Top 14, 2014

Depending on the fandom, our attention to music can span from the insignificance of wallpaper to the altar upon we sacrifice our days. It can be everything from decoration to downright worship. I probably tend more toward the latter than the former, but you probably already know that.

Of all the things that December brings, year-end lists might be the most polarizing, to some by their contents and to others by their mere existence. Regardless, these are the records that soundtracked my 2014, in no particular order. The links on this post, unless otherwise specified, link to the bands’ Bandcamp page so you can listen to them if you like.

Yob: Clearing the Path to Ascend

Yob Clearing the Path to Ascend (Neurot): If there’s any band that has yet to get their due, it’s Yob. They’ve been slowly building a stellar body of work for years, and Clearing the Path to Ascend illustrates just how refined their sound has become. It’s heavy and doomy, yet oh so subtle, their most personal and personable release: a near-perfect record.

Nothing: Guilty of Everything

Nothing Guilty of Everything (Relapse): Nothing came out of nowhere last year promising to update a sound that was all but lost to the past. On their debut full-length, Guilty of Everything, you can hear the presence of various bands from the 1990s: The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Sebadoh, Eric’s Trip, Teenage Fanclub, The Boo Radleys, etc. But Nothing manages to take those sounds and do something all their own with them. For every influence you might trainspot, there’s always something ultimately unique about the way Nothing brings it all together. It’s a mesmerizing mix.

YAITW: When Life Comes to Death

Young and in the Way When Life Comes to Death (Deathwish): The mix of black metal with other genres in not new. Many bands have done it to great effect (e.g., Wolves in the Throne Room, Deafheaven, Panopticon, Myrkur, etc.), and the blackened crust of YAITW is a perfect alloy. The riffs that are usually missing from black metal are here en force. I can never seem to play it loud enough.

White Suns: Totem

White Suns Totem (The Flenser): White Suns, whose last record spent a lot of time in my ears, completely reinvented themselves for Totem. As they said of a show just prior to the record’s release, “You may notice that it is a bit different from our previous work.” The core of what they’ve done in the past is still here, but it’s much sharper, much more piercing. Here’s hoping that abrasive electronics like this and Wreck & Reference, whose Want (Deathwish; See below) was also in heavy rotation around here this year, continue to crush expectations.

GODFLESH: A World Lit Only by Fire

Godflesh A World Lit Only by Fire (Avalanche): I’m always wary when a long-defunct, all-time favorite band reunites years later. Not that I doubted Justin Broadrick and Benny Green’s getting back together, but I did have to wonder. The record that resulted, A World Lit Only by Fire, is a welcome return of a monster outfit. It fits well in their catalog and continues what they were doing when they split 12 years ago. The title evokes a flaming planet, cities and nations scorched in ruin, but it’s actually a reference to a book about the darkness of the Middle Ages by the same name. Both visions work well for Godflesh’s sound on this record. It’s dark, brutal, and could come from a tumultuous past or a post-apocalyptic future. Glad to have them back.

Trans Am: Volume X

Trans Am Volume X (Thrill Jockey): The tenth album from Trans Am, the 21st-century’s own Kraftwerk Plus (Lily calls them “Krautwerk”), is no less confounding than anything in their nine previous lives. From their usual arty Krautrock to the surprisingly frenetic thrash of “Backlash,” Trans Am is well worth exploring if you haven’t already, and Volume X is as good a place to start as any.

Code Orange: I Am King

Code Orange Kids I Am King (Deathwish): This is another record that just makes you proud to love the band that made it. Code Orange Kids studied up, did their homework, and schooled everyone else trying to make any kind of heavy music. I Am King stays true to its hardcore roots while bringing all kinds of new noise to the network. This is the anthem.

Hail Mary Mallon: Bestiary

Hail Mary Mallon Bestiary (Rhymesayers): Even if I’ve strayed from Hip-hop with my several year metal kick, there are still a few folks I have to check in on. My dudes Aesop Rock, Rob Sonic, and DJ Big Wiz are among the few, and Bestiary illustrates why. This is just classic beats and rhymes with tight wordplay, the turntable on display, and an atemporal sense that it could’ve been made during any era. Timely, timeless, and right on time.

