2019-11-16 by W.M.
Deafheaven Is the Artist of the Decade
The 2010s were the decade where it felt like time sped up. As we reach a major mile marker during one of the most confounding periods in cultural and political history, we’re looking back at the artists, albums, and trends that best marked the changes over the past 10 years. Picking one singular artist of the decade proved difficult, because so many genres shifted, careers launched, and sounds grew—and frankly, there were a whole handful of musicians you could make the case for. So we decided to talk about all of them. Click here to see all of Noisey’s Artists of the Decade, and here to read up on all of our end-of-decade ruminations.
Seeing Deafheaven for the first time was both a revelation and a harbinger. When I glanced at the band onstage at the old Emo’s in Austin in 2011, I was… taken aback. Vocalist George Clarke looked far too clean-cut to be fronting a black metal band, clad in a light blue, button-down shirt that screamed “Gap model” more than “intimidating frontman.” Guitarist Kerry McCoy’s hair was cut into… is that a rattail? And their drummer at the time looked like he skipped out on his SATs for the gig. What were these punk models—or model punks, or whatever—up to?
I was expecting a heavy dose of pomp and a mess of riffs with no substance. When they actually played, I was knocked on my ass. They were not fucking around. And eight years later, they remain one of the few metal bands to come up in the 2010s to feel singularly of this decade. They owned the metal conversation, for better or (often) for worse. Was a black metal sound as burdened by its own harsh aesthetics as much as its own history ready to go overground? Was extreme metal not just the province of a select few anymore? Were Deafheaven’s members just too pretty to play ugly music? (Despite the fanfare surrounding it, Sunbather wasn’t the first metal record with a pink cover; Saint Vitus beat ‘em to that 27 years prior with Born Too Late.) These were questions a lot of less tolerant metalheads were not ready to answer. And regardless of which side you take in that ongoing conversation, there’s one undeniable argument to be made about their influence: They redefined the genre of metal for the better.
There’s been a lot of great metal this decade; in fact, this may be the best decade for metal since its heyday in the 80s and early 90s. The mid-00s resurgence of virtually every subgenre—death metal, black metal, doom, sludge—bloomed into a new generation of sick riffers, polygenre beasts, avant-weirdos, and vigorous revivalists. Many of those bands tinkered with and refined sounds of the past, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And Deafheaven, a mega-90s fusion of Britpop, shoegaze, and second-wave black metal, is no exception. That combination of influences alone wasn’t enough to make them a great band, though; it was their music’s juxtaposition of darkness and light that put them in their own league, one where they’ve yet to be bested.
“Dream House,” Sunbather’s leadoff song, was a monster track when it dropped—and a huge step forward for the band and for metal as a whole. McCoy’s blackened jangle opened up to melodically rich tremolo, and the influences they wielded finally gelled into something breathtaking, greater than the sum of its parts. “Dream House” was an aspirational jaunt not just because of where it took the band, but also because of how Clarke wrote it, wandering the streets in awe of actual dream houses, capturing a melancholic feeling of longing spiked with joy. In 2019, it scans as a lamentation for lost dreams: Deafheaven formed just a couple years after the 2008 financial crisis, and their music, especially “Dream House,” reflects the anxiety and uncertainty that would follow young Americans through this decade, a generation for whom a stable future, much less home ownership, still feels mostly out of reach. It’s a narrative reflected in Deafheaven’s story as well: Even with Sunbather being the first of their three Best New Music wins and garnering the magnitude to be featured an iPhone announcement didn’t prevent Deafheaven from being displaced from their hometown of San Francisco to marginally cheaper and more creative-friendly Los Angeles, a bitter affirmation of “Dream House’s” agony.
Still, Sunbather dominated year-end lists and saw the kind of crossover attention that had been unprecedented in metal for some time; like Metallica blowing up with 8-minute prog-thrash jaunts, though, it didn’t need commerifical signifers to do so. They didn’t need traditional structures—yes, verse-chorus-verse is a concern in metal, too—and Clarke didn’t need to make his screech more palatable or discernable to reach out to their growing fanbase. They got better and kept getting better: McCoy asserted his status as lead songwriter and really let his inner Johnny Marr go off; drummer Dan Tracy, who would go one to become a permanent member following Sunbather’s touring cycle, gave them the rhythmic edge that made their hard edges harder. A sound became their sound.
Deafheaven’s sound isn’t just contrasts and rises and falls—it’s the whole picture, driving the blackgaze in vogue a decade before into a cosmopolitan direction of empathy over the esoteric. It’s not as though metal was never emotionally expansive, but Deafheaven showed that you can both draw from feelings of introspection and engage with the broader world. “Worthless Animal,” from last year’s Ordinary Corrupt Human Love, was inspired by Clarke helplessly watching as he saw a struggling homeless man attacked in Los Angeles. It’s a beautiful song that shows a lot of heart, not just through McCoy’s bright guitars, but in its real consideration for the human condition. “Gifts for the Earth,” which closed out their third record New Bermuda, brings that same sensitivity into accepting death as becoming one with the planet. By harnessing the raw emotion of melodic post-hardcore and swelling it into a more spacious, cinematic framing, the song takes a common fear and gives it a welcoming air, a balm for the inevitable. Clarke’s ending shriek fades into Stones Roses-esque psych and even gentle piano that winds down with grace; if there was shepherding metal, this would be it.
Escapism has a place in metal. But that’s not what Deafheaven are about; they demand that you realize that you are part of life, and of the world around you. As such, their career over the course of the decade shows not just a musical or emotional progression, but an existential one: Roads to Judah is where you’re just opening your eyes to the world; Sunbather is the ascent into greater consciousness, and the ability to find beauty in love and pain; New Bermuda plunges into the darkness that comes with awareness of all of life’s injustices; and Ordinary Corrupt Human Love is a sober, accepting moment of reflection. Their discography is a meditation on the shift from being wild-eyed and frankly kind of dumb in your youth to achieving clear-eyed self-awareness in adulthood, accepting the things you cannot change without losing your spark.
Black metal can be real, real cruel, as even a not-so-deep dive into its history reveals, and to use it as a medium of spreading compassion, warmth, acceptance, and even a glimmer of hope is nothing short of revolutionary. Does this sound like what their detractors accuse them of, of making metal soft? Maybe those purists forget that Megadeth had killer acoustic intros, too. Deafheaven can still unleash a mean blackened thrash riff, as they do on New Bermuda’s “Luna” and this year’s single “Black Brick.” Knowing the institutional rules of the genre makes breaking them even more satisfying. Metal can be your identity, or at least a big part of it, without becoming a straitjacket. If nothing else, that’s the most important concept Deafheaven brought to the metal game this decade.
Deafheaven sounds the way life in the 2010s feels: constantly in flux and brimming with injustice and turmoil, interspersed with moments that continue to show life’s ever-brittle beauty. What was promised to our generation isn’t realistic, and we’ve got to rewrite our own expectations and sense of purpose. In metal, at least, Deafheaven accomplished that. Weathering many storms, over and over again: Isn’t that what maturing is?
When an old band can still rock the leather and studs and bad teeth and worse breath that they did in the 80s, well, rock on, then. But it’s also important to know when to grow so that the thing you love doesn’t get petered out by being the same old shit. The thing is, at the end of the day, metal has always been great and more versatile than it’s given credit for, and in embracing that versatility, Deafheaven made it stronger.
They’re a reminder that metal isn’t gonna get constrained by old-timers (and the old at heart), no matter how hard they try. Metal is too good for that.