Thirsty Thursday: The Hits and Misses of Seeing Deafheaven and What They Mean For The Future of Black Metal

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I’ll admit it. I had rolled my eyes every time I had seen a flyer or Facebook event going around for their show announced months ago. Fucking Deafheaven. It’s a name so shatteringly radical, the perfect exemplification of the spirit of black metal that’s been birthed domestically in this millennium, but when you hear it, you can’t help but take a nice tour of your eye sockets. Maybe it’s because you’ve seen it one too many times splashed all over the front page of Pitchfork. Maybe it’s because you heard it gushed out of the mouth of that 12 season beanie-wearing fanboy in your intro philosophy class who pronounces Nietzsche with a long e. But no matter the reason, chances are, if they haven’t allegedly changed your life, you probably feel some type of way about them.

As stated last week in my discussion of Ghost Bath, it’s not Deafheaven’s music I’ve heatedly objected to, but rather the notorious self-importance with which it is delivered – something I did not sign up for when I signed up for metal, particularly black metal. But, after stirring up the sauce in my brain sghettis, I came to the conclusion that by sticking my nose up at the five-piece and what I perceived to be their coattail clique of fans, I was being just as big of an insufferable hipster bucket. As someone who prefers to lead by example and refrain from espousing close-minded “if it’s not Burzum, it’s bullpucky” (to quote one legendary comment on a GB video) rhetoric, I decided to unclench my asshole and give Deafheaven the fair chance I had, admittedly, despite my shit talking, never provided them. Or as fair as anyone can give them, anyway, alongside all the controversy they seem to generate.

Out of wanting to disclose my personal biases, I’ll make it clear that my motivation also included a lot of a sense of obligation with a dash of realism. I pretty much exclusively listen to atmospheric and DSBM these days—sub-subgenres that deviate a fair amount from the traditional black metal formula—and unfortunately, largely due to a combination of philosophical objections and a lack of resources, a lot of my favorites do not perform live. Baltimore is also hardly the trve rock ’n roll underground of black metal (seriously – the city offers a few generic doom bands and the rest of Maryland is still reliving the glory days of Slayer). Consequently, if I want to go see a show that truly caters to my niche interests, I either need to be super patient or just accept a post-black bill with a band like Deafheaven at the top. Since I have about Steve-O levels of impulse control, I tend to opt for the latter. So, I came into shit with a mixed bag held together by cautious optimism, and that’s ultimately what I left carrying.

I think more ambient-style metal has its place live, I really and truly do, but it does hold the potential of getting lost in translation without being accompanied by an 110% performance. The crunchiness of seemingly disharmonious riffs, a facet of black metal that I love so much, was no doubt neat to hear played in major, but I wanted to be really sold. I wanted to be moved. I wanted it to be taken to the next level. But, unfortunately, it was presented as “yep, here it is, this is what we do, we’re Deafheaven, whatever, yeah.” While I’m open to their happy black metal shtick, it’s this brand’s emotional appeal that really appeals to me, and without the emotion, it falls a bit flat. Additionally, I knew there were traditional Burzum/bullpucky folks in the crowd that were in need of a lot more convincing. Deafheaven certainly has the artistic right to take the take-it-or-leave-it approach, but it’s not exactly doing them any favors in terms of mitigating their divisiveness.

While I feel as though I should extend the dudes the benefit of the doubt, as vocalist George Clarke disclosed at the start of the show that they had been battling various illnesses all tour, I can’t help but acknowledge that there was a recurring sense that they were simply going through the motions. Interestingly, one account of Deafheaven’s journey asserts that they have adopted an “un-punk attitude” by escaping poverty and reaching comfort after a long struggle with negotiating the cost of living in the Bay Area, as suggested through Sunbather titles like “Dream House.” So, perhaps their performance style has a place within their larger narrative, with seeming boredom serving as a commentary on the disillusionment with having reached the dream of the good (or at least better) life. But, as much as I’d like for this to be true, it just didn’t feel all that intentional.

Unlike GB—who I’m totes going to hold Deafheaven in comparison to just to be a table-turning jimmy-rustler—DH didn’t feel like an egalitarian effort. Clarke was the clear leader and most compelling performer. Still, his excessive hand movements and even the way he finessed the mic stand felt a little too calculated, like he had every move down pat and was just hitting certain marks. It simply lacked the soul of what I witnessed with Ghost Bath, and I found myself having trouble staying connected through the whole journey. I experienced the same engagement issue with opener This Will Destroy You, which leads me to believe that some of their subtle nuances were missed in the context of a big venue and long sets. There were some moments I genuinely enjoyed in both sets, particularly when Deafheaven guitarist Kerry McCoy really stepped up to the plate, but during other periods I grew tired and lost. Perhaps proper context is just a casualty of their success and their success is still too fresh to have adapted to new digs. Hopefully, in time, things will catch up and even out.

The fans were what I expected, but also not. There were a fair share of undercuts and thick-rimmed glasses, but the attitudes didn’t match. They were all pretty damn humble and polite, with the only loud-mouthing coming from a small squad of frat boys who managed to sneak in. I think one positive outcome of Deafheaven’s success is a changing face of their fan base. Due to their critical acclaim, they’re no longer perceived as being edgy and underground enough to continue to pull in the nose-up-to-god hipster market. Instead, Deafheaven seems to have caught the eye of the kiddos, easily identified by an overwhelming amount of X’d hands grabbing at Clarke. Witnessing a new generation of kids going absolutely ballistic for fresh interpretations of black metal is no doubt something to be excited about. It’s also cool to watch someone have their day made, even if you do feel a bit left out.

So, is it a shame that Deafheaven is often regarded as the champion of post-black? I mean probably. But perhaps they serve as a gateway to something greater that has yet to be unearthed, or even invented. What really drove home this idea was a post-show conversation between myself, my sister, and a kind lad, Kel, whose Bell Witch tee made him an easy to recognize ally standing somewhere in between fanboy and bullpucky. We shared our skepticism about MDF 2017—which has been notably scaled-down due to financial hemorrhaging—but how we still planned on attending nevertheless. Again, out of that damned sense of obligation. Maybe, just maybe, as we grow tired of rehashing the past, the same old thrash and fast shit that dominates major festival bills, we can take the contributions that newer artists like Deafheaven are making, fine-tune them, and turn them into something we can all truly feel excited about. And I’ve come to terms with that brand of usefulness, mostly because I for one don’t want to live in a world where our only option is fucking bullshit like Marduk. Seriously, I’d rather drown.

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