Wreck and Reference: Want

Wreck & Reference Want (Deathwish): This is the sound of despair. There’s no other way to describe it. Wreck & Reference defy genre conventions with machine-driven noise, anguished vocals, and abject nihilism. Want is as heavy as anything out, but it’s nothing you expect from heavy music: monstrous, wondrous, and somehow beautiful.

Perfect Pussy: Say Yes to Love

Perfect Pussy Say Yes to Love (Captured Tracks): Debates about punk being dead are over. Perfect Pussy keep it alive and kicking so much ass. From The Shoppers to Perfect Pussy, Meredith Graves is a force of nurture.

Panopticon: Roads to the North

Panopticon Roads to the North (Bindrune): Panopticon, Austin Lunn’s one-person band, continues to show why he’s such a force in American black metal. Where his work with Seidr is heavy on the heavens, Panopticon tends toward the trees. It’s as rural as it is dark and might be the only black metal in which you’re likely to hear a banjo.

Torch Runner: Endless Nothing

Torch Runner Endless Nothing (Southern Lord): After nearly wearing out Committed to the Ground this year, I found out that Endless Nothing had dropped. It’s a welcome 13 more songs of violent, ugly, hardcore grind. Just what I needed right when I needed it.

Earth: Primitive and Deadly

Earth Primitive and Deadly (Southern Lord): Earth are the undisputed kings of drone, and they expand their sound in subtle ways with every record. Primitive and Deadly includes more vocals than normal, courtesy of Mark Lanegan and Rabia Shaheen Qazi on two respective tracks, but all of the reasons that Earth is so revered are here in glorious form.

Pallbearer: Foundations of Burden

Pallbearer Foundations of Burden (Profound Lore): What else is there to say about Pallbearer’s break-out opus? This is the kind of record you always wish a band you love would release. Foundations of Burden is a beautiful blend of loss, rage, and hope. It’s heavy in every possible way and rewards the repeated listen. It’s a beast of a release.

If This List Were Longer: Boris Noise (Sargent House), Coffinworm IV.I.VII (Profound Lore), Thou Heathen (Gilead), Cult Leader Nothing for Us Here (Deathwish), Falls of Rauros Believe in No Coming Shore (Bindrune), Sguaguarahchristis Der Nacht (This Winter Will Last Forever), Mogwai Rave Tapes (Rock Action), Scott Walker & Sunn O))) Soused (4AD), Full of Hell & Merzbow (Profound Lore), Rob Sonic Alice in Thunderdome (OK-47), Trap Them Blissfucker (Prosthetic), Trash Talk No Peace (Trash Talk/Odd Future), Today is the Day Animal Mother (Southern Lord), Morphinist The Pessimist Session (Throats Productions), Theologian Some Things Have to Be Endured (Crucial Blast), Planning for Burial Desideratum (The Flenser), Panopticon/Falls of Rauros split (Bindrune), Wolves in the Throne Room Celestite (Artemisia), Floor Oblation (Season of Mist), The Atlas Moth The Old Believer (Profound Lore), Run the Jewels 2 (Mass Appeal), Murmur Murmur (Season of Mist), and Myrkur Myrkur (Relapse).

The One I was Mentioned On: My dudes Johnny Ciggs and Skweeky Watahfawls gave me a shout out on their collab record, See Us on the Dancefloor (Gritty City), on the song “Celebrate” (at around the 4:35 mark). The record is dope, and I’m stoked to have been a very small part of it. Can’t wait to see what the fam does next. Rock, rock on!

If I’m Being Honest: It should probably be noted that I listened to Deafheaven’s Sunbather (Deathwish) as much or more than any record from this year. I should also mention that this list was compiled in the shadow of intense anticipation of the new Xibalba record, Tierra Y Libertad, to be released next month on Southern Lord.

Special Thanks: I can’t imagine what it must take to run a record label these days. Many thanks to the people who do, especially the fine folks at Deathwish, Inc., Southern Lord, Profound Lore, The Flenser, Bindrune, Neurot, Sargent House, Thrill Jockey, Crucial Blast, Season of Mist, Rhymesayers, and Relapse: Power to you all.

