Deafheaven’s ability to construct hazy, intensely evolving emotional journeys through a framework of traditional metal expanded my entire notion of what metal could be. That’s not to say that modern metal lacks emotion, or that it must even harness the very intimate to succeed. What Deafheaven offers that other current metal doesn’t is a range of feelings, some happy, some sad, most fleeting and impossible to qualify. 

There’s something alchemical about the way that Deafheaven captures and builds upon the ephemeral. The band’s songwriting process is so singular in its vision, so personally embracing, that certain playthroughs of their albums embed themselves starkly in my memories. I can recall with remarkable ease everything I was doing and everything I was feeling during one particular time I heard their third album New Bermuda. A specific afternoon after an algebra exam, a specific walk on a Florida beach. I, like many others, have similar experiences with albums important to me in my most formative and impressionable years. But only a handful of artists can clearly capture the relationship between a memory and the moment.

This February, Deafheaven raised eyebrows again by releasing a standalone single called “Black Brick.” Gone are the pinkish hues and stenciled typography of Sunbather. Gone too are the major keys and the slow acoustic interludes. The artwork is grainy, a vague, bloodred skull shape surrounded by black murkiness. The music itself is a jarring return to traditional black metal, borrowing from the church-burning atmosphere of the Norwegian ‘90s. If I heard the track with no context, I might even think it were the lost work of Gorgoroth or Darkthrone, a rigidly structured, anti-Christian anthem. Nothing about the song hints at the measured, painfully rendered melodies and bittersweet tone of the Deafheaven I’ve come to know and love.

But that’s not a criticism. In all likelihood, “Black Brick” is not indicative of a new style, but a demonstration of what I admire most about the band: that Deafheaven is versatile enough to understand the past while pushing forward the future of metal. Where I find noble-minded nostalgia occasionally worthwhile, it’s the connective tissue between origin and invention that fascinates me most.

Ultimately, the conversation Deafheaven engages with genre is a reflection of its impact on my life. What is the relationship between classic and modern metal? What is the relationship between who I am now and who I am when I remember first listening to Deafheaven all those years ago? For me, the answers to those two questions are often one and the same. When I feel lost in the past, Deafheaven catapults me forward, and when I’m anxious about what’s to come, Deafheaven is a blissful little shade in a rainy downpour.