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I remember standing in Whelan’s on a hot August evening in 2014. Irish synth-metal outfit No Spill Blood had just performed leaving my sensitive eardrums ready for whatever punishing assault the Californian black metal, shoegaze outfit Deafheaven would bring. How wrong I was. I’d been to about four concerts at that point in my life of which the closest to heavy music were the blues-rock duo The Black Keys.
Deafheaven took to the stage to a chorus of bellows and whistles from the assembled crowd of pasty men in black. The band all seemed like pretty normal dudes in their skinny black jeans, the odd patch jacket and occasional bad haircut. Three things really stick with me from that show. One: The instant Deafheaven took to the stage I smelled heating metal like when you leave a pan with nothing in it on a hot ring. Two: I was in the front row being pressed against the stage – there was no security that night – and I cut my arm (not seriously) on shattered glass. Three: A guy tripping up onto the stage in order to dive off it. George Clarke – Deafheaven’s vocalist – picked him up, asked him if he was OK and threw him back into the crowd.
It’s this third point that sticks with me the most. There’s a sensitivity and a viciousness to the act. It’s not something you’d see at many shows. A punk singer would take you with them off the stage. A lot of indie bands would think you’re weird for doing it. Imagine stage diving to ‘Horchata’ by Vampire Weekend. Exactly. When I watched Clarke hoist the man up, ask if he was OK and heave him back into the churning sea before him I recognised the dichotomy Sunbather, Deafheaven’s second album, was built on.
Sunbather is an album full of moments that contrast introspective honesty with harsh walls of raging noise. The title song comes after a soft guitar and piano interlude called ‘Irresistible’ whose simplistic beauty precedes the howling sorrow of ‘Sunbather’. As drummer Daniel Tracy hammers out blast beats at incomprehensible speeds and the riffs written by lead and rhythm guitarists Kerry McCoy and Shiv Mehra squeal and roar in tandem George Clarke’s bestial shrieks rises above it all. Towards the end of the song he sings: “It’s 5 a.m. and my heart flourishes with each passing moment. Always and forever.”
Deafheaven have always made very personal music. Their metal sections might move at the speed of light just as their shoegaze inspired work pauses the maelstrom only to dunk you back in as soon as it ends. Their influences are clear from the likes of Slayer to Metallica to the more extreme black metal bands such as Mayhem or Emperor or even Explosions in the Sky and My Bloody Valentine on the other end of the rock spectrum. It’s Clarke’s lyrics however that are almost impossible to penetrate.
Even Deafheaven’s first album Roads to Judah was filled with Clarke’s obscurely tragic poetry. ‘Unrequited’ – the album’s best song – moves slowly from Leonard Cohen-esque verse to pages torn from a teen diary. From “Bowing to a monolith of grief. Obsessing over discord. Daydreaming of nights that led my staggering steps to nowhere” to “I thought about you for the rest of the day. Catching my head turning to find you again. I hated myself for it.” Sunbather doubled down on these cryptically sad lyric couplets that seemed to come out of a French New Wave or film. At the end of the album opener ‘Dreamhouse’ Clarke shrieks out and echoes the four-line stanza of “I’m dying. Is it blissful? It’s like a dream. I want to dream.” Clarke apparently drew the inspiration for these lines from a text conversation he’d had with a woman. You have to be a special kind of fucked up to put your drunken phone conversations into a song.
Speaking of fucked up recordings Sunbather has several. The first is the reading of a passage on ‘Please Remember’ from Milan Kundera’s famous novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being which I’m sure every Sad Boy has a copy of somewhere. It’s read by Stéphane Paut of the French band Alcest who are in a similar vein to Deafheaven. The second recording, ‘Windows’, is a taped conversation between Kerry McCoy and an unnamed drug dealer – McCoy was addicted to opioids at the time. Contrasted with it is a recording of a San Francisco street preacher talking about hell. Both bounce off each contrasting ideas of literal and metaphorical hell. It’s a far more metal inspired interlude compared to the first which wouldn’t sound out of place on a My Bloody Valentine record.
Sunbather is a very personal record both to the members of Deafheaven and to me. My first introduction to heavy metal music was Slipknot at the age of fourteen and although I still have a soft spot for the Nine I’ve moved on as well. Deafheaven were not the first band to make metal sublime, personal or even sensitive. But they were the first to make that kind of stuff seem cool to do in metal. When something’s cool in metal it takes a long time for it to become uncool. Listening to it back in 2013 was like listening to 808s & Heartbreak back in 2008. Kanye wasn’t the first sensitive rapper but he was the first cool sensitive rapper.
I didn’t notice the blood on my arm until after the show was over. When I saw the six or so small fresh cuts from that broken glass I didn’t even feel any pain. I was caught up in the adrenaline high of having survived my first metal gig relatively unscathed. The pain came later of course but it was a small price to pay for seeing a man scream and bellow about his lacerating insecurities so that I could find closure with some of my own. When I close my eyes against the sun I’m always reminded of the cover art of Sunbather. It brings me back to that hot, sticky August night with blood trickling toward my elbow. Funnily enough Deafheaven have a lyric for how I felt that night and I’ll end with that.