Conjuring Infinity: The Dark Reach of Black Metal

At barely thirty years old, black metal is a relatively young musical genre. Its roots running back to such thrash acts as Celtic Frost, Venom, Bathory, and Slayer, it finally found fertile ground in Scandinavia in the late 1980s/early 1990s. This second wave, including such bands as Mayhem, Darkthrone, Burzum, and Emperor, is what most are referring to when they utter the words. As author Ulrike Serowy puts it, black metal is “music that touches the inmost depths, goes beyond words, music that conjures infinity” (p. 33). Dayal Patterson points out that black metal “will surely continue to innovate and evolve, and this should be celebrated” (p. 484). Serowy’s new novella and Myrkur’s new EP both show how far this style has spread since its spiked-leather beginnings.
Skogtatt logo by Aaron Turner
Ulrike SerowySerowy’s Skogtatt (Hablizel, 2014), is the first piece of fiction to capture the spirit of black metal. It tells the story of a young man lost in a wintery forest, his car having left him stranded after band practice, a black metal black mass: “Together they create an invocation, ever and again, over and over they call on something for which they yearn, something they never the less fear.” His struggles in the dark reflect the struggles of black metal as a genre and of humans as a species: nature versus technology, humanism versus misanthropy, love versus hate, silence versus sound. The protagonist’s long, lonely walk in the woods gives way to the introspection so central to the appeal of black metal. SkogtattThe rhythm of the story is reminiscent of a song. It’s no surprise that Serowy also plays guitar.

With illustrations by Faith Coloccia and a logo by Aaron Turner, (both of Mamiffer) and an English translation by Samuel Willcocks, Skogtatt is a true metal artifact without ever directly mentioning metal. It’s the perfect bedtime read as winter approaches here in the West. It’s as scary as it is unsettling, as dark as it is daring, as mysterious as it is moving, an intoxicating visit to the cold land of death. Couple it with Cult of Luna’s Eviga Riket (2012), and you’ll have all-metal dreams.

Myrkur: Amalie Bruun

Screaming is one of the rewarding parts about black metal, both to listen to and to do myself. It releases a fraction of the anger and hatred I have inside me. — Amalie Bruun, Myrkur

MyrkurMyrkur’s self-titled debut EP (Relapse, 2014) alloys black metal’s core aesthetic (e.g., frenetic, tremelo strumming, blast beats, screaming vocals) with haunting female choral arrangements. Before becoming a model and a musician in other genres, Amalie Bruun grew up with this music. She told Wyatt Marshall, “I was born and raised on the northern coast of Denmark. I have written this music for years by myself in my house in Denmark. Black metal comes from my part of the world, Scandinavia, and has its roots in the Nordic nature that I hold so dear and also our ancient pagan religion of Norse Mythology and our folk music.” Patterson continues, “it should also be remembered that many of the most powerful efforts have come from bands utilizing conventional black metal frameworks and traditional ideologies…” (p. 484).

In the short film embedded below, Bruun explains, “I always dreamed about becoming a Huldra, an elf girl, a valkyrie, or the goddess Freja. There are these powerful women in Norse Mythology that have both an element of beauty and mystery, but they are also deadly.” That’s exactly how Myrkur sounds: beautiful, mysterious, deadly. My only complaint is that there isn’t more of it.

Here is a very short film about Myrkur featuring the song “Nattens Barn” [runtime: 2:44]:

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References:

Marshall, Wyatt. (2014, September 16). Shedding Light on the Darkness of Myrkur. Bandcamp Blog.

Patterson, Dayal. (2013). Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult. Port Townsend, WA: Feral House.

Serowy, Ulrike. (2013). Skogtatt: A Novella. Lohmar, Germany: Hablizel.

Slayer: Building Bridges With Fire

Opinions often vary widely on the most important bands and records of any era, but only a few dare dispute the reign of Slayer and their thrash watermark Reign in Blood (Def Jam, 1986). There has always been a weird rift between punk and metal, but thrash was the first sub-genre to draw heavily from both. The two major movements have since spawned such tributaries as grindcore, metalcore, murdercore, power violence, and various strains of post-metal. “What do you think would get a bigger reaction: a Minor Threat cover or a Slayer cover?” Tim Singer, of long-defunct Seattle metalcore band Kiss It Goodbye, asked me during the recording of their one full-length record, She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not (Revelation, 1997). “Isn’t it weird that it’s debatable?”

Slayer
Fuckin’ Slayer.

As hardcore, post-punk. and new wave were expanding out of the punk explosion of the mid-1970s, thrash metal was also fomenting. Slayer and several other thrash bands helped knock parts of the punk/metal divide down during the 1980s. By decade’s end, there was a whole lot of genre trouble in heavy music. What exactly was Barkmarket? The Jesus Lizard? Helmet? Even Pantera, emerging from the most staunchly Southern forges, had sharpened its edges on something other than metal. Slayer was one of the early major bands to flaunt its roots in both genres, and Reign in Blood is clearly a blend of the best of both. “It wouldn’t be accurate to say it unified the metal and hardcore punk-rock crowds,” D. X. Ferris (2014) writes. “But no metal album did as much to open the channels between the two distinct cultures” (p. 6). Making those influences explicit a decade later, Slayer did a punk covers record called Undisputed Attitude (American, 1996) that includes tracks from Minor Threat, TSOL, D.I., Verbal Abuse, Black Flag, and The Stooges (via Sid Vicious).

Reign in Blood: 33 1/3 Metal Hammer‘s recent Thrash issue names Reign in Blood #1 in its list of the top-50 thrash records of all time. Calling the album “perfect,” Dom Lawson writes, “Reign in Blood towers above every other thrash album for several reasons, but the most important of them is its swivel-eyed intensity.”  There’s something about this half-hour slice of metal that no other band has ever come close to matching. It sounds as fast, as fresh, and as menacing now as it ever did. When I first heard it, I knew that things were different — for me, for metal, for music.” “It sounds like it’s ready to derail at any second,” Kerry King tells Ian Winwood, yet it sounds tightly controlled at the same time. There’s a tension, an anxiety to it that no one has touched in the almost 30 years since its release. Its terror so taut, its aggression so relentless, it’s focus so fierce, “It may never be surpassed,” Lawson concludes. He is not alone in this assessment.

It’s been a year since we lost Jeff Hanneman, and in the meantime, D. X. Ferris, who wrote the 33 1/3 book on Reign in Blood (Bloomsbury Academic, 2008), has cranked out another book about Slayer. Slayer 66 2/3: The Jeff & Dave Years (6623 Press, 2014) is a highly readable rush job that fills in the blanks surrounding his 33 1/3 book. No one questions the fact that Slayer has done their best work as the classic line-up of Tom Araya, Kerry King, Jeff Hanneman, and Dave Lombardo, and Ferris’s book is mainly about those times. After all, Reign in Blood was the first of what is one of the strongest three-album runs by any band in any genre: Reign in Blood (1986), South of Heaven (1988), and Seasons in the Abyss (1990). They remain the one metal band that punks who hate metal still revere.

Slayer: 66 2/3While Kerry King came up on traditional metal like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, Jeff Hanneman and Dave Lombardo were the punks in Slayer. Hanneman was weaned as much on Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys as he was Black Sabbath. Thrash is as close to punk as metal got in its formative years. James Hetfield listened to the Misfits, and Dave Mustaine loved the Pistols. Others in the scene were into it, but Slayer was the only band actually jostling with the punks at the time, banging elbows with the likes of D.R.I., TSOL, Bad Brains, and Suicidal Tendencies. They weren’t burning bridges, they were building them with fire.

I saw the O. G. Slayer line-up live in 2009, and it remains one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. “I don’t know, there seems to be this aura about Slayer,” King says, “and I definitely think our live performances have something to do with that.” No question. The show I saw was everything a Slayer fan wants from seeing Slayer: speed, aggression, evil, volume — classic thrash metal played with absolute abandon. And as much as I was looking forward to also seeing Marilyn Manson, no one can follow Slayer. No one.

They’re currently continuing without Jeff and Dave, and there seems to be no way to offer genuine support without sounding shitty about it. I have no doubts that Paul Bostaff and Gary Holt are holding down their half as they’ve both done with Exodus, who are widely considered the original thrash metal band. Regardless, Slayer will never be the same without the raw, punk aggression of Jeff Hanneman and Dave Lombardo.

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Postscript: I interviewed Jeff Hanneman on the phone in 1996 for the August/September issue of Ride BMX magazine. A little while after the interview, I got a call from their publicist. She said Jeff and Slayer were so stoked to be in a BMX magazine that they wanted to send me something. In the weeks before the package arrived, I made a joke that Slayer was sending me something to show their gratitude. Friends speculated wildly. Would it involve blood, bones, body parts? It turned out to be a Slayer hat, which I still have. Rest in peace, my brother.

References:

Ferris, D. X. (2008). 33 1/3: Reign in Blood. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Ferris, D. X. (2014). Slayer 66 2/3: The Jeff & Dave Years. Akron, OH: 6623 Press.

Lawson, Dom. (2014). Metal Hammer’s 50 Hottest Thrash Albums of All Time. Metal Hammer Presents… Thrash, pp. 100-105.

Mustaine, Dave. (2010). Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir. New York: HarperCollins.

Winwood, Ian. (2014). Slayer: Reign in Blood. Metal Hammer Presents… Thrash, pp. 106-109.

Download, Spin, or Stream: Ten Records, 2013

Unlike last year, 2013 found me mostly listening to one strain of metal or another. With the embedded videos and off-site links on this page, I’ve tried to provide a way for you to hear a bit of each of these lovely records. There’s never been a better time to be a music fan.

Deafheaven: Sunbather on BandCampDeafheaven Sunbather (Deathwish, Inc.): I’m not sure what else can be said about Deafheaven that wasn’t said during 2013, but let there be no question that Sunbather is the record of the year. In conception and construction, no other record came close to its heights and depths. As I wrote in my review of the record, even with a space seemingly cut out for them by a family of description-defying groups, Deafheaven is likely to work loose from any label applied to their sound. Neither the bands nor the fans come up with these categories anyway. If it moves us, we don’t care what you call it. In spite of their often caustic heaviness, there’s a pop sensibility in there that can’t help but shine through. Purists of all kinds had plenty of smack to talk, but Sunbather defies category and critique, rewards the repeated listen, and leaves behind the feeling that opposition only makes one stronger.

A Storm of Light: Nations to Flames on BandcampA Storm of Light Nations to Flames (Southern Lord): Late to these ears this year comes the latest from A Storm of Light. Nations to Flames brings together the best of the band’s abilities. The depth, breadth, weight, and ferocity of past outings are all here with a precision their peers often lack (See “All the Shining Lies” for one extreme example). If you still think of them as a side project, it’s high time to stop. Where so many others have stagnated in the past, A Storm of Light is burning new paths in the futures of heavy music.

Cult of Luna Vertikal (Density): On Vertikal, Cult of Luna plays songs about cities composed with the weight of concrete. Not unlike their past few releases (i.e., Eviga Riket, Eternal Kingdom, and Somewhere Along the Highway), this one is the product of many minds working overtime. Unlike the rural themes on those records, the band worked inside the city limits this time partially inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). The companion EP Vertikal II includes Justin Broadrick‘s essential remix of “Vicarious Redemption,” which is ironically and atypically half the length of the original track. Here’s their video for “Passing Through”:

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Wire: Change Becomes UsWire Change Becomes Us (Pink Flag): Wire have been together for nearly 40 years, and they released one of their best records in 2013. Change Becomes Us is made up of reworkings of older, unrealized, and unreleased ideas from Wire’s classic, late-1970s era (cf. Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, 154). It’s also everything they do well in one place. It’s as punk as it is post-everything else, and proves why they’re one of the most influential bands of the late 20th century. If you don’t like “Re-Invent Your Second Wheel,” then we probably can’t be friends anymore.

Seidr : GinnungagapSeidr Ginnungagap (Bindrune Recordings): Though their name comes from Norse religion, Seidr is as low-key as they are Loki. A subtlety that’s often missing from heavy genres is the mark here. With members from some of my other favorite bands (e.g., Panopticon, Wheels Within Wheels, Kólga, etc.), Seidr is more than a supergroup: They are a collective of seers, mapping new territories in consciousness and the cosmos. Ginnungagap is only their second missive, but it sounds like the product of eons. “A Blink of the Cosmic Eye,” “The Pillars of Creation,” “Sweltering II: A Pale Blue Dot in the Vast Dark,” and the title track churn and smolder like dying stars. This is doom on the largest possible scale.

Mouth of the Architect: Dawning on BandCampMouth of the Architect Dawning (Translation Loss): Along with the new releases by Deafheaven and Cult of Luna above, the new Mouth of the Architect was one of my most anticipated records of 2013. Dawning is a sprawling six songs, the least of which is still just under seven minutes long. While they get lumped in with the usual suspects of post-metal (e.g., Neurosis, Isis, Pelican, etc.), Mouth of the Architect’s sound is subtly different in distinctive ways. It’s metal and majestic, heavy and heavenly, gruesome and graceful, and difficult to describe in detail, but you’d be hard pressed to confuse them with anyone else.

Watain The Wild Hunt (Season of Mist/Century Media): In the battle of the most brutal, it’s hard to beat Sweden’s Watain. They just keep pushing further into the darkness. After last year’s Opus Diaboli DVD, it was difficult to imagine how much darker or heavier they could get, but they managed to mangle expectations like so much dead meat. Here’s the absolutely perfect video for The Wild Hunt‘s “Outlaw”:

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My Bloody Valentine: mbv on YouTubeMy Bloody Valentine mbv (mbv): My Bloody Valentine finally followed up on their genre-defying and defining classic, Loveless (1992), with mbv. Like Wire’s Change Becomes Us, mbv is an amalgam of old and new recordings, some reworked from rough drafts done during their demise in the mid-1990s. With nine songs total, mbv is a trilogy of trilogies. It hangs together as a whole, but one can easily discern three movements. Three floes in the waves. After 21 years, this was possibly the first record lauded as much for not existing as it was upon its release. One thing’s still for damn sure: No one does this sound better than My Bloody Valentine.

Light Bearer: Silver TongueLight Bearer Silver Tongue (Halo of Flies): Light Bearer has been not-so-quietly building a body of work worthy of the most discriminate collectors. Silver Tongue is the second of a four-record concept called the Æsahættr Tetralogy. If feminism writ its largest could be an anti-religion, Light Bearer is writing it that large, chapter and verse.

Altar of Plagues Teethed Glory and Injury (Profound Lore): The last word from a band that deserved to be heard much more. Like their American peers Falls of Rauros, Panopticon, Wolves in the Throne Room, and Deafheaven, Ireland’s Altar of Plagues was pushing traditional Black Metal into new territories, and Teethed Glory and Injury is their best statement of purpose yet. R.I.P., A.o.P. Here’s the clip for “God Alone”:

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Others worthy of mention and attention: Portal Vexovoid (Profound Lore), Russian Circles Memorial (Sargent House), Nails Abandon All Life (Southern Lord), Lumbar The First and Last Days of Unwelcome (Southern Lord), Medicine To the Happy Few (Captured Tracks), Run the Jewels Run the Jewels (Fool’s Gold), Palms Palms (Ipecac), Vhol Vhol (Profound Lore), Wolves in the Throne Room BBC Session 2011 Anno Domini (Southern Lord), God is an Astronaut Origins (Rocket Girl Label), and Pelican Forever Becoming (Southern Lord).

Rotten With Perfection: Deafheaven’s Sunbather

Some of my favorite records are the ones where a band leaps outside the bounds of their past and tries something their fans might not dig. I’m thinking of post-Until Your Heart Stops Cave In (Jupiter polarized their existing fans, while Antenna proved they were onto something new), Corrosion of Conformity’s definitively metal years (starting with Blind, but culminating in the Pepper Keenan-led Deliverance and Wiseblood), and even Kill Holiday’s swan song (Somewhere Between the Wrong is Right, on which they abandoned aggressive hardcore for an energized gothic-pop sound, by turns reminiscent of The Smiths, The Cure, and Ride). Sunbather doesn’t stray from the Deafheaven signature sound but strengthens it instead, and it reminds me of the things I love about the ill-fated albums above. Whether it was growing pains or genre strains, those bands all sacrificed something to pave the path for odd weldings and meldings of metal like this.

Deafheaven

If Mayhem and Mogwai collaborated on a record in some other universe and someone brought it back to ours, it might sound like Sunbather. If Immortal and My Bloody Valentine melted into one smooth mound of blast beats and gauzy guitar, it might sound like Sunbather. If Emporer and Explosions in the Sky had naughty, noisy sex, it might sound like Sunbather. If Taake and Flying Saucer Attack collided head-on in midair at a thousand miles an hour in slow motion, it might sound like Sunbather.

Of course, Sunbather doesn’t and wouldn’t really sound like any of that nonsense, but the marriage of shoegazing and black metal makes a lot of sense. A match made made somewhere south of heaven, both subgenres are about meditation, contemplation, and introspection, in sharp contrast to the pomp and posturing of their rock forebears. While Deafheaven is easily among the best, they’re not the only outfit doing this misfit sound: Wolves in the Throne Room, Altar of Plagues, Light Bearer, Falls of Rauros, Panopticon, Liturgy, Krallice, and Seidr, among many others, are all bashing and bastardizing black metal into something else entirely.

Deafheaven: SunbatherWhen genre-specific adjectives fail, we grasp at significant exemplars from the past to describe new sounds. Following Straw (1991), Josh Gunn (1999) calls this “canonization” (p. 42): The synecdochical use of a band’s name for a genre is analogous to our using metaphors, similes, and other figurative language when literal terms fall short. Where bands sometimes emerge that do not immediately fit into a genre (e.g., Radiohead, dälek, Godflesh, et al.) or adhere too specifically to the sound of one band (e.g., the early 21st-century spate of bands that sound like Joy Division), we run into this brand of genre trouble. Even with a space seemingly cut out for them by a family of description-defying groups, Deafheaven is likely to work loose from any label applied to their sound.

Neither the bands nor the fans come up with these categories anyway. If it moves us, we don’t care what you call it. With renewed focus and fury, Deafheaven moves. George Clarke’s vocals have never sounded more shredded or sincere, and Kerry McCoy’s guitar work is driving, diving, and daring. The addition of Daniel Tracy on drums tightened the trio into an ensemble capable of new leaps, depths, textures, and sophistication. In spite of their often caustic heaviness, there’s a pop sensibility in there that can’t help but shine through.

“You might come across American black metal and see a greater tendency to humanize the terms, which may seem somewhat contradictory,” says He Who Crushes Teeth from California’s Bone Awl, “But I think an unknown goal in American black metal is to level the vocabulary and draw attention to the fact that nothing is outside of humanity” (quoted in Masciandro, 2010, p. 152). Kenneth Burke (1966) defined the human as “the symbol using, making, and mis-using animal, inventor of the negative, separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy, and rotten with perfection” (p. 16). The very Burkean phrase “rotten with perfection” is an apt description of Sunbather, not only in its intent but also in its execution. “The ‘Sunbather’ is essentially the idea of perfection,” Clarke tells National Underground. “A wealthy, beautiful, perfect existence that is naturally unattainable and the struggles of having to deal with that reality because of your own faults, relationship troubles, family troubles, death, etc.” (quoted in Glaser, 2013). Balancing ambitions for more with appreciating what we have is a definitively human struggle.

“If you let go of the idea of perfection,” Anna Chlumsky once said, “a lot of beauty can happen.” Thankfully with Sunbather, Deafheaven endeavor to bring us both.

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Here’s a brief peek into the making of Sunbather, which comes out June 11th on Deathwish, Inc. [runtime: 7:53]:

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References:

Burke, Kenneth. (1966). Language as Symbolic Action. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Glaser, Anthony (2013, March 11). Interview: Deafheaven. National Underground.

Gunn, Josh. (1999, Spring) Gothic Music and the Inevitability of Genre. Popular Music & Society23, 31-50.

Masciandro, Nicola. (ed.) (2010). Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Symposium 1. New York: CreateSpace.

Straw, Will. (1991). Systems of Articulation, Logics of Change: Communities and Scenes in Popular Music. Cultural Studies, 5(3), 361-75.